What purpose does education serve in today’s world?

This blog is a response to a conversation I had with Faizan Patankar over at Careers Geek. If you’re intersted you can read our discussion on this storify. Our conversation revolved around the purpose of education. As a Careers advisor my work partly is to support students in their education and help them relate their education to their futures. So for me professionally asking why we educate is of vital importance. When answering this question I think there are a number of strands that weave together.

Knowledge Preservation
Partly we educate to pass on what our societies have already learnt. Having discovered the Higgs Boson particle wouldn’t it be sad to not teach anyone else about it? How would you feel if we forgot all we know about Shakespeare? Or Mozart? Or Van Gough? The problem though with this view is how do we decide what knowledge is worth holding on to? Isn’t it a bit of a luxury to spend so much on education just for this reasons?

Social Good
This view looks at education as providing various things that society needs. Society needs nurses, businessmen, cooks, artists etc. The job of education is to train a workforce for the economy. Similar to this some people might see education as being for social good as it makes a certain sort of person. This view claims that education makes people more rational, more aware of the views of others, of the successes and mistakes of history, more aware of a shared culture and these things make society better in some way.

Individual Good
Some people may look at the above view and think that it ignores the individual. A more Liberal understanding of education moves the focus away from society and onto the individual. Here the view is that education allows individuals to seek their own happiness, security and prosperity. This view emphasizes education allowing someone to choose to develop themselves and have control of their future.

Social Justice
Some may respond to the above view as un-realistic as not everyone has opportunity to pursue their happiness. Therefore you need education to ensure justice. Our education system is based around some idea of merit. The results you achieve allows you to progress on the basis of your ability rather than your social standing. Anyone joining the education system as a child has the potential to leave it with a top degree from a top university and so is able to pursue any job they are capable of. Or at least that’s what the theory is. The claim is that this system based around justice is fairer than a system based around privilege where jobs aren’t earned but past on by the wealthy and powerful.

But do we just want a fair society? Don’t we also want society to move forward in some way (besides becoming more just). This view sees progress as a whole host of areas as being good for society. There are things we want to get better such as technology and medicine and things we want more of like art and literature. Education provides the circumstances for these things to occur. By allowing people to interact with the knowledge that we already have and come to better understand some of the problems we face we create the conditions to create something new. Though not everyone who is involved in education will do this the system as equips people to be innovative and creates the conditions for this to occur.

Having highlighted these five reasons its worth noting that education is a lot more complex than just trying to do all five as they often conflict. As we work out what we want education to be its partly a process of balancing between these strands and also trying to work out which we think is most important currently.


The last four of these five reasons come from A. G. Watts discussion of ideological perspectives on careers work.

Watts A. G. et al (1996). Rethinking careers education and guidance: theory, policy, and practice. London: Routledge.

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