What Are the Proper Purposes of a System of Schooling?
Before one develops anything, one should have a pretty clear idea of its purpose. What is the thing you are building supposed to do? It makes no sense to talk about the structure of something without having in mind, first, a clear idea of its function, or purpose. Form should follow function.
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The people who started the first widespread systems of compulsory schooling—the systems that still provide the model for our schools today—had a very clear idea of the purpose. These people were Protestant clergymen, in Europe and the American colonies, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, in the late 17th and early 18th century. They stated clearly that the purpose of schooling was indoctrination and obedience training.
Their firm belief was that children are naturally sinful and the only way to salvation was through Biblical indoctrination and the suppression of free will (for more on this, see here). The schools they created were well designed for that purpose. The idea was that all children would be taught the same lessons, largely derived from Biblical gospel, and that children who failed to learn the lessons would be punished while those who did learn would be rewarded (or at least would not be punished). Since everyone was to learn the same things, it made sense to have children sit in rows in a room listening to the lessons from the teacher (then called the “master”) or reading the lessons in a book, and then be tested, all with the same test, to make sure they had learned what they were supposed to learn. Since everything taught was understood to be Truth, it made sense that school not be a place for questioning lessons; only a place for memorizing them. Since a major goal of schooling was to make children obedient, it made sense that schools were set up so that the primary task of every student was to do, unquestioningly, whatever the teacher told them to do, in the way that the teacher told them, at the time that the teacher told them.
Today, most people, including most teachers and school administrators, don’t think of indoctrination and obedience training as the primary functions of schools, or at least most don’t profess to such a belief. But the basic structure of our schools has not changed. This, really, is the fundamental problem with our educational system, why it doesn’t work very well. It was developed to serve a particular purpose, but today many of the people involved with schooling think it should serve other purposes.
Any question of reform of the school system should begin with the question: What is the proper function of schools? Why do we want schools? What purpose should they serve? Let’s assume that babysitting is not the only purpose and that schools should serve some educational role. What should that role be? In other words, what might we want children to learn in school? What character traits do we want schools to foster?
I’m raising this as a question. Suppose you, magically, were part of a committee charged with developing, completely from scratch, a school system for our modern times. You and the other committee members realize that before designing the structure, you need a clear idea of the purpose of schools. And let’s suppose you are idealists enough to believe that the purpose should have something to do with education (as opposed, for example, to such purposes as providing employment for teachers or supporting the textbook and testing industries). You are asked to come to the next meeting with a brief, written statement of what you think that purpose (or those purposes) should be.
Now, here’s what I’m asking you to do in this little survey.