The ultimate goal of education is…?

Growing up in an Asian immigrant family, I learned to value education, which meant that doing well in school was a minimum requirement of being a good son. In other words while other kids got cash rewards for getting over 70% on their report card, my reward was that I was not punished if I got over 80%. Consequently, I learned, even if originally out of fear, to be disciplined in my studies. I learned that if I studied hard, thought hard, worked hard, I could achieve excellence. And this attitude has served me well.

From the award-winning documentary, Manufactured Landscapes.
From the award-winning documentary, Manufactured Landscapes.

Schooling, however, is not the same as education. Years later, most adults will admit that school was not all that useful in helping us deal with the ever-changing challenges of life. We may rationalize what we learn. Didn’t we learn basic language and arithmetic skills? Didn’t we learn to “stick” with it?

There is no doubt that learning basic skills and knowledge is necessary, but let’s pause for a moment and ask, what are we educating kids for?

If we are training people to be good, obedient employees to work in corporations to improve the economy, then the conformity demanded by large classrooms and standardized tests certainly meet the task. Often the goal of education is to cram as much information as possible into the students’ head and thereby keep them from exercising their own judgment muscle. As Ken Low would say, “Schools teach kids the need to be taught.” (This quote originally came from Ivan Illich, an educational critic).

On the flip side, focusing on the kids’ desires and wishes and letting them do whatever they want without guidance is irresponsible. These kids, distracted and undisciplined in their thinking, are unable to exercise their powers. Worse, if they’ve been cocooned in a bubble-wrapped playroom to keep them “happy”, then they learn that everything comes easily and everything bows to their whims, when life rarely does either.

If the goal of education is to develop ethical thinkers who take on the responsibility of creating a better future for humanity in an uncertain and dangerous world, schools have to equip kids the time, space, and guidance to learn how to learn. Certainly, they can’t be expected to do it all. Nevertheless, they are an important part of a person’s education. John W. Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon, puts it succinctly:

“The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else. Not only does education continue when schooling ends, but it is not confined to what may be studied in adult education courses. The world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who aren’t afraid of her.”

Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society

Don’t misunderstand me. I have had some amazing teachers who opened my thinking and sense of wonder. There are many who strive to do what they can within a system. However, the rapid and accelerating changes taking place around the world demands a higher level of education that develops the character and capacities of the individual such that they will be able to figure out what needs to be done.

Is this even possible? Start with these books by – Erin Gruwell and Deborah Meier – and you’ll believe it is possible.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

2 Replies to “The ultimate goal of education is…?”

  1. There was a part in ‘Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) on education and how the system (certainly in N. America) ingrains the idea that mistakes = failure/stupidity. That creates a fear of risk, which is the basis of experimentation and subsequently innovation. Failure teaches that learning takes effort & discipline. Since learning about human ‘groupness’ the fear of being labeled a failure and the stigma it creates in our society must be a terrifying prospect – that people will be shunned from their group of ‘successful’ people. Just imagine the feeling of having a broken heart … it’s a very similar idea. I guess the question is how to reform the education system to welcome failure within the educational field and treat it as a learning experience, and the gateway to future innovation?

  2. Thank you for your article on education, Chris. I beleive we have a way to go in developing an intelligent person, not just an educated one. Through my work, I have heard many people across Alberta talk of what capacities people will need in the future, and “problem solving” is always mentioned, but we talk little of problem identification. For example, in science and math, we provide opportunities for children to “solve problems” by giving them a challenge and then providing them with equations and formulas to get the correct answer. As a learner, I always wondered where these formulas came from. As an older learner, I longingly wish for the days of “here’s the problem, now solve it”. In our messy world of community and humanity, our problems are not packaged so neatly. Just figuring out the issue, challenge or opportunity is very difficult and we often land on the symptoms, then work for the quick fix, putting bandaids on it. The abilty to apply discipline and depth of understanding to our messy world to correctly identify the most significant challenges is another capacity we need – one we don’t focus on very well in our education systems.

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