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CFP: The Purpose of Education

 Published on December 1, 2015 /  Written by /  “Target locked” by Theophilos Papadopoulos; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  5

Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system. To the degree that this happens, we are also becoming submerged in a new “culture of silence.”
—Richard Shaull, Forward to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed., p. 33

Why do we teach? Is it to provide access to a community, ensure standards of excellence, share our love of a field, see the flash of insight in a student’s eye? Do we try and accept or exclude? Whose interests do we pursue in our classrooms? The motivations of faculty and administrators have combined to create an education system with peculiar goals. It often seems our schools exist to systematize the populace and ensure conformity — flying in the face of developing democracy and student self-interest. When we teach, whose side are we on?

Choosing sides demands a conscious decision and the determination to follow through. Teachers must choose to create classes and schools wherein students actively create their learning environments and control their own progress. We must consciously choose to be on the side of students. Preventing students from shaping their education removes the relevance of whatever education remains. If we want our schools to have meaning, we must empower students to be contributors, change agents, and creators in their schools. Placing students in a position of control over the shape of their education demands what Paulo Freire calls “a profound trust in people and their creative power.” We have an ethical obligation to help students harness, not repress, that power.

Overall, students must have a say in the decisions that affect their learning. For, as Freire says, “to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.” Academia must hold as its objects its studies, not its students. To do otherwise diminishes the value of education because the student is being asked to buy into someone else’s idea of what is worth studying.

The value of a college degree has changed — one might say deflated — over time. As Jeffrey J. Selingo notes, “coffee shop baristas with a philosophy degree are subjects of mockery.” And now, thanks to Arizona State University’s online programs, baristas without a philosophy degree can earn one on the house. Such large-scale collaborations address the affordability, though not the reputability, of a degree — two very different aspects of value.

The popular podcast Freakonomics tackled the subject in their two-part exploration of whether college is “really worth it.” In it, Stephen J. Dubner and his guests discuss how the market rewards someone who earns a degree and compare that reward with the ever-increasing cost of a college education. They even share some staggering figures about credit mills — companies that very literally attach only a price tag, rather than a program of study, to a diploma.

These very real economic considerations distract us from the larger discussion of the purpose of an education. We need to change the nature of the conversation away from economic terms and into humanistic ones. By addressing today’s conception of “value” in education, we seek to shift the focus away from financial benefit and toward human enrichment and increased consciousness.

We look to challenge the notion of what an education is good for and to explore questions such as these:

  • When we ask whether a college degree is “worth it”, what does that degree represent?
  • If we view higher education transactionally, what do our students get for their time, money, and labor?
  • When we ask students to devote four years of their lives to the pursuit of a goal, what exactly is that goal?
  • With the current widespread social support for STEM fields or “practical knowledge”, how can the liberal arts assert their value?
  • In what ways can critical digital pedagogy add to or ensure the value of an education?
  • How does education (elementary, secondary, or post-secondary) benefit students?
  • In short, what is education good for?

We at Hybrid Pedagogy have always operated in a precarious balance. We discuss academia, but we eschew many of its trappings. We don’t pull rank or stand on titles. We advocate for students. We challenge the presumption of authority. We work to build a community of pedagogues, rather than a committee of policy analysts. Join our community and help us define and determine the purpose of education.

This is a call to discuss, as pedagogues, education’s purpose and value — to our society and especially to our students. This is a call for declarations and examinations of intrinsic, though perhaps not explicit, value. It is also a rejection of the pernicious view of education as a sales transaction at a time of year when transactional sales preoccupy the popular consciousness. It is an effort to challenge the satirical sentiment of popular theater:

What do you do with a B.A. in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree

I can’t pay the bills yet ’cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place
But somehow I can’t shake the feeling I might make
A difference to the human race

— Avenue Q

Responses to this rolling call will be reviewed starting in 2016. All accepted responses will move through our open, iterative, collaborative peer-review process. Articles should be around 1,000–2,500 words and should clearly address issues of critical digital pedagogy surrounding the purpose and/or value of education, very broadly defined. To submit a response to this call, visit our submissions page. Direct inquiries to Chris Friend, Managing Editor.

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5 Responses
  1. An interesting issue raised here in passing is the imperative to be on the side of the students. The introductory quote implies a different imperative to develop an education that resists objectification (what used to be called alienation). And later there is a call for a new humanism in a heavily commodified system of education. What is the connection between these two imperatives? To resist objectification/alienation/commodification in education do we have to frame things as a struggle between teachers and students, obliging teachers to declare that they are on the side of the latter, publicly renouncing all teacherliness?

    Yes, teachers must be able to look critically at their deepest instincts (which might include the instinct to always have the last word or to always appear to know the answer, or whatnot), but so must the students. The students are not and were never outside the system – wholly innocent victims of something foisted on them by teachers. The logic of objectification mentioned in the opening quote was always evident on the nursery school playground. Rather than being antithetical to the deepest instincts of the child, there are respects in which the deepest logic of the system is perfectly in tune with the worst instincts of the infant (the male infant especially).

    Yes, there is a need to challenge. Teachers must be challenged. But so must the students.

    Might that not recall (in the minds of some with experience on picket lines and whatnot) the older imperative to be on the side of the working class. That imperative originated in the assumption that the workers had no stake in the system, and could therefore see the system for what it is: exploitative and alienating. That assumption hasn’t held for a long time now. They, and we, are all stakeholders. We have all been coopted into become co-creators of the same exploitative and alienating system.

    1. You’ve done a much better job of connecting those imperatives in your question than I did in my initial text. Thank you. My intention was to suggest that “our advanced technological society” makes it all too easy for teachers to serve only as extensions of the system in which they work, rather than as advocates for student self-awareness and development. Students may not be fully outside the system, but that doesn’t mean teachers must support the system’s efforts to impose conformity on the human capital subjected to that system.

      Along those lines, I will absolutely stand by the imperative to be on the side of the students. It is for them that the education system should exist in the first place. Education can exist for the benefit of conditioning compliance in students, or it can exist to bring out the abilities of students and help them develop those abilities for their (and presumably society’s) benefit. I’m convinced that an educational system that ignores this imperative is essentially tyrannical.

      1. Thanks for that reply, Chris. I sympathise entirely with your guiding intention to promote student self-awareness and see students developing their abilities to the fullest, but in my experience of teaching children (teenagers), and in my experience as a child, the demand for conformity came as much from within the children themselves as it was imposed upon them. Partly it is a matter of the worst tendencies of the social order being internalised, but in my urban childhood when the media environment exerted very little pressure on children it was shocking to see how the boys in particular insisted on just the sort of authoritarian verticality we are supposed to be opposing when we are on the side of the students.

        Yes, education must be about the flourishing of the younger generation, but as Hannah Arendt reminded us in her lovely essay on education, the process involves introducing young people to a very particular world in which that flourishing will have to take place. Teachers necessarily work with an ideal of what that world should be like – an ideal that will differ more or less from the inclinations of the students at the beginning of their education. You are insisting on a very horizontal ideal of the world in stark contrast to the vertical aspirations of my peers, obsessed with ordering everything and everyone according to a rank of winners and losers. To be on the side of a horizontal social imaginary entails the preparedness to confront and challenge (in the nicest possible ways, of course) unpleasant forms of verticality that students bring with them.

        1. And thank you for continuing the discussion here. My goal is certainly not to insist on a horizontal ideal, but rather to encourage it as a matter of resistance, opposition, and (most importantly) education. You spoke of the limited exertion of the media and the vertical hierarchy that developed among your peers in its absence. Could we then say that one goal of teachers is to make students aware of these hierarchies and to help them learn to navigate with/through/around them?

          Teachers won’t eliminate social hierarchies, and society wouldn’t function without differentiation. But we can help students be more self-aware and self-empowered to function within the authoritarian verticality you talked about.

          Fundamentally, this CFP serves as a question to which I’m seeking answers. I hope to encourage thinking about potential answers.

  2. I am really excited about this CfP. One of the things that I think is rarely highlighted enough is that being on the side of students is not the end of the battle because there are still power dynamics and other differences among students. Different students need different sorts of support to reach their potential. Different students may impose on each others’ freedoms or rights (intentionally or inadvertently?) in their process of making their own way. It’s really tricky to navigate the role of the teacher in all of this. And to go back to what it means for the role of education as a whole.

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