Purposes of Education

Different ideas about the purposes of education have emerged from a variety of sources.  Recent stories in the press have announced a reordering of the top school listing in which schools have apparently been rated from a new point of view.  The new approach consists of rating schools by the “bang for the buck.”  Because tuitions have soared and students have to borrow more, liberal arts have begun to seem like a luxury.  Increasingly, schools are being judged by how well they are preparing students to earn a living.

The economist David W. Breneman, some years ago published a report lamenting the shift away from liberal arts toward practical courses like engineering and business.In a recent interview he is quoted as saying that “we are drifting toward turning college into a trade school,” which he believes is ultimately harmful.  He reminds us that the original purpose of education was to prepare people for citizenship and leadership, and to enhance their capacity for creativity.

Breneman points to the influence of University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, who used the term “human capital.”  He looked at education as an investment, like buying a machine, a way of thinking about college that focuses on the rate of return.  The more intangible benefits of education are dismissed.  It is an approach based on a different set of values: one based on concrete results rather than on harder to define individual growth and development.

An interesting new Israeli film looks at this question in a different medium and from a different point of view.  “The Kindergarten Teacher,” portrays the conflict between material success and creative endeavor in a stark and compelling if somewhat extreme form.  The teacher in this story is a mature married woman with two grown children who has taught kindergarten for twenty years.  One child in her class, a little boy five years old, when picked up by his nanny, suddenly seems to draw into himself and announces, “I have a poem.”  He thereupon proceeds to recite a lyrical love poem.

The teacher learns from the nanny that this happens periodically and the nanny writes down what he recites.  The poem suggests that this young child has experienced great love, expressed in the poem as if from a mature man.  However, the nanny relates that the child’s mother ran off with her lover and the father is a successful restaurateur who is never around.  The poetry influence has come from an uncle who for a time was close to the child after the mother left and read poetry to him.  The child thinks or needs to believe that his mother has died.

As the story unfolds we see the child in school behaving like a typical five year old, with a buddy to whom he is attached and the two of them engage in all the media influenced play that children often imitate.  At the same time, the teacher is becoming increasingly interested in his creativity, which she is determined to nurture, doing so in ways that draw him off from the usual class activities.  She herself attends a poetry class and reads the child’s poem as if it were her own, seemingly to validate her own estimation of its value.

The teacher goes to see first the uncle and then the father in an attempt to persuade them that the child’s gift must be nurtured and protected.  It is here that we see the conflict between commerce and creativity.  The uncle, an unsuccessful writer, is stuck in a mundane job.  The father sees his brother as a loser and wants his son to be a “normal” boy not to be influenced by what he considers to be valueless.  The forceful message delivered is that the world crushes creativity and it is pointless to try to fight that.  The film itself seems to confirm that message.  As the teacher takes matters in her own hands she becomes more inappropriate in her behavior, taking action that in the end destroys her.

What is the message, if any, for us as parents and educators?  It is difficult to find the necessary balance in an environment that increasingly polarizes creativity and  commerce.  At times, when a child shows sparks of great talent in a particular area the temptation exists to promote that above all else.  At other times, as in the film, the fear is that it will take the child away from the realities of life – more specifically, the goal of making money.

One thing that emerges clearly in this film is that the child derives great satisfaction from this gift he has, until he is forced into having it dominate his life.  In the end, perhaps we return to the familiar conclusion that we need to support children in developing their own interests and skills without imposing on them our own needs and ambitions.