The Purpose of Education

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When I was a child I was particularly fond of drawing. I could spend nights away doodling, scribbling, and copying pictures from books. I remember myself at a kindergarten art lesson. We were drawing trees. The teacher saw my tree and said, "Children, look, this is a very good tree. Trees are like this. Please draw in the same way." I did not mind the praise, however, I was very surprised when several moments later the teacher exclaimed, "Children, wait! I found what the trees should look like!" She showed us a picture of a multi-trunk tree and suggested we all draw it. My tree with a single trunk was no longer good, and we all had to draw another tree like the one in the picture. Even then, being five years old, I realized that it was a weird way for a teacher to behave. It was absolutely illogical because trees could be of many different shapes, sizes, and even colors, especially in art class.

Ancient teachers noticed that children were tabula rasa, a clean slate awaiting something to be written on. Indeed, in terms of knowledge, children accept everything they are given and told, at least to a certain extent. In Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol says, "Education … is never absolutely neutral" (86). A teacher's beliefs and convictions are reflected in what he or she teaches. Education is not only in the words said but also in the information silenced, pauses allowed, as well as smirks and jokes and pins. Therefore, teachers should constantly perfect themselves and their views and align them with reality. If they allow themselves questions and mistakes, children will feel safe to be mistaken and continue their pursuit of the truth nonetheless. If teachers hamper their own creativity for the sake of the guidelines, children will feel cornered and in a constant need of guidance. However, children are hardwired to learn constantly and it can be as natural for them as breathing unless adults damage that natural inclination with their misplaced practices and methods.

 

For human brain, education is a constant process because it is constantly analyzing and processing new information. However, it does it in its own specific way. Unlike the way children are taught in school to learn about objects and phenomena by combining them in groups such as animals, tools, etc., the brain stores its information by associations. Thus, the memory about my preschool would not be in the same compartment as the one about college. My brain would rather combine the smell of crispy winter air, a grumpy teacher, a dog-eared book, and brightly colored preschool building in the same place.

Similarly, when I think about education, I have an inclination to follow the natural flow and study everything that comes across my way emulating the way our brain processes all the information. All the more so, such method a la naturel was praised by educators of the past. In Lectures and Biographical Sketches, 1863/1864, Ralph Waldo Emerson muses on education and comes to a conclusion that as long as a child responds to their mother's passion about different interests in life, they study with gusto and learn a lot. Yet, as soon as the child enters educational institution with its rigorous schedule and a syllabus imposed from educational higher-ups rather than prompted by life and nature, their interest to studies and education is lost or at least somewhat fades.

This idea is echoed in Maria Montessori's book The Montessori Method, where the author reflects on how something as natural as learning can cause deformation of the sturdiest bone of the human body – the spine. Montessori regards it as an indication of the fact that there is something wrong with the system of education. Giving an example of the desk as the most hostile contraption for children, Montessori argues that instead of adjusting it to 'child's needs' or endlessly improving its design to prevent the spine deformation, children should simply be allowed not to spend half a school day sitting and cramming. Thus, both authors suggest that it is advisable to develop more natural approaches to education.

However, talking about today's education, one should never forget that we live in the age of information when people are overloaded with informational flows, and it is simply impossible to go back in time and live as if nothing happened in the world. Probably, in order to deal with so much information, we should devote some part of our time to sitting still and reading. On the other hand, we may not, because the world is changing faster than our understanding of how to get information about it. Nowadays, the world is overflowed with not only print information; it is chock-full of visual information as well. Maybe the next generation would continue sitting at school desks not for reading but for poking touchscreens.

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The mere pace of modern life requires quick responses. Due to the digital media and never-ending interactivity, modern people have a shorter attention span. Whereas we can lament a loss of concentration and claim that new generations are stupider than the previous ones, it is a debate as ancient as the world. The only way out is to adjust to it and see what can be done about it. If children now have more screen time, then educators should use it and incorporate digital media in the curriculum. If children like computer games more than books, again, it can be used for educational purposes. With animated figurines and funny sounds, many school subjects can develop new dimensions.

Furthermore, today's system of education is in urgent need of modifications not only because an accumulating information demands new ways of its processing but also because people should always challenge and amend the established ways. James Baldwin in his "Talk to Teachers" says that it is a student's responsibility to "change society" (Baldwin). One should be able to take an unbiased look at society and the stage it is in. Baldwin refers to the content of educational programs stating that children should be taught to look out for social realities and be ready to challenge them when there is something wrong with them. Even delivered in 1963, Baldwin's talk is as up-to-date and cutting edge now as it was back then. Paradoxically, since that time, there was not much improvement of the situation with racial segregation in schools. Generally, the issue of racial discrimination is still ongoing and does not show any signs of waning. Baldwin is right claiming that in order to change something in society, children should know what issues there are in society. Baldwin suggests that children do not to take anything for granted and do not accept any assumptions about ongoing processes. Should they take a fresh look at society and keep their minds open, they will be able to see those in need, even if those are themselves.

However, not only content but the form and methods of teaching are in urgent need of modernization. Modern education is still largely oriented to logical-mathematical and linguistic learning styles. Nevertheless, in 1983, Howard Gardner informed the world about his theory of multiple intelligences. Even though individual schools attempted to incorporate Gardner's theory into their curriculum, the US educational system remained mostly unchanged. However, in a 2006 follow-up book Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, Gardner remarks that the theory should not necessarily be applied as separate learning methods for children with different intelligences. In practice, it does not mean that a school needs to have seven classes, each for one intelligence. Gardner's suggestion is to mix approaches within a discipline and within a classroom: "The best way to bring [understanding] about is to draw on all of the intelligences that are relevant to that topic in as many legitimate ways as possible" (Gardner 59). If the same group of children with different intelligences hear about the revolution, evolution, or cubism from different viewpoints and with different approaches, then the new material is more likely to be acquired and understood.

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Such idea brings an understanding of the fact that the expected changes in education are very complex, and a question of whether they really need to be such arises. We live in a world of growing complexity. Even though humanity keeps developing and in some ways our life becomes simpler because of mechanization and technology, in terms of knowledge and human relations it gets more complex. Therefore, we should not fear the growing complexity because it is inevitable. A better strategy is to brace oneself and embrace it. The sooner we begin to tackle it, the sooner we see fruit from the tree of knowledge.

Summing up, I can say that my understanding of education and its purpose is that it should emulate nature in its initial stage but eventually, grow more complex emulating the way society is developing. At the same time, educators should strive to be frank, open, and not afraid of questions and wrong answers. The main task of educators is to retain a child's natural desire to learn and to delve deep into the subject trying to understand its core. Getting to the bottom of things will lay ground for further learning. It will be a grid to which a child will add new layers of meaning and knowledge.

To this effect, modern education needs modification because technologies and society are developing faster than educational methods and guidelines. Given how much time young people spend studying, educational institutions should let them out fully prepared for adult lives. For example, since the last financial crisis hit everyone so hard because of loans and mortgages, probably, educational establishments should offer some initial banking classes to help people adapt to the financial world and not to get into financial troubles. Probably, schools can suggest that children develop interest in truly important for society jobs such as engineers and developers rather than celebrities and high-paid lawyers. Furthermore, if young people could arrive at a conclusion that the world we live in is finite and we need to take care of it in a global sense, then new CEOs and top executives would refuse to drain dry post-colonial countries and would contribute to more egalitarian global society.

Thus, the changes in education could only be reflective of the changes in society. It is a mutual process and it should be initiated gradually because it is impossible to have a large mental shift in all people at once. However, some might begin. One can already notice a tendency to downshifting and a growing understanding that one cannot earn all money in the world. One does not need as much money. Much pleasure can be found in doing things right and helping other people have what you have. Therefore, a new generation of alumni have an opportunity to start anew and attempt to introduce some changes they dreamed of when they were students.

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