The Purpose of Public Education

New Classroom

Prompt: What is the purpose of public education?

No one is born with the knowledge or wisdom needed for full participation in life on earth. Education is a process by which humans acquire learning and develop as individuals as well as members of a community.

William Butler Yeats said that education is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The pail symbolizes a pervasive view of education, which Yeats challenged, the notion that learners are empty vessels to be filled up with content matter. Fire symbolizes a transformative process whereby the learner is inspired to understand why learning is important, motivated and empowered to become a self-directed learner.

Yeats was mostly right, though perhaps he overstated his case. Education can legitimately claim both symbols. We still need the pail; there is a time for learning content, even for rote memorization. But the fire is clearly superior. Once the fire is ignited, the learner may well be able to fill her own pail.

Yeats also puts us on notice: The purpose of education is contested. The purpose described above is the proper, highest and best purpose. In actual practice, education may function toward another end, as a method of social control, reproducing the structures of domination which characterize our civilization. The tension between proper purpose and actual function is profound. (Note that the former may not be compelled, but the latter can.)

The benefits of education are assured for the rich and powerful. Various communities within society, such as religious groups, may if sufficiently organized provide education to their members. Of course, not everyone is rich or powerful or a member of a well-organized community. Yet if segments of the population lack educational opportunity, society as a whole suffers.

Public education aims to provide such opportunity to all members of society, regardless of their status, or lack of status, in any community.

Currently public education is viewed as the province of the State and thus public schools are organs of the government. However, there is no reason why the State should be the sole provider of public education. In theory, community-based organizations with sufficient resources should be able to provide public education as well. In practice, the financial of resources available to the State through taxation provide an overwhelming advantage.

The problem with this situation is that an educational system run by the State will inevitably function to service the interests of the State above all. Individuals within the system may act with the highest ideals; individual schools may even establish temporary autonomous zones within the larger system; but all such effort runs counter to the overall tendency of the system.

What is lacking in American public discourse today is a robust notion of the common good as separate and distinct from the State. Only by recovering such a notion may we embody the true purpose of public education.