What is the purpose of school? An informal and very unscientific survey

by Mr. Sheehy

An innocent graduate school assignment has prompted me to pester 8-10 people I know with a question they always find exhausting to consider: What is the purpose of school? All but two of my respondents replied immediately with a sigh. Of the ones that didn’t, one had finished her answer more quickly than the others managed to sigh, and the other was too young to know that the question sounded profound and important.

I demanded answers from three basic pools, trying to keep my results interesting by avoiding too many colleagues. To be honest, in asking colleagues what the purpose of school is, I feared I would draw one who had not really considered the question and might start a long, rambling explanation based on years of experience. Not only would I not have had time for such a conversation, but I would be disappointed to find that one of my peers had not thought thoroughly through this question . But I suppose those are not fears that would divert me; in reality, I found it more interesting to ask non-educators. The one colleague I asked said that the purpose of school is “to ensure that people have opportunity for organized, accessed knowledge,” which I believe reveals her philosophical position that education should grant freedom. It smacks of Paulo Freire, but I know this colleague well and have never heard her mention Freire. It would be interesting to trace her ideas back to discover where they originate.

My second pool of respondents are my friends, who are generally around 30 years old and either highly educated or practicing professionals. Each of these attached to their purpose statements whatever comes after school, claiming students need to “critically analyze, reason, and interact in/with [the] world” “so that they can become learned, active citizens [who] function well in society [and] . . . contribute to society,” or they mentioned that students “are (or can be) actively pursuing your life goals.” That was the biggest point from this group, though they were close to unanimous in asserting that the means to achieving those goals are through acquisition of skills. One called those skills “fundamental knowledge,” which could be construed to be different than skills, but he qualified it with skill sets (“reading, writing, rithmetic”), so I understand him to mean something similar to the others. Another qualifier attached to the skill attainment was that the school would not teach “ALL skills, because many will be taught by the family.”

Social purposes entered into two of these definitions. The first mentioned it after mentioning the traditional skills, but he did not make any effort to subordinate its importance:

This involves teaching kids how to behave socially as well as book knowledge so that they can build upon that knowledge with either more schooling or in whatever lifestyle or occupation they choose.

The second mention of social aspects of schooling qualified them slightly:

I would also add that high quality schools can be a positive environment for young kids to learn social skills, though that’s certainly not the goal of school.

The interesting thing about that comment is that this respondent’s mother added almost verbatim the socializing factor as a secondary purpose of school. Others mentioned it, but these two added it onto their definitions in almost identical manners. Looks like this gentleman was right about certain skills being taught by the family . . .

My third pool of respondents is my family. My mother, a fellow teacher, won the award for most succinct response. She claims it is so succinct because she has to state it so often to students wanting to challenge the authority (which of course makes perfect sense since she teaches 8th graders):

School is appropriate preparation for future endeavors, whatever they may be.

That worked for me, and I found it interesting that it basically matches mine:

To equip students with the essential skills they will need to move on to the next stage of their lives, whatever that stage may be.

Two for two on the mothers matching their sons in this survey, generating an assortment of new hypotheses. My father in law basically matched my friends, focusing his attention on the end result of schooling,

To prepare oneself for a career or living

and his wife expanded it to include “skills for life.” I am sure, too, that he would change his definition if anyone thought he excluded folks who don’t have vocational careers, like staying home to raise kids, so I think of these two answers as the same.

I found it interesting where the two explanations veered. He included that an element of the purpose of school is for an individual to function as a knowledgeable citizen in one’s country, making him the only respondent to mention the duty of a school to convey cultural relevance or cultural knowledge. I found this intriguing, though I do not draw any conclusions from it.

Mom-in-law, on the other hand, thought of communication as a bedrock idea behind skill-sets. Those skills taught in school, be they math, reading, and writing, enable people to think and communicate in their worlds. This led her naturally to the aforementioned social aspect of school, which teaches kids to get along with others and respect authority.

The only surprise to me was that more people did not answer like my wife, who mentioned that a primary purpose of school is to learn how to learn. I found this surprising because that element is the basic foundation to what I do every day, so foundational that I would think that more people would recognize it. I am grateful that if anyone did recognize it, it was my wife. Sorry to the rest of you – she rules.

These were all good answers, I thought, considering that most of my respondents are not teaching 8th grade and do not have to state this every day. But they all fall short of the first person I asked: Ellen.

5 November 2006 105

Dad: What is the purpose of school Ellen? Why do people go to school?

Ellen: To work.

Dad: Oh, well why do they work? What do they do at school?

Ellen: They read.

Dad: Ah, they read? Well, why do they read?

Ellen: To write.

Dad: Great point – so they read to write. Well, why would someone write, do you think?

Ellen: on paper.

Dad: I think that works for me.

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