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What is the Role of Education?

By Barrett Brooks

Note from Dave: I wanted to share this article with you for a couple of reasons. 

First, Barrett Brooks is a young man who is going to have a great impact on this world. He already is, actually, through his work at Fizzle and his blog at BarrettBrooks.com. (He's one of few bloggers whose work I consistently read.) But Barrett's impact is just beginning; you're going to someday be reading a book in the tradition of Daniel Pink's Drive or Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, and it's going to be a book with applications to education and way beyond, and you're going to look at the author's name and you're going to be like, “Oh, this is written by Barrett Brooks. Dave Stuart told me about that guy one time. Cool.” I said it here first. 

Second, and more importantly, what Barrett writes about below is the point of education. And his opinion matters to us because 1) we're very interested around these parts in what we view as the point of education — the long-term flourishing of students — and 2) he's not an educator in the sense that you and I are, yet 3) he's created a careful, thoughtful exploration of what education is about.

Without further ado, here's Barrett.



Illustration by Lindsay Gilmore.

In 1837, at the age of 51, Horace Mann accepted an appointment as the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, becoming the first secretary of a board of education in the history of the United States.

Just one year later, in November 1838, Mann penned the prospectus for The Common School Journal, which would become one of the most influential sources of pedagogical theory and ideas in the world. Mann would use the journal to propose ideas like the separation of faith and education, public funding for schools, and the need for well-trained teachers.

In other words, Horace Mann might be one of the single greatest examples of leadership in the history of the American education system. By finding the courage to lead, he has had impact on nearly 200 years of education in the United States.

Whether you agree with the principles he instilled in our system or not, it would be hard to argue with the courage, grit, and servant's mindset necessary to see so much of his work through.

Since Mann's time, education has continued to be a hot topic of public debate and an important issue in state and federal elections. That has continued to this day as the conversation shifts toward student debt and the potential for access to a free college education for all.

I'll leave it to you to host a discussion on the merits of universal post-secondary education amongst your friends.

In the meantime, it might be useful to consider a question: what is the point of education? Not just a college education, but education in general. From elementary schools to Harvard to Udemy, what can we hope to gain from the education of society?

The Focus of Education

Throughout time, we've seen an amazing variety in focus in our education “system.” By system, I mean the prevailing standard of education during a given time period. We've seen the focus placed on:

  • Trade – the model of apprenticeship, job training, and hard skills has been a focus of education since the middle ages. From blacksmiths to carpenters to bakers, apprenticeship is a period of three to six years for a person to learn a trade. The apprenticeship model has taken different forms over time, including vocational training and more.
  • Religion – parochial schools have existed as long as education has existed in the United States. They have served as institutions for learning religious practices and moral decision making, as well as more common education topics.
  • STEM – the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math that has become the fetish of policymakers in modern times, with the goal of preparing students for modern jobs that take advantage of technological advancements.
  • Liberal Arts – tracing back to ancient Greece, the classic education in grammar, logic, and rhetoric has grown into the study of history, art, music, philosophy and more in today's world. The value in a liberal arts education is often framed as “learning to learn” or “appreciation for culture.”
  • Basic literacy – arguably a subset of the classic liberal arts education, this dates back to the earliest U.S. public schools, which focused primarily on literacy and basic arithmetic. This grew into the study of science and history as secondary education became more common and the curriculum expanded.
  • Professional – the emergence of medical schools, business schools and more led to the equivalent of vocational training for white collar jobs.

Of course, education has had many aims beyond just these few. My point is simply that the focus of education has changed quite a bit over time and run the gamut from moral religious education to the study of public accounting.

The Purpose of Education

If these have been the focus of education over time, I'm not sure that entirely answers the original question: what is the purpose of education?

Each of these foci suggest that there is a “right” system for educating the next generation of humans. But what if the uncomfortable reality of the matter is that there is no right answer?

“If we just teach children to code, they'll never be unemployed,” we kid ourselves. “If only our children had a stronger sense of morality, there would be less pain and suffering in the world,” we proclaim hypocritically.

What if STEM is a fruitless endeavor? What if the Common Core is a fool's errand? And what of the reality that any technology we teach school children today will likely be irrelevant by the time they land their first internship?

Likewise, what if parochial school is the fastest way to build a generation of jaded young adults who lack a sense of faith? What if morality cannot be taught in a course, but only observed in the world around us?

These are all straw man arguments, of course. I ask these questions because I don't think we question our assumptions enough. We don't consider that we might be getting education seriously wrong and, in the process, imposing a generation's worth of flawed thinking on the world to come.

Would we not be better served to start with why we want to educate humans and then build a curriculum to suit that need?

Six Principles for a Better Education?

What if we started from a set of principles? What if we designed our education systems to build better humans by focusing on an adaptable set of skills? The kind of skills that lead to self-directed learning over the course of a lifetime.

Or, in other words, what if education is not about the subjects studied, but the capacity to lead.

Equipped with the right mindset and tools, any child can turn into a leader capable of starting a company, leading a government, raising a well-adapted child, or simply taking the initiative to do no harm in the world.

So if I were starting today, these are the principles I would use to design an education system. I have no background in public teaching, education policy, or pedagogical theory. I don't know how we would transition from a test-centered culture of education to a principle-centered culture of exploration. But I know that as a lay-person, these principles seem to make sense:

  1. Literacy – basic reading and arithmetic are, and always will be, the foundation for learning. They are the source of basic self-confidence as a learner and more essential than ever in a world of self-directed learning.
  2. Research – in a world where every book in history will one day be cataloged by Google; where any fact can be found in seconds; where any calculation can be performed automatically… the key skill will not be memorizing information, but accessing it. Organizing it. Interpreting it. Research will become the foundational skill for all future learning.
  3. Exposure – shove HTML down a child's throat, and she will learn to treat code as one of those things “she'll never use again.” Expose a child to a variety of topics and tell her that code will help her build her own thing related to the topic she loves most, and watch her teach herself to code. Children (and adults for that matter) don't need to be forced to learn topics, they simply need to be exposed to enough topics to find one they can get lost in. And if they don't learn the history of the industrial revolution, oh well! We'll get over it.
  4. Leadership – every child should experience the joy and possibility of serving others through leadership. What does that mean? It means that every child should be named captain of at least one team — not given a trophy, but given responsibility and encouragement to lead. Every child should be taught to make their own rules. Every child should be encouraged to define their personal values, build emotional intelligence, and taught to communicate what they think and feel. They should be shown that leadership is a trait available to anyone and it is a choice to embrace it. They should be warned that leadership comes with risk, that evil people will try to deny their ability to lead because of their skin color and accent and culture and gender and a million other factors. And that leadership matters because of this reality.
  5. Design thinking – a thoughtful, human-centered framework for solving problems and evaluating the results. For trying, failing, then making it better, then trying again. Design thinking can be used to solve any number of problems and it can be taught in the absence of expensive technology that inevitably favors more privileged schools.
  6. Sustainability – the simple fact of the matter is that children of future generations can no longer take growth for granted. They can no longer use resources in the way we have to this point. They have to be taught to build sustainability into everything they do. They need to know the importance of taking care of the earth and of each other. They need to know the consequences of everything they do.

Post Image- BarrettBefore we make any more commitments to systems like Common Core or universal post-secondary education… it could be helpful to reach an agreement on the answer to a simple question: education for what?

There is no way to teach all that a person will need to succeed in the world of infinite access to information and the exponential rate of technological advancement we will continue to experience as a society.

The best we can hope, and perhaps all we could ever hope from a great education: Show people their own capacity, and give them the confidence and courage to lead.

I think we would be amazed at the results of a system designed on principles, not on tests. There is no test that will gauge a person's ability to be a good human and protect the world for future generations. Why do we pretend that there is?

7 Responses to What is the Role of Education?

  1. Bonnie Player April 2, 2016 at 10:26 pm #

    This is so refreshing to read. I teach Career Dev. and Life Skills in an Alternative High School and your philosophy mirrors much of my curriculum . I am constantly under fire for not having “rigor” in my lessons. I teach them communication skills, living on your own, setting goals, the Art of Persuasion, GRIT and I am constantly reminded to toe the line with state standards, Make Thinking Visible and the flow of new and “better” curriculum.
    I love your message. Thank you, Bonnie P

    • davestuartjr April 4, 2016 at 7:22 am #

      Bonnie, it sounds like you’re doing a great job promoting the long-term flourishing of your kids. We can always improve our instruction and our use of class time, but those pieces that you’re teaching are key — unfortunately, they are also under-taught in schools today.

    • Barrett Brooks April 4, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

      It sounds like you’re doing important work, Bonnie. Thank you — we need more dedicated educators taking this kind of approach to caring about the why and how of education.

  2. Sara Carbone April 3, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    Great article – I heard Barrett interviewed on Pat Flynn’s podcast (smartpassiveincome.com) just today (along with his two cohorts at Fizzle) and was so very impressed by how much he is guided by a genuine desire to nurture the spirit of creativity and curiosity in others. Big-hearted, intelligent guy..

    • davestuartjr April 4, 2016 at 7:21 am #

      Absolutely, Sara — you nailed it.

    • Barrett Brooks April 4, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

      Thanks so much for sharing my work with your audience, Dave. I sincerely appreciate your words of encouragement. It means a lot coming from you and I can only hope to validate your confidence in me. I hope this article sparks good conversation :).

  3. Charles Griffin April 5, 2016 at 12:52 am #

    The 2 typographical errors weakened your ethos, but that seems petty. Also, your view of parochial education as a part of the American existence as opposed to the spiritual motivation to inform and explain existing and thriving long before the recent addition of rhetoric from the classical Greeks.
    I am more concerned with your emphasis on leadership. I was a private in the army and started studying leadership through college, ROTC, rowing and being coached on a crew team, earning a commission, returning to coach, 23 years of teaching, and 3 as a high school department chair. Not everyone needs to lead; many need to follow a leader to get things done, and they are responsible for where their leader takes them. Is leadership the important element, or is it community/society/belonging? I see sustainability growing out of that sense of being a part of something bigger. Human nature categorizes others as belonging or being the other, and I see a goal of education as breaking down the instinct of defining the things and people we encounter as an other, and finding the belonging of those things and people we encounter.
    But in the end, I find that I agree with Dave that you raise Important questions about our basic purpose as educators adopting to the changing needs of our students and our society.

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