Aims of Education Address
The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 7, 2006
I want to thank President Bob Kerrey, our previous Provost Arjun Appadurai and all the Deans and Officers of the University for inviting me to deliver this year’s “Aims of Education Address.” I welcome Provost Ben Lee to his new position and thank him for that generous introduction. Most importantly, I welcome all of you—new students, returning students, graduate students and undergrads, parents, friends, family and others, and on behalf of all my colleagues I want to thank you for joining the New School family. Whatever your educational goal, we take our responsibility seriously to support, guide, and help you achieve it.
I have devoted most of my professional life to studying education systems and education policy here in the US and in countries around the world. I have also increasingly tried to play a role in affecting how policies are made. As I will discuss, studying education systems is not always the same in practice as studying the “aims of education,” although it should be. So, working on this address has brought me back to the core of what matters.
For me, The New School and the “Aims of Education” immediately conjured up John Dewey. I am sure you have heard of Dewey as an educational philosopher, a leader of the progressive movement, and an intellectual architect of Pragmatism, but you may not know his direct connection to our University. Here is a quote from our own university web page:
“In the aftermath of the First World War, much of America was playing it safe. Social criticism and modern arts were restricted or banished from many of the nation's cultural institutions, including universities. In response, a small band of unconventional thinkers—including historian Charles Beard, philosopher John Dewey, and economists Thorstein Veblen and James Harvey Robinson—imagined an educational venue where they could freely present and discuss their ideas without censure, and where dialogue could take place between intellectuals and the general public. In 1919, they published a brochure listing their lectures and opened The New School …”1
Dewey still looms large in the teaching philosophy at the New School. He believed that learning is rooted in experience and that knowledge derives from a process of inquiry and problem solving situations. So do we. For example, at the Milano School, where I teach, we work for real clients who have real problems and we go to Mexico and other countries if necessary to learn first hand about how to solve problems. Dewey called this "Active learning."
But what would Dewey think of what we now, as a society, define as the “Aims of Education.” Along these lines, the Educational Historian David Tyack asks us to “Imagine that the shapers of educational policy in the past were to wake up [today] as modern-day Rip Van Winkles…. John Dewey… who believed that education had no goals beyond itself—surely no targets of achievement imposed from the top down—is alarmed. Now national leaders assume…that the central purpose of education is to make the United States [or other countries] economically competitive.”2 A Darwinian world of survival by test score. Remarkably, Tyack wrote about this when George Bush senior was president, long before W’s No Child Left Behind act sought to leave no child untested, without much idea of what they should be tested for.
I will focus my remarks today on primary and secondary education, which I will sometimes call Basic Education. I will talk about the U.S. and other countries. I view the world in a comparative context. I don’t think you can understand something without comparing it to something else. As an aside, let me urge each of you to be as comparative, global, and interdisciplinary as possible in your studies. Do whatever you can to consider the different frameworks and visions other countries and other cultures have employed in studying and learning what you seek to study and learn. In fact, Dewey himself spent two years in China from 1919 to 1921 and this significantly changed the way he viewed the world and impacted nearly all his work after. In a word, it made him permanently less Eurocentric.3
Much of what I have to say also applies to university education. You should know, however, that I generally argue that governments should invest relatively more in primary and secondary public schooling and relatively less in higher education , because the returns to society from public investment in basic education are higher, especially for the poor. Yes, university education should be subsidized by the government in targeted ways, but largely left to private tuition and philanthropic support. And I know you all agree with me, since you have all signed up for a private university that charges pretty significant tuition. (President Kerry and the Deans, you do have to keep fundraising!) In fact, the U.S. is relatively unique in this practice. Less than half of the funding for higher education in the U.S. comes from government, where as the average in the developed world is over three quarters4. And in many ways our higher education system is still the best in the world, though there are disturbing signs that after decades of pre-eminence in higher education, our universities are resting on their laurels, resisting change and innovation in teaching methods, and losing ground through increased competition from abroad. (Not the new School of course, but…) Harvard University President Derek Bok’s new book tells us convincingly that our colleges are not doing badly, but they are underachieving.5
Our primary and secondary schools, particularly in large urban areas like New York, are often worse than underachieving. For example, in an international assessment of 33 countries, the U.S. ranked number one in spending per student, but 20th in student performance among 15 year olds.6 And it’s not just international tests where our schools underachieve. Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford Professor and former executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, has shown that “schools that educate all of their students to high levels of intellectual, practical, and social competence continue to be, in every sense of the word, exceptional.”7
How we educate our youth says so much about the fabric of our society, that each of you should be interested—whether you are studying fine arts, liberal arts, music, dramatic arts, a profession, or the social sciences. Dewey’s contemporary, the British Mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, said there was only one subject for education, and we all are here at the New School to study it: life in all its manifestations8
So what are, and what should be, the Aims of Education? Dewey stated in his 1915 book Democracy and Education that in a democratic and just society “the aim of education is to enable individuals to continue their education—or that the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth.”9 While not diametric opposites, this definition contrasts dramatically with what we now emphasize as the “Aims of Education.” There are many ways to categorize, but I would say that the aims of education can be put into three overlapping groups:
Human Development, including for example the impact education has on individuals leading healthier lives, forming families, etc. Social Development, creating social cohesion, social rules and social inclusion, and promoting and defining citizenship and democracy. And Economic Development, primarily fostering economic competitiveness and growth.
It is safe to say that the public discourse around education, both in the developed and less-developed worlds is dominated by the last category—economic development, competitiveness, and growth. In addition, as I will try to make clear, the many possible aims of education—both in theory and in practice—are contradictory and often competing. This is not bad. In fact, we learn a great deal about our society’s values, and those of others, by understanding how the competing aims of education are reconciled. So, it’s not bad, but it does make addressing the “Aims of Education” in 28 minutes without boring you to tears rather challenging!
It is helpful to think of two overlapping but competing dichotomies: one dichotomy is the personal vs. the societal (or as economists would say the extent to which education is a private or a public good). The second is technical skill development vs. cultural development.10 Right now, most countries emphasize the societal and the skills development sides of these two dichotomies over the personal and the cultural sides This is manifest in the dominance of the view that education is an investment in human capital. By Human Capital I mean the economic value of the time, personal skills, capabilities, life experiences, and knowledge of individuals.
Of course, human capital investment can be done well or poorly. First, since we don’t fully understand what creates human capital, we can’t always invest in it effectively. Second, even if we know the recipe, it is hard to implement plans effectively. Entrenched interests and bureaucracies often negate any well designed plan for education reform. For instance, certain groups of society may seek to use the education system for promoting social control; for these groups, the concern is not necessarily social welfare, or economic growth, but rather to sustain a status quo that privileges them.
Are there any Egyptians in the audience? If so, I hope you will take my remarks in the constructive light in which I intend them, because I have been working a lot on Egypt lately. In the past 15 years Egypt has made tremendous, even historic, progress. The country has, for instance, nearly eliminated the problem of low primary school enrolment largely by getting millions of girls into schools. This accomplishment represents a massive investment in human capital. Despite this progress, young people continue to suffer from high unemployment rates, with low workforce participation among young women. Why? First, labor market conditions are limiting the ability of economic growth to create large numbers of new jobs for youth. There is little education policymakers can do about that. But second, the quality of education is insufficient. Education policymakers could conceivably improve quality, but this is hard to do, because the current system favors elites and because entrenched interests benefit from the current system and fear change.
I have been brought to tears by seeing the incredible and complex state machinery in Egypt that takes as many as two thirds of their children and dooms them by age 16 or even earlier to very poor quality vocational schools, and a life with virtually no chance of going to university and even less chance of getting a satisfying and life sustaining job and livelihood. The other third fare only a little better, receiving a low quality education and then entering a labor market in which most will wait years for their first job. As a policy analyst, I may be able to understand the difficult position that Egyptian policy makers are in, and most I have met have their hearts in the right place. But that does not make me any less sad that generations of children have had their lives immeasurably altered by an undemocratic social order that supports elites, albeit in the name of security in a very dangerous part of the world. And I say this even though I might personally prefer the so-called moderate social vision of those elites.
Robert Arnove, a past President of the Comparative and International Education Society, wrote a book about Nicaragua (where I have done a lot of work) with an ingenious title, “Education as Contested Terrain.” It followed the social history of Nicaragua from the socialist-oriented Sandinista regime in the 1980s, through their shocking defeat by conservatives in elections in 1990—elections the Sandinistas never would have agreed to if they thought they would lose. He showed how both political movements used the education system as a tool for social and ideological control. Think of math text books that go from 3 contras plus 4 contras = 7 contras, to 3 hail Mary’s plus 4 hail Mary’s equal 7 hail Mary’s—and you get the idea. Education is, indeed, contested terrain.
I use these examples to illustrate that we must separate out the “aims of education” from the “aims of any given education system ,” because they are not the same, not if we think that the “aims of education” by the very nature of the concept are noble at their core.
As Paolo Freire said, education can be either an instrument of oppression or an instrument for liberation.11 Similarly, Dewey said that without the assurance of equal opportunities, the “influences which educate some into masters educate others into slaves.”12 And Martin Carnoy, a rare breed of leftist economists with a Ph.D in economics from the University of Chicago, has argued “that schools are at least as much responsible for the allocation of economic opportunities as they are for raising the value of the students who pass through them.” In other words, education systems create human capital but they also socialize “the young into an acceptance of their allocated place in society, and [create] social stability by convincing them that their allocated places are fair, just, and based on their own merit.”13
Separating out the intrinsically noble aims of education from the potentially less noble aims of an education system is not easy and will always involve value judgments that may make us uncomfortable. Consider for example this clear articulation of the Aim of Education by the Government of Brunei:
“To maximise the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, social and physical potential of every individual, for the formation of a developed society that is strongly founded on the Malay Islamic Monarchy philosophy.”14
I ask you, into what category would you place that aim? Is the intension to liberate or oppress? To create equal opportunities for all citizens? Most importantly, what will you learn about yourself and your own values as you consider your own answer?
Whatever the aims of education should be, anyone who has spent much time in the developing world would have a hard time arguing against growth, and now the link between quality education and economic growth is firmly established by a large and varied body of research. Moreover, even economists at the International Monetary Fund are increasingly admitting the role that equity plays in promoting sustainable growth. Turns out this is probably just as true in the U.S. as it is in Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, Korea, Pakistan, or Chad. So even if all one cares about is growth, one should be concerned about inequities in education. Of course, equity is a moral issue if not a fundamental right. W.E.B. Dubois put this so aptly:
“Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental…. The freedom to learn… has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn”15
So powerful in fact that it is shocking to most of my students when I tell them that the U.S. constitution is virtually silent on the matter of education. Furthermore, in the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District, Justice Lewis Powell’s majority decision established, and I quote: “Education, of course, is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution. Nor do we find any basis for saying it is implicitly protected.”16 Unquote. Nowhere in the constitution, the Bill of Rights, or any subsequent amendment does the word education appear, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Federal role in education is tiny. Less than 10% of the money for Basic Education comes from the Federal government.17 The average central government in the developed world provides more than half. Education in the U.S. is paid for and governed by states and municipalities. We have one of the most decentralized and inequitable public education systems in the developed world. We must remember this even as we celebrate more than fifty years of relative freedoms and improved equity resulting from the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
In fact, in the U.S., education is perhaps the only institution that seriously addresses inequities of birth—the cruelest and most unfair of all handicaps. For those whose “luck” was to be born poor, failure of education virtually dooms them to remain poor and disenfranchised. This is not likely to change anytime soon—we do not apparently believe in redistribution of wealth, a fact made abundantly clear by the changes in public finance and the tax code over the past few years. So education is perhaps our most important weapon in redistributing opportunity, which is the kind of equity we seem to support as a society.18
We also ought to be concerned about inequities in education systems around the globe, because these threaten the economic and social prospects of poor countries, which is both unjust and brings with it a host of long term problems for the U.S.—from threats to our global economic hegemony (which we have both a moral and a self-interested obligation to handle wisely), to increasing resentment among youth in many countries, and on and on. Like many neo-classical education economists, I generally believe that money is not usually the most important factor for improving education quality or equity. It helps, but especially in the U.S. and other developed countries there are other obstacles and challenges to tackle first, such as improved accountability, outdated curricula and teaching methods, reduced administrative expenditure, and some flexibility in human resource management.
But, this is less true for that part of the developing world where many, about 2.5 billion people, about 40% of the world’s population, live in poverty. Less that $2 a day. Sure, improved governance is crucial, and many of the poorest countries on earth are also the most corrupt. However, for the extreme poor of the world, money almost in and of itself can make a big difference. And not much money at that. The world’s developed countries have set a goal of devoting 0.7% of GDP, less than one per cent of their overall national economy, to development assistance (not just education, but all development assistance). The U.S. devotes 0.17 %, less than 20 cents out of every $100. Economist Jeffrey Sachs tells us poignantly, quote “The $450 billion that the United States will spend this year on the military will never buy peace if it continues to spend about one thirtieth of that…to address the plight of the world’s poorest of the poor, whose societies are destabilized by extreme poverty and thereby become havens of unrest, violence, and even global terrorism….[T]he question isn’t whether the rich can afford to help the poor, but whether they can afford not to.”19
And beyond money? How specifically should we promote education reform at home and abroad to improve the equity and quality of education for all? That is one of my favorite subjects, but, alas, I am getting near the end of my time, and the issues are too complex. In a nut shell—in addition to improving governance and accountability; streamlining reorganizing, and challenging the educational bureaucracy; and other strategies I have only been able to touch upon—I would say that the soon to be released World Development Report 2007 comes pretty close to capturing the guiding principles: Opportunities, Capabilities, and Second Chances: Broaden the opportunities for human, social, and economic development—all the aims of education—and for the young to gain the competencies they need to succeed in these aims.
Develop their capability to choose well among these opportunities
Provide an effective system of second chances through targeted programs that give young people the hope and the incentive to catch up from bad luck—or bad choices.
The fact that you are sitting in this room listening to me and preparing to embark on your chosen course of study puts you in a small intellectual elite, especially when viewed in a global context. It also tells me that you have received or acquired Opportunities, Capabilities, and Second Chances. Your academic pursuits will, I hope, bring you pleasure on their own (much as John Dewey would have advocated). But they also bring with them a moral responsibility to help impact the world in a positive way. (I know you agree, or you would not have chosen to come to the New School.) Doing this will require that you become more educated, become a more critical thinker, and strive however you can to help others around you do the same. As the father of a 4 year old and a 2 year old, I feel the stakes are high. More than anything, becoming a parent has made me more forward-looking.
This summer I read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and my wife read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The first is a book about how what Perkins calls “the Corporatocracy”—a conspiratorial mix of industry, government, and the global financial aid community (places like the World Bank)—has solidified the economic dominance of the U.S. in developing countries. The second book is about how far removed we have become from the way in which our food is supplied and how industrialized food (especially meat and corn) is now produced in a way that is neither healthy for us nor good for the planet. The two books appear to be about radically different topics, with little focus on education (or, you might think, little relevance for my address), but they are not. First, both are about how the United States’ voracious use of oil threatens the environmental stability of the planet, the social and economic vitality of many cultures, and brings great pain and suffering to both humans and animals in many parts of the globe.
Secondly, both books are a call to action for individuals. They recognize that each of us must start to live our lives differently, and that our children and their children will increasingly have to do so. The key to being able to do this—both authors argue—is to be educated. And this, I will leave you with, is the most important Aim of Education—to help individuals think critically so that both individually AND collectively they can lead just lives and take right actions that will help move the societies and cultures we are part of in the right direction—a direction that may not always be clear but that we must work hard to understand and discern.
Becoming educated in the right way, however, is not easy. You are likely to find yourself stuck between two competing aims of education—and also stuck between the aims of education and the aims of the education system. That is, a key goal of education is to preserve the social order, while the education these two authors are espousing will have to challenge that social order. This is not something to cry about, or even to blame the government. It is what it is, and it is in the very nature of people and their institutions. Rather, this is a challenge to recognize, and rise to meet. To cite Alfred North Whitehead once again: “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change.” We need to achieve the art of progress. You need to help achieve it. The noble aims of education and the aims of our education system can be brought together harmoniously through you. To paraphrase Dewey once more: education is not merely the means to a moral life, education is such a life! 20
So, work diligently, think broadly but also focus on details, learn how to “shed details in favor of principles,”21 learn a vocation that will bring you personal reward, and discover how you can spread the benefits of your education beyond yourself in both economic and cultural terms. That is our aim for your education here at the New School, and I hope you will make it yours.
2 David Tyack, "School Governance in the United States," Chapter 1 in Hannaway, Jane & Martin Carnoy. Decentralization and School Improvement: Can We Fulfil the Promise? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pubs., 1993: 1-32.
3 Jessica Wang, Dewey in China. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, forthcoming.
4 OECD, Education At a Glance 2005, PARIS: OECD, 2005.
5 Derek Bok, Our UnderAchieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
6 The test referred to is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results are “combined scores” from the 2003 test. The spending data come from OECD Education at a Glance 2003and this comparison is drawn from Chart 2 in Eric A. Hanushek, “Why Quality Matters in Education,” Finance and Development 42(2), June 2005 available at www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2005/06/hanushek.htm (accessed 8 August 2006)
7 Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997, p. 2
8 Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, NY: Macmillan Company, , 1964, p. 18
9 John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, NY: The Free Press,  1997, p.100
10 This framework is derived from Douglas Mitchell and Ross Mitchell, The Political Economy of education Policy: the Case of Class Size Reduction, Peabody Journal of Education 78 (4) 120-152. (2003).
11 Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Continuum International Publishing Group ( 2006).
12 Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 84
13 This characterization of Carnoy’s work (as well as that of a few others) is drawn from Mitchell and Mitchell (2003) and personal conversations with him in 2001.
15 W.E.B. Dubois, “The Freedom to Learn,” 1949, cited in Darling-Hammond, p. 1.
16 Cited in Douglas S. Reed, On Equal Terms: the constitutional politics of educational opportunity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, p.7
17 OECD, Education At a Glance 2005, PARIS: OECD, 2005.
18 I owe thanks to Robert Kaestner (University of Illinois at Chicago), who provided the key insights for this paragraph.
19 Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, NY: Penguin Press, 2005. The data in this paragraph are also from this book.
20 Dewey, Democracy and Education, pp 359-60.
21 Whitehead, The Aims of Education, p. 37.