On Education, pt. 1 - The Purpose of Education

Submitted by CSRD on October 19, 2017 - 1:47pm

This blog post was written by Dr. Christopher Burrell and comes from the contextual narrative of the State of Black Arizona 2017 Education Data Report. Materials from this report were excerpted for the keynote address of the 6th annual Multicultural Education Conference at Mesa Community College.

What is an education supposed to do?

One answer to this question, and probably the most common answer, is that the purpose of education is to confer degrees that signal preparation for employability.

Another answer to this question is that the purpose of education is to develop the higher facets of humanity that allow us, or even push us to transcend merely economic concerns.

The difference between these two ways of understanding the purpose of education is the difference between “education” and “degree.” “Education” captures what one has learned, the skills one has acquired, the development one has experienced. “Degree” is a piece of paper meant to be representative of the achievement of an educational standard. One could be educated with or without a degree. Alternatively, one can be the recipient of a degree without ever having been educated. An emphasis on obtaining a degree is indicative of viewing the purpose of education as conferring certifications for employment--to become a viable, economically productive citizen. An emphasis on achieving an education indicates a desire to develop the higher facets of oneself beyond the merely economic.

If we stop to think about it, then it will be clear that we live in a world that values degrees over education. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the extent to which employers seem to value degrees without caring too much about--and certainly without recognizing in any concrete remunerative way--the education an individual has undertaken behind or beyond the degree. But it’s picking low hanging fruit to make such observations. It’s easy to note that there is a problem, but a different thing altogether to recognize our own responsibilities. The harder truth is that even to you, your child is only an economic tool.

For example, imagine I pull your son or daughter aside for a private conversation in which I say to him or her, “You are a generally worthless human being, good for nothing whatever except ensuring economic productivity. Beyond this, your very existence is superfluous.” You might want to have me flogged. “My child,” you say, “is beautiful, full of intellectual depth, emotional richness, social connectedness, and spiritual profundity. To reduce her to a cog in your bureaucratic system is to ignore her very humanity.” And yet the actual fact of the matter is that nearly everyone sends their children to a place that’s concerned exclusively with developing your child into just that cog. The evidence of this is everywhere.

The very language of education--of it’s value and aims--is rooted in economic terms. The Arizona Minority Student Progress Report (pg 6) works frantically “to establish the critically important connection between education and workforce development.” The educational system is a “pipeline, which provides the workforce of Arizona’s future, [and is] losing too many students in the process. This has become a grave concern for the future economic health of our families and Arizona as a competitive economic power,” (pg 10). “Minority students… are crucial to ongoing economic prosperity of our state because of the critical human capital that they provide. A highly qualified workforce is the best resource our state can offer for economic development,” (pg 11). First Things First--Arizona’s only public funding source dedicated exclusively to early childhood development--says, “A child’s early years hold the key to their success. And our state’s. Children who are healthy and prepared when they enter kindergarten do better in school and are more likely to graduate and enroll in college. Well-educated adults are more prepared for the job opportunities of a global marketplace and to contribute to the strength of their communities. Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman showed that every $1 invested in early childhood can yield returns between $4 and $16.”

Finally, the Career Success School District (with schools throughout the Phoenix Valley) has the following posted to their webpage: “The world of work awaits every student. Career Success believes that the high school experience should expose students to a career choice of their interest. The career classes will identify the student’s aptitude for the career and teach the skills that will enable the student to gain an entry-level job in that career field.”

Inherent in such statements is the belief that human beings are actually human resources and that the goal of education is to leverage such human resources for corporate and not personal or civic goods. As Dr. Christopher Emdin notes: “Consider, for example, the growing number of new charter schools in urban communities with words like success, reform, and equity in their names and mission statements, but which engage in teaching practices that focus on making the school and the students within it as separate from the community as possible.” Education as it is practiced in America accordingly strips us of our community and our humanity in the name of making us and our children units of economic value and production.

It’s worth noting that this limited version of education--the education of widgets and not persons--is not a universal experience. This kind of vocational and economic pigeon-holing won’t be found at Oxford University, Stanford, or any of their high quality feeder schools. The in depth to the study of humanity and the human condition--through art, literature, physical development, social connection, scientific achievement, and relevancy of historical ideas, that are the hallmark of such schools--is missing in “urban schools” and STEM programs.

In other words, our systems, the systems of education that serve students of color in Arizona, are designed as machines to churn out employable human resources. Their systems, systems of power and privilege conferred according to race and class, are designed as places of nurture and to foster the growth of human beings. 

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