Why Do We Educate?

While driving somewhere in a car, I make decision after decision about which turns to take.  As a general rule, I do not choose the roads that are the prettiest.  I do not simply try to go the direction that the majority of the other cars are going.  I make my decisions based on my destination and that gets me where I want to be. The same principle holds true for education.  At the moment, I am choosing to educate Cat using the unschooling method.  But I do not believe that unschooling is the best way to educate, any more than I believe any particular road to be objectively better than the rest.  It depends entirely on where you’re trying to get. We have chosen unschooling because out of all the educational options available to us, it has the best chance of achieving our educational goals.  

So why do we, as a society, educate children? What outcome are we trying to achieve with all the work and resources we pour into our educational systems?  We do not all agree, which is a big part of why education is such a controversial issue.  If we are trying to get to different destinations, we are absolutely not going to agree on which roads are best to take. There are probably as many different goals for education as there are educators and parents – no one person’s philosophy and goals match anyone else’s perfectly.  That being said, our society’s goals for education tend to fall into three main categories. 

1 – Prepare the Worker

Keep your head down. Walk in straight lines.  Be punctual.  Perform only the tasks you’re assigned and don’t get creative. Turn your work in on time, every time.  Don’t question an authority figure (even if you know she’s wrong).   Bad teacher? Deal with it.  One day you’ll probably have a bad boss.  Follow instructions without asking questions. If you don’t fit particularly well with the curriculum or the system, you either adapt or you fail. If you don’t fit the expectations, alter yourself until you do, or you’ll be ostracized and punished.  Standardization is key. 

Every society has a bottom rung to fill.  The first level of the ladder that is simultaneously the lowest in terms of pay and social standing and the highest in terms of numbers.  The aim of the ‘prepare the worker’ mindset is for students to be well-suited to find work at that level when they enter adulthood.  The goal is to create ‘cogs’ that run smoothly to keep society running.  Good cogs possess two primary traits.  They should be predictable, and they should be interchangeable.Those traits help businesses achieve their primary goal: efficiency.  Individuality leads to inefficiency.  So, the goal of a ‘prepare the worker’ educator is to ensure that every student graduating the program possesses a known set of skills, traits and knowledge that will be of use to the businesses those students will be ushered into after graduation.  Employability is the focus, and big business dictates what that means.  These practices tend to sacrifice a child’s creativity and individuality in favor of their capacity to function in society.  Is this a necessary and worthwhile sacrifice? And exactly how much should a student sacrifice in our attempt to promote their employability?  That’s the question we all have to answer for ourselves. Starting off as a cog is certainly better than having no place in society at all. Cogs are valued, and rewarded. Every parent would want their child to be the best cog he could be if the choice was between that and winding up hungry, homeless, or ending up in jail.  For some parents, generally due to realities of socioeconomic status, that’s the choice they can expect their child to face in adulthood.  Every parent and educator has unique insights into what opportunities society will offer their children.  A parent who knows that their child’s opportunities will be scarce is wise to choose an education that promotes that child’s ability to gain employment wherever he can find it. At least it’s a start. A place to climb from. 

2 – Prepare the Achiever

Study harder.  Make the grade.  Earn that extra credit.  Please your teachers. Distinguish yourself from your peers. Get on the honor roll. Get accepted at the best schools.   Failure is unacceptable.  Your entire future depends on how well you do on this assignment or that test.  When you get to college, you won’t get away with this kind of behavior. Do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life? 

The ‘prepare the achiever’ educator has aspirations for her students that go beyond the level of a cog in the machine.  She would have her students rise above the entry-level rank and gain a position in society that is higher in prestige, power and pay. Prepare the achiever practices are very common in high school, where college admissions become a big focus. At the elementary level, they take the form of ‘prepping’ for the next grade.  A heavy focus on Kindergarten readiness in preschool.  Doubling down on academics in 2nd grade to prepare for the increased challenges of 3rd grade, etc. These sorts of practices are exceedingly common in private schools that make a promise of putting each child on an accelerated path to success.  Rather than focusing on fitting all students to an identical mold, the focus is on distinguishing the student as better than the rest, more capable, more successful, more deserving of a higher place in society.  In theory,  this is a laudable goal.  There are positions in society that are above that bottom rung, and pushing students towards excellence might give them a better chance at achieving one of those spots.   Prepare the achiever says:  I have the capacity to place you higher on the ladder.  But from that elevated spot you have further to fall.  You’d better hold on and keep climbing, or you’ll lose all the progress my hard work gained for you.  

Preparing the worker and preparing the achiever are related at the philosophical level. Both believe that the ultimate goal of education is to prepare the student to find his place on the ladder to success and begin climbing.  The message is that the student should climb the ladder at all costs, because happiness and satisfaction is to be found at the top.  Ironically, students are often required to forego or at least limit the sorts of activities that bring them happiness and satisfaction in the moment, in favor of making progress towards the top.  As a general rule, the ultimate goal is that of success in employment, and at times the educator may have a very specific ladder in mind. The educator may intend the student to be a doctor, or to take over as head of the family business, etc.  At other times, the educator may have different types of success in mind.  A conservative homeschool educator may be preparing her daughters to be successful homemakers, or be preparing her sons to attain a respected position in her church.  In any case, the educator has a specific ladder in mind, and works hard to make sure that the student has a good start on his long climb to the top.  

 Prepare the Self-Actualized Individual

Make your choices. Learn from the consequences. Pursue your own interests. Explore the world at your leisure.  Play.  Relax. Find your own path to happiness and success.  I do not presume to know what that path will be or where it will lead you, but I am here to support you as you learn and grow. 

In stark contrast to the other perspectives, an educator who is aiming to prepare a self-actualized individual spends little time considering the child’s future and eventual role in society.  It’s not that such an educator doesn’t care.  It’s simply that she considers such things to be the choice of the student, not the educator.  Educating in this way requires that the educator place a huge amount of trust in her student.  She trusts that her student’s internal motivation will lead him to the sorts of activities and pursuits that will build the skills he will need in adulthood. .  Rather than setting goals for the student, and then helping him achieve them, this sort of educator waits until he develops and expresses goals of his own, and then offers support and guidance in reaching those goals.  Achieving successful employment and climbing the ladder towards what society calls success is not considered a goal in and of itself.  That sort of achievement is treated as a means to an end.  Most often, learning or creating is the end.  Perhaps a student develops a passion for gardening, and chooses to work in a garden center at a hardware store as a way to simultaneously learn more about plants and earn an income to support his own gardening pursuits.  In that case, the student may actually reject a promotion to general store manager since such a promotion would not serve his ultimate goal.  

Students who are educated in this manner generally discover their own passions and interests relatively early in life, and the choices they make when entering young adulthood are based on these highly individualized interests and aims.  Some elect to pursue college degrees, when they decide a degree will serve their purpose. But again, college is considered a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  The decision to attend college and the motivation to do the work necessary for graduation  comes from the student, not the parent or educator. This is precisely why these students tend to do better on average in college, and graduate at higher rates.  The college student who is there because he wants to be, because he values a college education and is passionate about what he is studying will always outperform the student who is there because he was told to go by an authority figure.  Since this aim of education is unique right down to the philosophical level, it is difficult for parents to achieve it within any of our traditional education systems.  This sort of education is found in alternate schools such as Sudbury style democratic schools, and in the growing numbers of unschooling families. 

There is no single correct way to educate a child.  Different educational models and practices lead to different results, all with their own pros and cons. But sometimes society sends parents the message that there is only one road, one choice, one destination.  Not so.  Parents who deeply consider what their goals are for their students’ education, and then do the research on the educational models that lead to that destination, are far more likely to end up where they want to be.