(L.A. Times High School Insider)


Column: The purpose of education

Instead of education being simply for prestige or economic purposes, it should be preparing students to be mindful, informed and engaged citizens of a society,
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/edwinbai/" target="_self">Edwin Bai</a>

Edwin Bai

April 15, 2022
In our modern American society, education is used for a multitude of purposes — from preparing students to find careers to pushing political agendas in certain areas. Although the practical benefits of education are undeniable, the larger social function of education is its central purpose. The purpose of education is to teach students to be open-minded and avoid bigotry in their lives, so that they may live freely without being under the control of dogma.

The importance of education in battling bigotry has long been a part of American philosophy and thought.

American philosopher Ralph Emerson discusses the nature of classroom environments and student-teacher relationships in his essay, “Education,” which goes more into depth about how students challenge bigotry and authoritative teaching. According to Emerson, when a student “stops you in your speech, cries out that you are wrong and sets you right, hug him!”

Emerson illustrates the importance of keeping an open mind in class and being able to challenge teachers when they are wrong since it is an important process in a student’s education to refute something their authorities tell them. What the author meant here is when a student believes what their teacher is saying is wrong and points it out, the teacher should be glad that their student is challenging bigotry. This is illustrated in Emerson’s recommendation, where he details how a teacher should hug students who prove them wrong and celebrate those who challenge authority.

The purpose of education is examined by James Baldwin, an American author, in his speech, “A Talk to Teachers,” where he explicitly states the purpose of education is to create the ability to make their own decisions and “decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not,” among other things.

In other words, the capability to think for oneself without external control. The message Baldwin illustrates to his audience is especially important considering the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in America, at a time when education taught students racist and bigoted concepts and implanted the ideas of justified racial inequality in the minds of young teenagers.

David Foster Wallace is a best-selling American author who, in his commencement speech, “This is Water,” supports the claim that the purpose of education is to teach you how to think, rather than “fill you up with knowledge.” He argues that a lack of understanding of other people’s perspectives contributes to dogmatism, a “blind certainty,” as he puts it. The reasoning behind this is due to an absence of an education that teaches you how to think and view the world from other perspectives.

His overall message about what the effect of education should be on a student is summed up in a few sentences. Wallace, through his own personal experiences, discovered that education is really teaching you to “have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties” He warns the audience that they will most likely go through the same experiences as him. As one of the most influential writers in the past 20 years, Wallace’s opinions are important to take note of.

Furthermore, Wallace attacks self-centeredness, stating that human nature is defined by the needs and desires of an individual, which often ends up in bigoted and arrogant beliefs surrounding one’s own life experiences. Wallace argues that the “world as you experience it is there in front of YOU,” illustrating how humans naturally place themselves in the center of all their experiences, which contributes to their bigoted beliefs and leads to the “blind confidence” Wallace warns against.

In a politically divided nation, education is a key factor in countering bigotry from authoritative figures, such as the politicians that run this country. In the United States, voter data has illustrated the chasm between educated and uneducated voters: people with a college degree tend to vote Democrat while people without a higher education tend to vote Republican, according to Pew Research Center.

The ideas of respected philosophers, such as Emerson, Wallace and Baldwin, support the claim that the purpose of education is to teach students to keep an open mind and avoid bigotry. Of course, many people, including parents who believe that high academic achievement in the form of high grades is the main goal of education, would argue that education is more about improving one’s college options and, in turn, future career. However, such a focus on grades and performative academic achievement cultivates a culture in which students will attempt to earn the highest grade they can rather than actually learn.

Unfortunately, high grades do not always directly relate to the amount of material a student knows in a certain subject, since there are other ways to get high grades besides getting good test scores or without even learning the material thoroughly. In fact, in a few of my classes, students are often given extra credit opportunities that may or may not have anything to do with the subject.

Examples of such extra credit options include grading papers, attending after-school meetings or simply showing up at a certain club that pertains to the subject. Students often learn very little, if at all, from these extra credit opportunities, yet doing so contributes to their grades. If done enough times, students can get an A in a subject simply by grinding extra credit opportunities without learning the subject thoroughly.

As a result, such an education would produce a student that learns the best way to raise their grades without bothering to learn the subject, which could prove detrimental in their college education or careers. This notion is further supported by William Deresiewicz in his article, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” where he believes that “[students] are products of a system that rarely asks them to think about something bigger than the next assignment.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it goes back to the repetitive, grinding nature of education, where students are more inclined to spend extra time and effort doing quick and easy tasks to bump up their grades by a few percent, rather than spend that time and effort to learn material and knowledge in-depth as well as a struggle with the intricate concepts of complex issues.

When this becomes a habit, all the student learns from education is how to find the fastest and simplest way to become “successful” rather than study the actual subjects they were sent to school to learn. Ironically, this equips students with skills that will actually lead them to failure later on in their adult life, as in the real world, there are no shortcuts and extra credit for the learning, knowledge and effort needed to do a good job.

Thus, instead of education being simply for prestige or economic purposes, it should be preparing students to be mindful, informed and engaged citizens of a society, all of which will fight the corrosive effects of bigotry.

While the purpose of education is to train students to refute bigotry, this skill often transcends the classroom and influences students and young adults in their personal lives too.

The ability to keep an open mind is an important skill in life, especially at a time when social and mainstream media is filled with misleading and dangerous misinformation. Some of that disinformation even leads to the death of individuals, as well as enslaves the minds of emotionally driven and bigoted millions who don’t have a decent education. They also refuse to expand their mental borders to acknowledge the rational facts or even the perspectives of others.