The Aims of Education In An Age of Stasis and Change

Stephen M. Fain,

College of Education, Florida International University, Miami, Florida,

Martha Barantovich,

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami, Florida

Raquel Martin,

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami, Florida

Keywords: aims of education, education, education systems, education theory, liberal education


1. Introduction

2. The Role of Theory in the Aims of Education

3. The Liberal Tradition

4. Competing Analysis of Educational Aims

5. Interdependence of Educational Aims

6. Conclusion

Related Chapters



Biographical Sketch


Grounded in the position that education is a universal, systematic effort intended to change the knowledge, behaviors, dispositions and skills of individuals, this article challenges the reader to consider the need for the development of a more sustainable future through carefully planned teaching and skillfully nurtured learning. Working from the belief that our global future rests with young citizens, the question is raised as to what are the aims of education.

To these ends, this article considers the role of social theory in shaping the collective future. A historical review connects social, economic and political trends with the development of schools and what they teach. The fundamental relationship between a moral code and a sensitivity of aesthetic dimensions of life among the peoples of the planet is considered, and the interrelationship between schools and the greater society is examined in light of the critical question of global sustainability. It is argued that since contemporary life is sophisticated, the future requires the development of citizens capable of engaging in critical thinking. It is further argued that education for sustainability will require that an educational strategy be put in place that results in the development of individual world citizens who understand and appreciate the relationship linking education for sustainability and education for social justice.

Recognizing the constancy of change in our dynamic world and accepting the democratic imperative, the point is made that only through constructive dialogue connecting communities, parents, educators and students can the goal of a more sustainable future for humanity be achieved.

1. Introduction   

"Even the most valid of aims which can be put in words will, as words, do more harm than good unless one recognizes that they are not aims, but rather suggestions to educators as to how to observe, how to look ahead, and how to choose in liberating and directing the energies of the concrete situations in which they find themselves." John Dewey

The above quote from one of the preeminent educational philosophers of the twentieth century subtly captures the very complex notion that educational aims are by definition dynamic, and therefore need to adapt and change given new circumstances and the continued evolution of democratic societies. This need for adaptive change in education and its aims continues in the contemporary moment when education in all its ramifications is essential for sustainability and a sustainable future. Since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations affirmed, "everyone has a right to education," there has been a growing universal acceptance that education is a basic human right. The United Nations’ initiative, "Education for All," which began in 1990, has endeavored to make formal education accessible to all children and adults. However, there are still over 100 million children in the world who do not receive any formal education, and over one sixth of the world’s population continue to be illiterate. These challenging numbers, along with the pressing need that education contribute to a more sustainable future through teaching and learning, assure that education and its goals will be among the most important, debated and contested issues of the of the 21st century.

Mass schooling, as a universal, nation-state goal, is a relatively new issue in the history of the world. In many respects, schools have assumed the traditional roles of the family and the church in the education of children, and by the twentieth century state authorization, control and funding of education for the masses had become the norm. Many forces have influenced and are influencing this process. Local, state and national governments develop and apply educational policies and practices. Parents, educators, intellectuals and special interest groups also attempt to shape the formal educational process in one way or another. However, probably the most important forces supporting and shaping universal modern education were the historical, political, and economic changes, which required the transformation of individuals into responsible democratic citizens and into productive industrial workers. As a result, education has become a universal, systematic effort to teach and to change the knowledge, behaviors, dispositions and skills of individuals. Universal education, in both the public and private sense, has become central in the socialization and acculturation of young citizens based on the wants and needs of modern industrialized society.

The wants and needs of a society, however, are ever changing depending on the political, historical and personal context of time and place. The wants are expressed as the aims of education and are derived from the general values of the society, which in the modern era are heavily influenced by forces supporting consumption and industrial production. Education itself does not have aims; it is parents, teachers, and society that hold aims for education. Education is part of complex, nation-state systems which define the meaning of a "good" education. As Dewey (1916) stated,

The vice of externally imposed ends has deep roots. Teachers receive them from superior authorities; these authorities accept them from what is current in the community. The teachers impose them upon children. As a consequence, the intelligence of the children is not free; it is confined to receiving the aims laid down from above.

Today's greatest educational debates are not over school funding, equity, segregation, transportation or pluralism. The current question revolves around the aims of education: What aims should education have, whose aims should be put into practice and why? It seems that knowledge is power; therefore, since school curriculums reinforce officially approved knowledge, those who influence and control education exercise extraordinary power in society.

Currently, the liberal tradition of education, which endeavors to balance the public interests of society with the private interests of the individual, is being challenged by the needs of a changing world and a global economy. The critical thinking of independent citizens willing to assume their responsibilities and rights within the democratic political process of the nation-state has been the bedrock of this tradition. Through the liberal tradition, the "good life," material progress and security were within the reach of individual and society alike. The "good life," however, has been challenged by those concerned about the over-consumption and incredible short and long-term costs of this model. Critical theorists have insisted that unacceptable levels of social injustice are inherent in the liberal educational tradition. Environmentalists see an unacceptable burden on the earth in humanity’s ecological footprint resulting from the goal of material progress. Feminists and minority groups argue over various interpretations of equity and equality for a better world. Whose voices will be heard as national governments, in both the developed and developing worlds, exercise their power over educational policies and practices?

2. The Role of Theory in the Aims of Education   

The aims of education are directly impacted by theories concerning the purpose of schooling. Those in the field outline several theoretical perspectives used to explain the aims of education: social transmission theories, interpretive theories and social transformation theories.

In the 19th century, the school overtook the socialization role previously belonging to the family and church. Schools became responsible for the transmission of knowledge, rules, and customs. In this tradition, functionalists claim that the purposes of education can be divided into four categories: intellectual, political, economic, and social. The most common aim of schooling according to functionalist theory is to develop the intellect; to provide children with the knowledge and skills necessary to survive in society. Reading, writing, and math are included in this category. The political aims of education center around the preparation of future citizens and workers. Functionalists argue that schools must prepare children to become productive and active adults. Social science classes are often responsible for teaching children their civic duties, patriotism, and how to be law-abiding citizens.

Those who espouse a functionalist theory as the purpose of education maintain broad aims in the purpose of schooling. Through education, the social problems of racism, discrimination, hunger, poverty, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, pollution and other environmental issues can be solved. In this tradition, the current manifestation of full-service schools provides on-site assistance from social workers, nurses, and law enforcement officials, as well as health and rehabilitative services in the education and support of students. This functionalist view of education endeavors to balance the interests of the individual with the needs of society in securing progress and security.

In terms of the economic aims of education, schools prepare students for work and careers. Today the school-to-career movement in the United States and other countries focuses on student acquisition of marketable skills as defined by both national and global economies. Schools groom the work force by teaching the benefits of punctuality, efficiency and teamwork. As a result of a changing workplace, employers increasingly demand the preparation in schools of "thinking workers" who are equipped with the talents of flexibility, adaptability and problem-solving to meet the challenges of lean production and just-in-time delivery of goods and services. Testing, tracking and ability grouping identify the "best" students for the "best" jobs. Education in this sense plays a role in a country's economic development, and directly and indirectly in reinforcing the consumer/producer model that is shaping the global economy.

From another perspective, interpretive theorists or phenomenologists focus on the social aspects of education. Working from the perspective that knowledge and skills cannot be poured into a student's head, phenomenologists believe that education must be constructed via the social interactions of students and teachers. Knowledge is relative and subjective. These aims are out of sync in much of the world with the current demands for standardization, accountability, and testing.

Social transformation theorists, including critical theorists, claim that the aim of education should be to transform and emancipate the individual, not to perpetuate the existing social structure. They argue that schools help the rich and powerful maintain their wealth and power. Education should be a liberating dialogue between teachers and students. Students and teachers are to be active participants in a critical dialogue that transforms the oppressed, liberates the oppressor and thereby, achieves social justice. Education is the vehicle for change within society. However, many critics see this theory as reinforcing the value of individualism at a time when a more collective understanding of the ecological and interdependent nature of the world is needed. As a practical matter, other critics see this theory and its educational aims as inoperable and anachronistic in the functioning of mainstream public education.

There is a direct link between the theories regarding the purposes of education and the definition of the aims of education. Depending on the theory espoused by policy makers at the local, state, or national levels, aims are handed down to teachers in the public school classroom, and indirectly influence the educational aims of private schools. The current aims of education drive the curriculum. Teachers are expected to incorporate these aims into their teaching philosophy. Since theory is affected by the historical, social, and political context of time and place, espoused educational aims are in constant flux with personal teaching philosophies. The aims of education are a reflection of the prevailing or dominant values of the culture and the society. As dominant values change or evolve, aims of public institutions, including schools, change. Even though such changes may be subtle at times, they exist nevertheless.

3. The Liberal Tradition   

" If the first aim of a public school system is to make men better workers, the second

is to make them better thinkers, and for this purpose the young mind must be brought into correspondence with the thoughts of the great men who have lived in former days, and of those who are still living." M. A. Newell, 1877

For years, the aims of education have been impacted by liberal thought. Most modern educational theorists can trace their roots back to John Dewey, for some, the heir to Western liberal educational thought. Developing independent thinkers is the goal of liberal education. The Western democratic tradition has dominated education. In liberal democratic societies, education has a cultural basis. Education becomes an initiation into the dominant culture. The themes of a liberal education include citizenship, socialization, social reproduction, as well as a shared secular and scientific language. As already mentioned, the aims of education in this liberal tradition serve to balance the public interests of the society with the private interests of the individual. Some argue that liberalism may be an outdated paradigm in today's world. Liberalism is a political ideal that may or may not equate with modern educational ideals such as globalization, multiculturalism, and critical thinking.

Preparation of the "thinking" worker has become one of the central aims of education today. The trend is a direct result of a changing technological world. Schools are no longer required to prepare single-task, production line workers for an industrial economy. At least in the developed world, robotics and automation are replacing such workers. The current need is for problem-solving, team players that can compete in an economy characterized by technological and service industries. Some theorists and educators have heralded critical thinking as an educational ideal for the 21st century. The transition is as follows: rote learning and memorization that exemplified early education are considered inadequate and insufficient for a society that needs thinkers and problem-solvers. Educational activities that promote critical thinking and problem solving are valued. However, various serious questions and reservations have been raised about this development, especially in regards to the "thinking" worker. Will such preparation guarantee employability in the global economy? As article in this Theme demonstrates, education as well as experience is no guarantee of employment security in the new global economic order.

In terms of critical thinking and the liberal tradition, this aim of education focuses on the development of a well educated individual with the knowledge, skills, and attitude necessary to make good decisions. Critical thinking human beings are able to balance their duties and rights as citizens with personal values and beliefs. Critical thinking goes hand in hand with liberal democratic values. Those who promote critical theories of education, including feminist and environmental educators, would agree that critical thinkers are necessary to serve their views as well. However, they would raise serious questions about the shaping of knowledge and thinking which reinforces a status quo that exploits and degrades both females and the earth. Such perspectives are explored in various articles throughout this Theme, including and

It is evident that not everyone has jumped on the critical thinking bandwagon. Some theorists argue that critical thinking is negative and argumentative. It promotes skepticism and downplays the need to pass on knowledge to young children. Detractors feel that young children do not possess the maturity needed to make certain decisions. For now, however, the majority of educational theorists and practitioners support critical thinking as a legitimate aim of education.

Another aspect of the liberal ideal related to the aims of education is personal autonomy. Autonomy is a necessity in democratic societies. It is understood that today's modern complex societies require a division of labor as well as a set of common knowledge, assumptions, and practices. The aim of education in this regard is to pass on to children the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to perpetuate the society; thereby, producing individuals who can be autonomous. One is not possible without the other. Schools must balance the needs and interests of the society with that of the individual. Schools must prepare individuals who can work and participate in the society while following a set of predetermined rules. Autonomy is not a viable goal without some conformity to political, social, and economical conventions. In the liberal tradition, schools need to bring about interdependence between these two aims. Autonomy alone is not enough as an educational aim; in fact, some theorists argue that autonomy is a false ideal since humans evolve as social creatures. For many ecologists and environmentalists, the needs of the autonomous individual can also work against the achievement of the type of collective decision-making needed to restore balance between humanity and habitat in this finite world. This idea is dealt with throughout this Theme, but especially in article

Citizenship, as a liberal aim of education, is equated with civic education. Developing citizenship involves educating the young about the local, state, and national governments, rights and responsibilities, laws and institutions. The teaching of patriotism and values education may be included in this aim. Citizenship can be equated with the process of socialization. In many cases, citizenship takes a back seat to the development of the intellect through content area education. Some argue that education for citizenship must be balanced with freedom of conscience. Once again, the struggle in liberal education is between the needs of the individual and the needs of society.

Following the liberal democratic tradition, education is viewed as those learning activities that enable individuals to live a good life. Traditionally the development of the self, based on reason and the achievement of autonomy, has been central to this good life. However, questions are raised throughout this Theme as to the present and future costs of this good life, especially in relation to the excessive and unsustainable consumption and production of the west. Excessive individual consumption is certainly not a requisite in the development of self. In fact, many theorists realize that relationships are necessary to the development of the self. Social activities give meaning to life, and responses to these situations develop individual identities. A defining characteristic of being an individual is personal relationships. Education is not an individual endeavor. The good life should encompass the social practices that give satisfaction and fulfillment, but refrain from putting an unnecessary and excessive burden on the earth’s finite resource base. Individuals are made human by their transactions with other individuals. The good life is a social life characterized by relationships with nature and others. Therefore, education that promotes the good life should be the initiation into these social practices that are critical, reflective, practical and sustainable. The interdependence between individuality, society, and nature is directly linked. It is impossible to separate the social and natural worlds that make up human realities.

Along that line, it can be argued that educational aims should perpetuate desirable qualities such as mental health, happiness, and creativity. Education is a socialization process aimed at reforming the individual and making them better humans. According to many, this process involves the shaping and directing of students’ interests, capacities and habits towards the greater, less individualistic, purpose of support and contribution to the social well being of society. In this regard, it is the acquisition of certain social skills that will enable individuals to get along and work together for the common good, which in the current age demands a collective decision-making process that will aid in creating a better balance in the use of natural resources between humanity and habitat, and between the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth. The knowledge, values, skills and habits acquired through formal education are part of the social heritage that binds individuals together. It is in a social setting where students are transformed into happy, healthy adults who appreciate the common good and a more sustainable future. Modern schools should provide the type of forum where these transactions can take place.

In the liberal democratic tradition, the development of nationalism is another aim of education. Education assists in the development and stability of a nation-state. Schools support the existing political and economic system in the nation-state. In a country like the United States, this translates to republicanism, liberty, and equality. According to one perspective, schools perpetuate the idea of the United States as an association of independent citizens. Individual progress is essential to national progress. Schools also develop national unity while promoting economic development. Public schools, as state institutions, reproduce the existing culture through the formal and hidden curriculum. Education fosters legitimacy for certain forms of knowledge, especially abstract knowledge that detaches individuals from local place, and western scientific knowledge. But, it also helps to transform many societies through a system of meritocracy that values achievement over class or social standing. The fact that education reinforces the modern mind set, with appropriate values, norms and expectations related to consumption and production, and denigrates traditional knowledge as somehow less worthy, is considered by many ecologists and environmentalists as one of the biggest obstacles in the achievement of a universal education for sustainability. Modifying and resisting modern concepts related to education and society is the primary subject of Topic of this Theme.


4. Competing Analysis of Educational Aims

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