What students say education is for

Sometime earlier this spring I asked the students in my Digital Cultures class to each write down a sentence (on a post-it) about what education was for.

“Education is intended to improve people’s intellectual ability. What it really does is create arbitrary competition among people.”

“To gain knowledge, $$, and power.”

I thought their answers were quite interesting, partly for the interrupted way in which a healthy cynicism makes its furtive appearance, and partly because I suspect that my students largely fed back to me the stock narratives that the college was always feeding them (about critical thinking, opportunity, etc). In other words, the students always tell you what they think you want to hear. Or rather, since they rarely know much about you individually, what they think a generic professor would want to hear.

At the same time, perhaps I should give them credit for being quite idealistic on the whole about the value of education. Here’s what they said.

  • Education is for students to learn how to critically think. Being educated helps you understand the world and aspects within it.

  • Education is supposed to be for the expansion and knowledge of all people regardless of age, race, gender, or religion. However, education has become a privilege to those who can afford to pay for it and the access to resources.

  • Education is for the purpose of creating an elite status. Education (for the most part) accelerates an individual to success + subsequent wealth (usually). I think this is the motivation to pursue higher education.

  • To provide us with options, expand our perspectives & increase understanding/empathy. Also, to let us know how little we really know.

  • To learn – learning fosters personal & societal growth. So essentially education is for fostering growth.

  • To gain knowledge, $$, and power

  • Upward movement/mobility + to extend the mind

  • Education is intended to improve people’s intellectual ability. What it really does is create arbitrary competition among people.

  • Education is intended for ensuring that the mass population can make well-informed decisions in their lives, giving us the highest-functioning society.

  • Education is used to teach people basic knowledge or skills that will be beneficial for the future.

  • To learn & develop skills for your everyday life.

  • Knowledge = opportunity. The more you know the better.

  • Education is a tool to help those who receive it be able to use knowledge and information positively and with good judgment to better oneself.

  • to expand
    the mind

  •  To gain knowledge about a subject, often so you can find a career within that subject.

  • To show employers you have knowledge of a particular field.

  • To have a certain status.

  • It is to pass on knowledge so we can continue to build and grow our society.

  • It’s to help you become a more well rounded person, does it always work? Nope.

  • Choice that can give you choices (which you may not want to make) / To see the world with a more critical (less ignorant) eye / Opportunities to make change for yourself and others. Education gives choice and opportunity; it’s up to the individual to take it or not.

Reading back over their responses, I’m struck by the decidedly composite nature of many of these accounts. Many of them say in essence: learning is good in itself, and it serves instrumental functions (career, social change, money, etc). Really, it seems unsurprising that something as overdetermined as mass higher education would leave people with complicated feelings about its purpose.

It’s also interesting that many students want to preserve a definite distance between the self and the educational process. “Education… it’s up to the individual to take it or leave it.” “Education is a tool.” “Does it always work? nope.” In answers like this, education isn’t about the core of who you are. It’s about a process outside you that may or may not penetrate you. A humanist might exclaim here that all instrumentalism is alienation.