What’s education for?

“Why do we have to learn this?” “What good’s this going to be to me in the real world?”. Is there any teacher out there who hasn’t had those questions? (if there is – please tell me your secret – you are obviously either supremely interesting and stimulating at all times, or else so successfully scary that they wouldn’t dream of asking – I’d love to manage either!)

Like many of my colleagues, I usually answer this with some digression into the application of the topic under fire (which is probably what the kid was aiming at) or, if all else fails, I resort to “it’s in the GCSE – you want to pass your GCSE so you can get a decent job, don’t you?”.

Occasionally I break out from this and go off on one about it not having to be useful – it is just fascinating/mentally stimulating/good for your brain. Most of the kids look at me as if I’d just grown two heads – why would they want to learn anything for that reason? Similarly, the typical exam class won’t take kindly to your attempt to broaden their knowledge of the subject if it’s not examinable.

Is that all education is – a means to pass the next exam and get a better job, or training you for everyday life? I’d really like to think otherwise. But the target-driven approach favoured in today’s world reinforces the idea of attaining specific goals rather than broadening your mind or, heaven forbid, actually pursuing knowledge for its own sake. The government seems to think the function of our universities is solely to fit their students for employment, rather than actually to educate them.

I’m fortunate – I work in a school where we have a policy of encouraging intellectual curiosity and don’t spend our entire time checking whether kids have gone up the requisite 0.002 levels in the last three minutes. We do have some kids in whom a love of learning is genuinely kindled. But we are fighting against the tide…

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