The Purpose of School

For the past few years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying online marketing. That’s one of the big reasons why my business has grown so quickly. As I’ve researched, one name has popped up over and over again as a thought leader in the world of marketing: Seth Godin.

Seth Godin is the author of several very highly acclaimed books on marketing, as well as a thought-provoking blog. I enjoy reading Mr. Godin’s blog every day; his posts take an unusual point of view and dispel myths commonly held in the advertising and marketing world.

That’s why I was surprised one day when his post was entitled, What is school for?

Hmm, I thought. Why would Seth Godin be writing about school? I quickly started reading. He had compiled a list of possible purposes for school, hoping to start a discussion about the topic. They include things like “Become an informed citizen”, “Be able to read for pleasure”, and “Do well on standardized tests”.

I’d like to take a look at a few of the things he listed and talk about why traditional schools can’t make them happen. A whole other post could be written on the things on Mr. Godin’s list that no school should ever try to do, including “teach future citizens how to conform” and “teach future consumers how to desire” but for now, I’d rather focus on the things he mentioned that school should do, but can’t.

Since I believe he was referring to traditional education (especially because of his comments at the end about school boards and taxes), that’s how I’m viewing each of the purposes listed. Analyzing these items in the light of non-traditional schooling or homeschooling would produce very different results.

Things that Traditional Schooling Should Be Able to Do, But Can’t

1. Teach creativity and problem solving

If you do any kind of research into the beginnings of traditional public school education, you will find its roots in the German school system. The founders of traditional education were not shy about sharing the German reasons for mandatory schooling, including the goal of obliterating creativity and creative thinking.

Mandatory schooling, as envisioned by its founders, was meant to create a class of people that willingly accepts anything they are told without question. Creativity of any kind is anathema to traditional school; rather, children are taught from the earliest ages that there is a “right” and “wrong” answer to every question.

Not only are things like math tests graded (where there is usually a provable right or wrong), but creative pursuits like writing and art are also graded, regardless of the inherent contradiction in trying to objectively grade something that is completely subjective.

Traditional schooling is set up so that children are given stultifying textbooks and workbooks that are completed in lock-step fashion, regardless of varying abilities and interests.

Problem-solving, when it does occur, is done within the strict parameters of the classroom. Rarely are children given freedom to actually engage in problem solving without worrying about grades, evaluations, time constraints, and the teacher’s expectations.

2. Increase emotional intelligence

Traditional schooling is set up thusly: the teacher is the ultimate authority, and children are grouped by birthday, not ability. Children, in the traditional school model, are locked in a room with 30 of their peers day in and day out.

While this has come to be accepted by most people in society as “socialization”, that’s not actually what the word means. Traditional schooling decreases emotional intelligence by giving teachers ultimate authority, ignoring the wants and needs of individuals, and creating a cauldron of negative peer pressure, bullying, and insensitivity.

3. Value learning for the sake of learning

I had to laugh at this one. From the moment a child steps foot in a traditional classroom, it is drilled into them that learning takes place because the teacher and the textbook say so.

Choice in what to study is rarely allowed; everything is evaluated and graded, curriculums are followed regardless of how ridiculous or misleading, every minute of class time is measured and grudgingly dispensed.

Never, in all my years of traditional school, was I encouraged to learn for the sake of learning; rather, as a frustrated gifted student in regular programs, I was often discouraged from reaching out on my own to learn just for learning’s sake. It was too much extra work for the teacher and too threatening to the equilibrium of the class.

I would be reluctant to use my own experiences as an illustration were it not for the fact that I have been told similar stories by so many other people. In traditional schooling, learning is never just for the sake of learning.

Traditional Schooling Has Built-in Limits

The very structure of traditional school, with its authoritative hierarchy, its layers of bureaucracy, its reliance on tests and grades, and the grouping of children by age and not ability, mean that in traditional school, creativity will never be valued, gifted students will never be celebrated, a love of reading and learning will never be fostered, and children will not develop into interesting and productive human beings.

A helpful list of a different kind comes from the always irreverent John Taylor Gatto. Mr. Gatto’s own list, The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher, offers startling insight into why traditional school can never accomplish most of the things Mr. Godin listed. Mr. Gatto was an award-winning public school teacher, and his insight into the underlying purposes of traditional schooling is chilling and thought-provoking.

Not All Educational Methods Are Created Equal

Whether you’re a teacher or a parent (or both), I think it’s beneficial to spend a few minutes pondering the purpose of school, or of education in general. What do we hope the children in our care gain from their years spent studying and learning? What is the end goal?

Many of the things Mr. Godin listed are worthy goals, but a deeper problem is how can they can best be accomplished.

If we hope to be successful, than the method we choose should be one that can actually deliver the end results we want.