The Great Ends of Education: And Why We Are Dumbing Down

From time to time the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an article on “the great ends of education.” When I was engaged in campus ministry in higher education at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington in the 1080s this was a lively topic of academic discussion. When I served in campus ministry in higher education at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon the topic once again become one of lively interest, with the president of the university at the time addressing this question to parents and alum.

I would like to propose that there are five central purposes of education as embodied in five different educational theories and practices. There seems to be no universal consensus either within academic or the general American public as to which of these, if any, deserves to be regarded as of the greatest importance. Different educational institutions weigh these five central purposes and educational visions differently. Stated quite simply, they are the utilitarian, individuating, transcendental, classical and progressive traditions.

Allow me to elucidate what is meant by each of these five traditions.

One: The utilitarian or instrumental tradition holds that the central purpose of education should be to equip young people to manage their practical life and work in effective and efficient ways. For this they need proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic. They need to know how to manage their time and money, how to work with their hands, how to build things, clean things, fix things, organize things. They need to know how to work, earn, save, and invest wisely. They need to know how to pay their bills and manage their credit cards wisely, to stay out of debt. They need to know how to purchase a car, buy a house, plan a trip, shop for bargains, manage a household. They need to now how to type and use a computer. This is also sometimes called the realistic and conventional tradition. For some people this is the extent of their educational achievement. But for others it is only the beginning of an educated life.

Two: The individuating or psycho-social development tradition holds that what matters most is psychological and social intelligence, maturity in knowing oneself and getting along with other people. Personal introspection and interpersonal relationships are what really matter. So does the ability to express oneself through creative endeavors, whether in music, art, dance, acting, handcraft, sculpture or painting. The prime directive is to know and express oneself in authentic and creative ways, and to collaborate with others in creative and productive projects.

Three: The transcendental or existential tradition holds that what matters as our greatest good is to contemplate our relationship to the highest order of reality, however we envision and conceive it, whether as God, Spirit, Being, Essence, Process, Consciousness, Nature, Matter/Energy, Particles/Waves or the Expanding Universe. And it is also to consider the existential contingency of our natal and moral  lives that are suspended between the miracle of birth and the mystery of death. It will consider our perplexing and ambiguous existence as suspended between the paradox of being and nothingness, fullness and emptiness, realization and negation, emergence and dissolution. For this religious-philosophical-scientific tradition, the great debate between the competing worldviews of theism and atheism, pantheism and polytheism, idealism and materialism, dualism and panpsychism are matters of consequence. This tradition is preoccupied with the ultimate questions of existence and the meaning of life, and approaches them in a concentrated and direct way. It may assume the primacy of either spirit or matter. It may assume that spirit and matter constitute two orders of reality, as in metaphysical dualism. Or it may assume that what we call spirit and matter are two aspects of a single binary yet inseparable reality as in “neutral monism.” Fundamental metaphysical and naturalistic worldview commitments depend upon our existential choices in response to the questions, “What is the nature of reality and what is man’s relationship to the absolute?”

Four: The classical or canonical tradition holds that a truly educated person will possess a broad and deep appreciation for the liberal domains of knowledge and the shape of the past. This will include intellectual inquiry into the liberal disciplines of philosophy, religion, history, languages, mythology, poetry, literature, music, arts, psychology, sociology, as well as mathematics and all the physical and life sciences – physics, chemistry, geology, geography, botany, biology, anthropology, paleontology, anatomy and physiology. It will cultivate an appreciation for the multi-disciplinary language games of symbols, myths, ideas, principles, narratives, poetics, creations, discoveries, theories and practices.

Moreover, it is centered in the ideal of encounters with the best that has been thought and written, created and discovered by the best minds across the ages in the world’s many cultures. It aspires for not only specialties in the various humanities, arts and sciences, but for a general knowledge of everything that his common to our general humanity. It is the classical tradition that cares about “the great books” and about the importance of libraries, book stores, museums, dictionaries and encyclopedias that contain the general knowledge of the world. It is the classical tradition that cares about keeping alive the great ideas and narratives of Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as the  classical knowledge and wisdom of all the other world civilizations. While such knowledge is often regarded as in intrinsic good that needs no further justification, sometimes the classical tradition will reach out to join hands with the instrumental, individuating, existential and social-civic educational traditions. It will make common cause with other traditions to strengthen its own hand.

Five: The progressive or civic-minded tradition, often identified with John Dewey’s progressive pragmatism, holds that the highest purpose of education is to develop and raise up disciplined “professionals” in every walk of life and to groom competent leaders with character and courage who will serve our democratic republic for the greater good of all.

Of course there is another hidden purpose of education that I have not mentioned. And yet it is the proverbial elephant in the living room. This is a view of education that sees it as nothing other than a ticket to making money and getting ahead, to looking out for Number One and grasping the brass ring. It is highly individualistic, acquisitive, commercial and competitive  without being “individuating” in the sense of cultivating emotional and social intelligence, much less philosophical reflection, cultural literacy or civic engagement. To a great extent it seems to me that much of our educational enterprise today as succumbed to the temptation to abandon the greater ends of education, especially the individuating-creative, transcendental-existential, classical-canonical and progressive-civic.

This failure of education has serious social consequences. The result is a society of uneducated and misinformed yahoos and philistines whose lowered intellectual IQ and educational vacuity inclines them to rally in mass to the raging, insulting, narcissistic and obscene voice of a racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted demagogue. It is time for our society and academic institutions at all levels to revisit the essential questions: What are the great ends of education? What is the relation between life-work management, self-cultivation, spiritual/existential reflection, cultural literacy and civil society? What is the meaning of an authentic, whole and fully human way of life?

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One thought on “The Great Ends of Education: And Why We Are Dumbing Down”

  1. Thank you for making these distinctions in different educational philosophies. It reminds me a little of Kathryn Tanner’s discussion of the definition of culture in her book Theories of Culture, in which she outlines the way German, French, and British intellectuals understood the “cultured” person before the rise of the discipline of anthropology, which then understood culture something everyone has.

    A few questions:
    – What do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of each of these approaches? How do they supplement or challenge each other?

    – You suggest in your title that “we’re dumbing down,” and your article makes a tacit link between this dumbing down and an inadequate money-oriented view of education. So: In what ways do you think we are “dumbing down” and not just changing what we consider important knowledge? Are we perhaps getting smarter in new ways as we get dumber in others, or is it all decline?

    -If, as you suggest, education has become much more about an individualistic search for money, how did this happen, and how do you reconcile this idea with substantial research on millennials that suggests younger generations are much more interested in the global good and in being part of something bigger than themselves than in just making money?

    Also, I would want to add a sixth tradition, which is a critical justice tradition, connected to Paulo Freire, among others, and which is often added into some of these other approaches. It has many versions, including marxist and Christian, but it always keeps economic and social disparities in view. This critical tradition sees education as a means for making right what is wrong in our social world– and it goes beyond Dewey’s pragmatism, in that it criticizes the means by which a society maintains its social stratifications.

    I think it is important to include this critical tradition in order to offset what is often a too-quick judgment on those who see education as a means for equipping oneself to make money. I agree that education is sometimes reduced to a means for making money. I don’t think education is or should be all about making money or getting rich. But for many people and classes of people, the inability to make money has been the result of economic and social disparities, and, in line with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, such oppressive poverty prevents them from having time or energy to put into other forms of self- or social development.

    Education that enables people to understand why they are poor, or why others are poor, and to do something to change both their own situation and their larger society, addresses questions of justice. I wouldn’t want to leave out this critical tradition, or to denigrate those who connect money to education.

    Thanks again for your helpful outline of educational traditions.

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