What is Education for?

What is education for? is the title of a chapter by Roger Marples in Richard Bailey’s ‘The philosophy of education’. In this chapter Marples discusses, briefly, a number of different emphasis that the practices of education might take. In this short note I shall focus on only a part of the first section of Marples’ chapter and refer more specifically to the concept of education elaborated by the influential philosopher Richard Peters. I shall then quote the summary of Peters’ concept of what it is to be educated that has been sketched by the distinguished philosopher of education, Robin Barrow.

Marples introduces his readers to the question, ‘What is education for? with a sobering reminder: he notes that the UK government spends a huge amount of taxpayers money on education and children are expected to (and usually do) spend a minimum of 11 years at school. However, if one were to ask the taxpayer or virtually any member of the public what schools were for the answers would vary considerably. Since everyone in the country is affected by the behaviour, attitudes and values of school leavers and since schools and schooling actually have (or should have) a ‘profound influence’ on the belief systems and dispositions (the habitus) of those same young people it follows that everyone engaged in the ‘delivery’ of the curriculum might ‘do their best’ to ensure that pupils are equipped with the appropriate knowledge, understanding, skills (both practical and social) such that they can make a valued contribution to a late-modern industrial and service-oriented society within the fundamental context of a liberal democracy. Given such an investment Marples considers that we have a ‘right to expect’ such a valuable contribution. With this as background, and in contrast to the educational systems and structures of previous eras, Marples invites his readers to dwell on the question: what, today, should schools be concerned to achieve? And more generally, he asks, ‘Towards what should education aim?’ He begins his consideration of the aims of education in a section that asks two questions: What is ‘education? and, ‘Must an educator have an aim?

Marples immediately remarks that these two questions engaged the attention of the hugely significant philosopher of education, Richard Peters, who thought that ‘to be educated was an end in itself’. It is not a means to something else and cannot be compared to the acquisition of ‘know how’ and/or the kind of knowledge that enables a person to do specific things. (This includes whatever it is that furnishes us with the wherewithal to make money. ) Education, for Peters, is logically connected to that which is intrinsically worthwhile. On this account, the most important thing towards which our school and educational systems should aim is the genesis of educated persons. The question which is automatically raised is, ‘What is it to be an educated person?’

Marples quickly moves on to provide an outline of Peters’ criteria for ‘being educated’ – a summary similar to that noted by Barrow (2011). However, as is so often the case, I think that studying the original source is really indispensable if one is to gain a thorough understanding of the argument or meaning embedded in the text; and it is certainly worth pausing and referring to Peters’ (1966) original work, ‘Ethics and education’ in which he carefully explores the idea or concept of education itself. Reference to this original work is particularly valuable because not only does Peters help his reader to grasp more clearly what education entails but also because he grounds the concept in the moral framework of a liberal democracy. Moreover, at the level of conceptual analysis, Peters provides what might at first sight be a somewhat counter-intuitive account of ‘education’ in virtue of the fact that he resists giving too much concrete detail about the content or processes of ‘education’. However, as his argument unfolds he provides a number of illustrative examples concerning how an educated person may be transformed by whatever it is that he or she is learning and how an interest in something specific (such as ‘boats’) may lead on to ‘avenues of exploration and appreciation well beyond the object itself. It is also valuable because Peters depiction of the educated person confronts his readership with the unsettling question: Am I really that well-educated?

Of education itself, Peters highlights the fact that it does not aim towards anything extrinsic to itself and that being educated implies something worthwhile; whatever is done in the name of education should be pursued in a morally acceptable manner. Embedded in the concept of ‘education’ is the idea of developing one’s potentials as well as one’s intellect and character. He particularly emphasises a clear distinction between education and training – and points out that ‘we’ would ‘normally use the word ‘train’ when we had … a specifiable objective in mind.’ By contrast, education cannot be tied to any such specifiable objective. If education has aims then they are cast in a very different form to those of training; the concept of education entails a process concerned with the development of individual potentialities and/or the development of intellect and character. In a sense, it is plausible to say that ‘education aims at itself.’ There is, in Peters’ opening chapter devoted to the idea of education and being educated, a specification of the criteria that define what it is to be educated and this includes the need for both knowledge and understanding, the idea of ‘looking at things differently’ as a result of the genuinely educational experience and a consideration of how an educated person integrates their knowledge such that they ‘see’ its relationship to the wider world.

After his close scrutiny of Peters’ texts Barrow summarises the formal criteria for ‘being educated’ as follows: ‘Peters suggests that an educated person is to be distinguished from a trained, skilled, or a socialised person by four characteristics. All have some kind of knowledge or understanding but [first] the educated person has not merely facts or information but also ‘some understanding of the principles for the organisation of facts’; s/he is, secondly, not merely unthinkingly able to regurgitate facts such as historical dates, but is to some degree in some way affected or ‘transformed’ by this knowledge. He or she sees the world differently than s/he would otherwise have done as a result of this understanding. Thirdly, the educated man must care about the standards imminent in (to) his field of interest. An educated person takes seriously the standards and procedures of science, for example, and is not merely cognisant of them. Finally the educated person does not simply have a field of knowledge but what Peters calls a ‘cognitive perspective’, meaning a wider framework such that, for example his scientific knowledge co-exists with historical and cultural understanding.‘ (Barrow 2011: 13)

This is a good summary – but it remains just a summary. In Peters’ original text ‘Ethics and education’ some of the fine detail of the various criteria are described and this illuminates and clarifies the kind of sketch that both Barrow and Marples provide. Overall, I think that any close reading of Peters’ work, is challenging and unsettling because he obliges his reader to consider the level and type of knowledge that they have in relation to any particular subject. He forces one to become conscious of the conceptual schemes one may (or may not) have in relation to organising and making sense of the facts and information that have been accumulated. He confronts us with respect both to the achievements of our intellect and the desirability of our character. He also finds that ‘to be educated’ is to have achieved an intrinsically worthwhile state of being – rich or poor. But, I cannot help feeling that his concept of ‘being educated’ now seems to run up against some of the countervailing norms and values of our wider cultural emphases. I have the impression that although schools do their best to inculcate desirable states of mind as well as the various intellectual powers and the virtues of good character (i.e. they try to ‘educate’) a wider societal ethos of ‘get what you can’ counters and subverts their best endeavours.

1 thought on “What is Education for?”

  1. Dear Rob Interesting I read Benn and Peters at Essex in 1966 – Social Principles and the Democratic State – and suspect that it may be the same Peters. Clever chap. The difference between education and training came up at Bramshill. How I wish I had pushed my distinction between pure and applied policing, as in mathematics! Best wishes Peter PS I am re-reading the art of war. Fascinating! >

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