Purpose of Education

What’s the purpose of education? If there is a purpose – or identifiable set of purposes – is it (or are they) something we can agree on?

First, a classic math joke that illustrates shifting purposes in math education. It’s illustrative because we often take math as the paradigm of an objective field of study with little room for opinion (at least on the pre-college level).

Teaching Math in 1950: – (traditional math)
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1960:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1970: – (new math)
A logger exchanges a set “L” of lumber for a set “M” of money. The cardinality of set “M” is 100. Each element is worth one dollar. Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set “M.” The set “C”, the cost of production contains 20 fewer points than set “M.” Represent the set “C” as a subset of set “M” and answer the following question: What is the cardinality of the set “P” of profits?

Teaching Math in 1980:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math in 1990: – (Outcome-Based education)
By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the logger makes $20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the forest birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down the trees? There are no wrong answers.

Teaching Math in 1996:
By laying off 40% of its loggers, a company improves its stock price from $80 to $100. How much capital gain per share does the CEO make by exercising his stock options at $80. Assume capital gains are no longer taxed, because this encourages investment.

Teaching Math in 1997:
A company outsources all of its loggers. They save on benefits and when demand for their product is down the logging work force can easily be cut back. The average logger employed by the company earned $50,000, had 3 weeks vacation, received a nice retirement plan and medical insurance. The contracted logger charges $50 an hour. Was outsourcing a good move?

Teaching Math in 1998:
A logging company exports its wood-finishing jobs to its Indonesian subsidiary and lays off the corresponding half of its US workers (the higher-paid half). It clear-cuts 95% of the forest, leaving the rest for the spotted owl, and lays off all its remaining US workers. It tells the workers that the spotted owl is responsible for the absence of fellable trees and lobbies Congress for exemption from the Endangered Species Act. Congress instead exempts the company from all federal regulation. What is the return on investment of the lobbying costs?

Teaching Math in 2000:
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $120. How does Arthur Andersen determine that his profit margin is $60?

Teaching Math in 2010:
El hachero vende un camion de carga por $100. El costo de production es……..

This joke is funny because we’ve seen enough of these ideas in our own experience.

Here’s a story from England. One might think that the purpose of a study group, A, is to study subject, X. So A is successful to the extent that A masters X. See how that figures in this story from The Brussels Journal:

In al-Britannia, you end up in jail if you complain that immigrants do not speak English, but if you are saying that those who insult Islam should be killed, it’s OK.

A quote from The Manchester Evening News, 12 October 2006:

A teenage girl was questioned by police after allegedly making a racist remark to Asian students in the classroom. The 14-year-old pupil had refused to take part in a science tutorial with five other students at Harrop Fold High School, Salford, after claiming they didn’t speak English. After questioning by police she was released without charge but the school say they are investigating the matter.

[…] Head Dr Antony Edkins said: “An allegation of a serious nature was made concerning a racially motivated remark by one student towards a group of Asian students new to the school and this country.”

A quote from the Daily Mail, 13 October 2006:

A teenage schoolgirl was arrested by police for racism after refusing to sit with a group of Asian students because some of them did not speak English. Codie Stott’s family claim she was forced to spend three-and-a-half hours in a police cell after she was reported by her teachers. According to Codie, the five – four boys and a girl – then began talking in a language she didn’t understand, thought to be Urdu, so she went to speak to the teacher.

“I said ‘I’m not being funny, but can I change groups because I can’t understand them?’ But she started shouting and screaming, saying ‘It’s racist, you’re going to get done by the police’.” Codie said she went outside to calm down where another teacher found her and, after speaking to her class teacher, put her in isolation for the rest of the day.

A complaint was made to a police officer based full-time at the school, and more than a week after the incident on September 26 she was taken to Swinton police station and placed under arrest. “They told me to take my laces out of my shoes and remove my jewellery, and I had my fingerprints and photograph taken,” said Codie. “It was awful.”

[…] Robert Whelan, deputy director of the Civitas think-tank, said: […] “A lot of these
arrests don’t result in prosecutions – the aim is to frighten us into self-censorship until we watch everything we say.”

A quote from The Daily Telegraph, 29 September 2006:

The Metropolitan Police has also decided not to take action against the controversial Muslim figure, Anjem Choudary, who allegedly said in a television interview about the row over the Pope that anyone who insulted the Muslim faith would be “subject to capital punishment”.

Some people, apparently, do not have to watch everything they say. The less control the authorities have with Muslims, the more control they want to exercise over non-Muslims. This strange mix of powerful censorship of public debate, yet little control over public law and order, has by some been labeled anarcho-tyranny. The reason why European authorities are becoming increasingly totalitarian in their censorship efforts is to conceal the fact that they are no longer willing or able to uphold even the most basic security of their citizenry.

Urdu is the major language in Pakistan. Speakers of Urdu, by my reckoning, are likely to be either Muslim or Christian in culture, with the former the most likely possibility. We’re not told what subject was being studied. Codie finds herself part of Study Group A, studying subject X. The other members of Study Group A are also studing subject X. Problem: regardless of their cultural origin, they find they can only access subject X by means of language. All but Codie share a common language, Urdu. Codie – and I’m guessing here – supposes that she doesn’t have time to learn Urdu so she can access subject X with her classmates so she asks for transfer to hypothetical Study Group B where they speak Mandarin, one of the languages she does speak.

Codie is surprised to learn, however, that the subject of study is not really X, but Y. I’m not sure what Y is, though it is likely one of the following:

  • You ought to do whatever you teacher tells you to do, however nonsensical.
  • You ought to pursue common study with people even if you can’t understand a word they say.
  • Not rocking the boat is more important than learning an actual academic subject.
  • Not letting on that not speaking the language of the majority of the people in your group is a virtue.
  • In any given large group, the majority language group should always submit to the linguistic preferences of minority language groups.

Or maybe I’m missing the whole story. Perhaps the real story is that the crime rate in Manchester has gotten so low that the police have so much time on their hands that they see a need to involve themselves in policing study group assignments.

We still have crazy people here in America. Check out this story at the Education Wonks. It’s about a fellow with a doctorate in classics from Harvard who dedicated himself to teaching in a public school.  His Latin students were very successful. The parents loved him. But he’s not qualified to teach in the public schools. Are we understanding education properly when we judge one’s qualification to be based on jumping through particular hoops rather than in creating learning in students? Just another outcome of ECDD (Every Child Dumbed Down) NCLB.

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One Response to Purpose of Education

  1. Daniel says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Purpose of Education, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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