Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Philosophy and Ethics/Purpose

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“The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.” –Plato, The Republic
What is the purpose of schooling?

What is the purpose of schooling? That is the question, isn’t it? Neil Postman said, “without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention” (1995, p.7). Therefore, school must be given a purpose, but how is that done? It proves to be as difficult and contestable as the purpose of life. There are many reasons why there is schooling and why it is essential, but some also argue, no longer necessary.

For the purposes of this article the words schooling and education are used interchangeably, many people try to separate them as having very different meanings. This is simply not true, schooling as well as education, can take place anywhere at anytime. Schooling is not a building; a school is called so because schooling, as well as education, takes place there (See sidebar).

Education: the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school.

Schooling: education or training received, especially at a school.

(Oxford American Dictionary)

Is School for Knowledge?[edit]

If asked, most people would say that the purpose of school is to provide knowledge, but the question becomes what knowledge and who should decide. Is learning for the sake of learning what school is about? Learning expands the mind and school is a way for students to be exposed to different ideas and concepts. Knowledge obtained through school can provide students with a sense of personal fulfillment (Education).

“It seems to me, that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.” –Martin Luther King Jr (1947)

It is argued that anything learned in school could be learned on your own (Gatto, 2005). In the modern day of the Internet and with vast libraries of knowledge available to us, this is very true. There then becomes a problem of motivation. What would make someone want to learn math or science? Does a child just decide someday that they want to learn all about Chemistry? (Postman 1995) It is not an issue of what information is necessary, but an issue of exposing students to different ideas that they can choose to grow and build on. It is teaching them how to learn. Education should expose students to information and teach them how to think not tell them what to think. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction” (1947).

Is School for Producing Citizens?[edit]

It has been said by many that public education is for the purpose of producing Americans and “maintaining our democracy” (O’Brien, 2005, p 34). “A democratic state requires the education of critical, thoughtful citizens who can define their own purposes and are able and willing to act upon their ideas" (O’Brien, 2005, p 34). This knowledge is required to keep the United States a democratic nation and the way to make sure all American citizens possess these skills is to teach them in educational institutions.

School is a shared experience in life that helps to develop students into Americans, as well as, the knowledge of how America works, how America got here, and what it means to be a citizen (Roosevelt, 1930). Some do see it as way to control students or teach them only to obey (Gatto 2005). This may be the case in some schools, like a school system in Florida, which is teaching the idea that the American way is the only way as part of their defined curriculum (Postman 1995). It is widely agreed upon that one of the purposes of school is to understand our country and how it works, either as a way to operate in society or question and change it. It makes it possible for students to control their own future.

Is School for Getting a Job?[edit]

Not everyone has the opportunities or wants to go to college. Therefore, a purpose of school must be to give students the skills to get a job. This means that education is a way for anyone to support him or herself and economically contribute to society (Education). Some of these skills are taught in the basic classes everyone takes: reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is also vocational education, which is extremely important to the lives of students who do not enjoy academia. Just because a student does not like school does not mean that the school should ignore them. It is the school’s responsibility to educate all students and prepare them for their future.

Is School for Socialization?[edit]

It is argued that any of the above items can be learned on your own (Gatto, 2005). As stated earlier, the issue of motivation and outside circumstances does provide a problem with this theory, but what can replace the socialization that a student receives in school?

“Schooling at its best can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living” (Postman, 1995, p. x).

Einstein said that the school’s responsibility is to educate the individual as a free individual, but to also educate them to be part of society (Haselhurst, 2007). Students are around hundreds of people their own age and this teaches them how to act in society and how to communicate. This is helpful no matter what they do with their future and nothing can replace those skills. Being in a school with that many people also exposes the student to people who are different from him or herself and this is extremely helpful in anyone’s development as a human being and a better member of society (Postman, 1995). Professor Nel Noddings said that school’s aim is “to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people” (Kohn, 2004, p.2).


The answer to all of the above questions is, yes and so much more. The answer to the purpose of schooling is everything. It is not all about testable knowledge; it is about life experience and possibilities. Thomas Jefferson conceived of education as “the ideal of offering all children the opportunity to succeed, regardless of who their parents happen to be” (Hirsch, 2006, p 30). That is the true purpose of education, it offers the student options and allows the student to make the choice of what they want to do or be. American society is no longer structured to hold anyone back based on his or her class in society. Schooling provides a place to begin and grow. “The purpose of public education is to help the young transcend individual identity by finding inspiration in the story of humanity” (Postman, 1995, p 171).

What did you learn in school today?

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Putting students in a group where they have to work well together in order to get a passing grade is an example of what purpose of education?
A. Citizenship
B. Socialization
C. Knowledge

B. Socialization

Having students register to vote during class and holding mock elections is an example of what purpose of education?
A. Job Skills
B. Knowledge
C. Citizenship

C. Citizenship

Learning basic math skills fulfills what purpose of education?
A. Job Skills
B. Socialization
C. Cultural Enrichment

A. Job Skills

Reading Shakespeare and Plato are examples of what purpose of education?
A. Job Skills
B. Citizenship
C. Knowledge

C. Knowledge

Holding a series of multicultural events would be an example of what purpose?
A. Socialization
B. Job Skills
C. Citizenship

A. Socialization

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

Do you think the current American school system meets the purposes of education, why or why not?

I think that the American school system meets the purpose on one side but fails to meet it on the other. I feel that American schools are probably the best school in the world and we generally do a very good job of preparing our kids for college and teach them well how to prepare for test so I do think that we meet the purpose on that end but however I do not feel that we meet the requirements for the other side of education, preparing the child for the real world and what is needed from them once they exit high school and decide not to go on to college but to enter the work force and the tools needed to make them competitive in the work force. I will give you an example. I went into a grocery store a while back and give the girl behind the counter $20.00 for a purchase that I had made which total $15.55. The cashier had a hard time counting my change back because her cash register dial was broken and would not tell her the right amount of change to give back. I politely asked her why she did not have the knowledge to count the money back to me correctly and she told me that she had always used a calculator in school and could not count without one. That's a sad story but it depicts a lot of the kids today. Sure we teach them how to do math as well as other things but i am worried that we are also just teaching them enough just to pass the test and are not preparing them for real life. —Harold Irby Jr.


  • Education. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2007 from
  • Gatto, John Taylor. (2005) Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. (Rev. ed.). Canada: New Society Publishers.
  • Haselhurst, Geoff. (2007) Philosophy of Education. Retrieved September 19,2007 from
  • Hirsch, E.D. Jr. (2006). The Knowledge Deficit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • King, Martin Luther Jr. (1947). The Purpose of Education. Retrieved September 19, 2007 from
  • Kohn, Alfie. (2004). What Does it Mean to be Well Educated? Boston: Beacon Press.
  • O’Brien, Leigh M. (2005) Social Foundations of Education and Democracy: Teacher Education for the Development of Democratically-Oriented Teachers. Educational Foundations. 33-44.
  • Oxford American Dictionary.(Version 1.0.1)(2005) Apple Computers.
  • Postman, Neil. (1995). The End of Education. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor. (1930) Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education. Retrieved September 18, 2007 from
  • Plato, The Republic, Book III 403c, Penguin Classics (1955)