Often when we think about education, we imagine desks and chairs. Students filed in neat lines facing a board. The teacher stepping through directions from the lesson plan while students dutifully take notes.
Inevitably, at some point a student asks… When will I ever use this?
Think about this question and where it comes from. The only sensible context for it is when we believe school is about economic utility – finding a job. We are taught that the purpose of school is to prepare us for the real world. We then learn that the real world consists of evaluations, following directions, and coloring within the lines.
What child would be excited by this?
Our education has been laid out for us like a map: primary school, secondary school, university, internship, and finally work. We are given a set of directions to arrive at the final destination. However, only about 59% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students starting their bachelor’s degree finish within six years (1), with the top reason for dropping out being financial concerns. Factor in the rising cost of tuition with the academic inflation of the bachelor’s degree, and it seems like finishing a four-year program becomes less and less of a guarantee of financial well-being. Yet, we are sold on the idea that a college degree is the golden ticket to success and social mobility.
When employment is the purpose of education, a subject’s career-relevance becomes paramount. Moreover, some of us develop a mental dichotomy, dividing math and science from humanities, as if the subjects can be folded neatly into buckets, never mixing or playing, causing students to believe they are good at one thing and not the other.
The purpose of education should be akin to exploration—a burning curiosity and the optimistic belief that there is something better out there. We should be teaching students to ask questions and empowering them with the skills to find their own answers. Today’s tools and systems will not be sufficient to solve tomorrow’s problems. We need students to develop efficacy, agency, and creativity so that they may thrive in industries that don’t yet exist.
This is what makes the why of education so important. We need to ask this question as a society. Is it to create good workers, a civic society, the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs? Are we living up to the ideals of the American creed, learning the principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity?
This reason becomes our direction—our North Star. When you have a direction, a map becomes unnecessary because the particular path you follow matters less than the fact that your steps move you closer to where you want to go. Turn-by-turn navigation doesn’t work in uncharted territory. To grow beyond the confines of the known world, we must learn to use a compass instead of a map.
(1) U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083), Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students.