• What is the Point of Education?

    I have been involved with education, in one way or another, for most of my life. First as a schoolboy, then as a university student (in both New Zealand and England), a brief spell as a secondary school teacher, then as an Oxford law don and finally as a university Vice-Chancellor, I have seen education from a variety of different angles.

    Not surprisingly, perhaps, I have from time to time asked myself the question – what is the point of education? Looked at from the viewpoint of the individual, the answer may seem straightforward enough; a good education may seem to be the key to a good job and a life of fulfilment. But what about the wider question – why should society invest in education and what do we expect to get out of it?

    Again, the answer may seem comparatively simple. An educated population will, it is assumed, be more productive and will allow us all to enjoy a higher standard of living. But even this fails to capture, I believe, the real point.

    Education is about more than equipping the individual to operate effectively as a unit of production. Yes, the economy is important, but we should hope and expect that an educated population will produce a greater range of benefits than just a statistical boost to the GDP figures.

    An educated society will be one that is fully aware of who we are, where we have come from and what truly matters to us. We will understand our own history and the great riches and subtleties of our language and will take pleasure in using it properly. We will recognise the things we have in common and that bind us together. We will observe the rules that allow our society to function well, and we will reject those who invite us to ignore the principles that make for a good and well functioning society.

    The first purpose of education is not, in other words, just the accumulation of knowledge – of facts and figures; it is to teach children that there is a world beyond the family. The school, as an institution, is as important as the teaching that happens there; it is a social environment where children learn that they are not the centre of the universe and that things go better for them if they learn to take account of the interests of others.

    An educated person is more than someone who has passed exams and gained formal qualifications; and education is best delivered by teaching rather than constant testing. The pressure to obtain top grades – so often seen as the essence of education at school level – serves the interests of schools, not pupils.

    There is a good deal of anxiety at present, right across the globe, at what is described as the rise of “illiberal” or “populist” democracy. Commentators lament the tendency of the democratic process to reflect the views of those who are assumed to know little and to vote in line with prejudices based on ignorance.

    The classic instance of this phenomenon was, it is suggested, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. Trump gained his support, so the argument runs, by persuading his “base” that they should not hold against him – on the ground that they did not really matter – his tendencies to lie, to defy normal moral standards, to disrespect women and racial and sexual minorities, to attack a free press and to pay little regard to the rule of law.

    It is certainly true that an educated electorate would have paid more attention to these failings and would have recognised the threat they pose to a good and decent society. The price being paid by the US (and the world) for an electorate that has trouble in understanding the significance of, for example, the rule of law – the principle that even presidents are subject to the law – is hard to overstate.

    The case for education is, it turns out, an easy one to make. Education equips our citizens to play a full part in developing a good society. If we want a properly functioning democracy, we need an electorate that has the understanding and abIlity to make good and informed judgments about important issues and to hold their elected representatives to account. A democracy works well, in other words, only with an educated electorate.

    Bryan Gould
    20 November 2018