Archive for November 6th, 2011

The Purpose of School

Posted November 6, 2011 By Dave Thomer

Zac Chase of fame has been asking people to share their thoughts on the purpose of school. It’s one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and right now it seems like a task I can focus on.

I think school as an institution has two purposes, and sometimes they conflict.

From the point of view of individual student, the school should be a place that provides resources, structures and opportunities for personal growth. When I say personal growth, I mean an increase in the student’s ability to conceive a goal, formulate plan to accomplish the goal, and then carry it out. Some of those resources are purely intellectual. Learning how to read opens up a vast set of resources. Learning how to write gives a student new powers of communication and outreach. Learning about government institutions tells the student what to read about and whom to write to in order to understand or even change laws. Learning about science and math opens up all sorts of other possibilities.

Some of those resources go beyond academics. Some of them are emotional, as students learn to confront and overcome challenges. They experience the benefits of teamwork and, hopefully, the experience of relying on others and being relied on by others. I hope they have the experience of authority figures showing trust and caring for them. I also hope they gain valuable social resources – friendships and relationships that they can call upon in the future to help them achieve their goals. All of these are worthwhile and important purposes of the school for the individual student.

Society at large also has a purpose in creating and maintaining the school. Bringing large groups of impressionable people together, demanding that those impressionable people develop and display certain skills and traits, and reinforcing certain values over others are all things that schools do in order to mold the next generation and perpetuate the society in question. The way that I have phrased that may sound nefarious, but no matter how much individuality you want to foster, we need some level of conformity or society falls apart, and with it most of human beings’ potential.

Ideally, schools can provide a reflective environment in which social norms can be adopted and re-evaluated at once . . . even if that is an uncomfortable experience for many students, or one that asks them to rethink or even abandon some goals that they may have set for themselves. To reach that ideal, I think it’s necessary to give people permission to disagree. That raises a whole host of questions along the lines of “Can I tolerate someone else’s intolerance?” I don’t have the brainpower to pursue those questions tonight . . . but it would be great if our schools routinely provided the space to do so.