Through the looking-glass

By Reza Ghahremanzadeh. Reza, 26, is a student at Queen’s University Belfast.

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” – Sydney J. Harris.


I believe that education can offer you freedom, a heightened sense of awareness, the opportunity to elevate yourself, and the opportunity to reflect. Connections between these positive ramifications and the symbol of the window could certainly be made. And this seems to somewhat validate Harris’ stance on education. However, I would argue that the mirror as a symbol is very significant – and that it too can offer you these things. I would also argue that the structure of the quotation—particularly the inclusion of the phrase “whole purpose”—renders it quite dubious.

Everything in life is subjective. Everything. We all have different viewpoints, opinions and beliefs. Therefore, I have reservations about the way in which Harris’ quotation is worded. The purpose of education for one person might be vastly different to what someone else believes. And what’s more, there is no barometer for measuring the rightness or wrongness of any individual’s perspective. What I personally think is great about education is that it gives us the opportunity to learn about our differences. This, in turn, creates a less ignorant and more tolerant society.

The concept of transformation, or transmogrification, as JK Rowling would put it, is clearly an important element of the quotation. The idea of something changing is interesting. This could essentially be seen as a metaphor for the mind when it is immersed in the realm of education. The mind is constantly growing, expanding and, in essence, changing. It could certainly be argued that the expansion of the mind is a fundamental role of education. However, it is also significant to mention that an important aspect of education is to help students understand and comprehend simply what is, not necessarily to turn something into something else.

The idea of mirrors and windows as symbols cannot be overlooked. The image of the window is inextricably linked with the concept of freedom. It gives us the freedom to look out, to examine the landscape, to climb out, to jump. It’s no coincidence that the phrase “window of opportunity” exists. Education is an effective tool in the manifestation of opportunities, and this lends itself to the notion that Harris’ hypothesis holds a great deal of truth.

The fact that Harris argues that mirrors should be turned into windows implies that the symbol of the mirror is inferior to the symbol of the window. The window places emphasis on the “other”; the mirror places emphasis on the individual. The reflection offered by the mirror is truer than the one offered by the window – the mirror is the physical embodiment of truth. It is extremely important, in my opinion, to look in the mirror and accept everything about yourself – both the strengths and the weaknesses. It is only when this self-acceptance has been achieved that the individual is able to completely focus on their educational journey. The window may be the desired destination, but the mirror is where it must begin. Everything in life begins with you!

I previously mentioned a well-known phrase regarding windows: “Windows of opportunity.” It’s interesting that one of the most well-known phrases regarding mirrors actually has a negative connotation. The phrase that I’m referring to is “Smoke and mirrors.” In this case, the mirror represents deception, distortion and obscuration. If looked at from this angle, you could clearly put forth a case that education can be used as a tool to help eradicate society’s evils (the mirrors) and replace them with pristine windows of opportunity. But the argument that I would counteract this with is that some of the more unsavoury components of life are inevitable, and unfortunately they cannot be turned into anything else – not even with the aid of education. The majority of politicians and world leaders are extremely educated, but it goes without saying that a lot of the time they cannot turn a negative situation into a positive one. (They’ve also been known to make a negative situation even more disastrous! But that’s a topic for another essay!)

To summarise, it is clear that the hypothesis that this quote presents is highly subjective and open to debate. I think that Harris should have emphasised the notion that perhaps one of the main purposes of education is simply to provide people with the cognitive tools to debate issues, express their individual views and understand the world around them. The mirror as a symbol has positive and negative attributes; the window as a symbol has positive and negative attributes. Therefore, as this essay has demonstrated, you could argue for and against Harris’ quotation. Education, in my opinion, offers you liberation through knowledge. It gives you the skills, the power and the information that you need in order to make your own decisions. If you want to

step into the world and turn mirrors into windows, you’ll have the qualifications to galvanise that goal. If you have a different objective, then your education will also make you better equipped to tackle that particular goal. I can see the beauty of the window. I can also appreciate the beauty of the mirror. After all, it certainly didn’t stop Alice from having a plethora of educational adventures…

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