Was Sydney J. Harris Right?

By Maxwell Aladago. Maxwell, 21, lives in Accra, Ghana. He studies Computer Science at Ashesi University College

The debate over the true purpose of education is as ancient as education itself. This ideological tussle has yielded many contrasting views on the purpose of education such that there is still no definitive purpose of education in the 21st century. This essay therefore, is, but a contribution to the ongoing debate vis-à-vis the assertion by the renowned American journalist, Sydney J. Harris that “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” According to the Collins dictionary, “Education is the process of imparting or acquiring knowledge, especially at school, college or university.” It includes preparing oneself or others cognitively for life. A mirror can only reflect a person’ image back to him/her. On the other hand, a window when opened provides an infinite field of view a person enabling him/her to see other people. This analogy describes education in detail as it is a socializing force and also empowers learners to initiate positive changes in their societies, opens up opportunities for individuals and distributes knowledge and skills.

I start the discussion with a story of how education raises our consciousness to the true structure of society and empowers us to initiate a change. This is the act educationists call Critical Pedagogy.

Growing up as a child, it was a common practice for women in my community to stand beside their husbands while they ate in order to show reverence to the husband. It was very dehumanizing but they enjoyed the act. Besides showing that their husbands had the manly ability to control them, it was also a way of demonstrating that they were submissive enough to be wives. I loved listening to stories but I could not take part when my mother narrated stories to my sisters. I would have been teased if I took part. It was a common believe that, by nature women were innately inferior to men. I harbored and lived with this machismo until I took a course called Text and Meaning in Ashesi University College. There, I learned that, the idea of male superiority was not only a social construct, but also a fallacy. Honestly, I was shocked to learn that the biological formation of a person has little bearing on the activities he/she can and should perform. Also, not only had people been theorizing intrepidly to deconstruct ideologies which encourage the oppression of others in society, but I too had the power to change the world regardless of my gender or my race. Thus, by virtue of my education, I got a better understanding of societal interactions than the unenlightened in my community. Now, I can examine society from multiple perspectives. Actually, I did not discover anything new. I only got exposed to other people’s ideas, revealing to me the inequality in the world and in my society in particular. This is indeed the turning of a mirror into a window.

Anyone who has ever been a student is familiar with the axiom “Education is the key to success.” Although the path to success is not as straightforward as just getting into school, it is indisputable that an educated person has more opportunities than an uneducated person. Education helps people unearth and develop their latent talents, think critically and creatively, interrogate and communicate ideational content, develop the muscles of judgment, and learn new skills. By doing these, an individual’s capabilities are nourished, thereby positioning him/her well to take timely advantage of the countless opportunities that life offers. Essentially, an individual who is educated to be a computer programmer or a lecturer or a medical doctor or an engineer has more opportunities than he/she would have had if left uneducated. In the same vein, I have the option of either being a software engineer or a farmer, albeit a good farmer, unlike my uneducated father who can do nothing else apart from farming. Generally, education supports learners to discover and turn their hidden talents which are like mirrors, to useful skills proffering many windows of opportunity to them.

Furthermore, education is the singular channel for the transmission of knowledge and skills for the continuation of industrial, economic and political activities. For instance, unless through education, an archaeologist cannot pass his knowledge to posterity. As long as the skills and knowledge of an individual are not accessible to others, they are mirrors because they only reflect that individual’s capabilities. However, if such skills are transferred to others, then they become windows which many people can use simultaneously.

Nonetheless, turning mirrors into windows is not the “whole” purpose of education. Education has other functions. One of such purposes of education is the allocation of appropriate roles to individuals in a society. Thus, through education, it becomes clear who can best perform what. Also, education is a means of cultural production. The norms, values and the ways of doing things which form the common heritage of a society are passed from one generation to another through education. Besides, education exposes learners to other people’s cultures thereby promoting cultural assimilation. I would not have known anything about iconic people like Socrates, Aristotle, Lee Kwan Yew, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela, if I were not educated. Yet, all their stories have impacted my life and my community at large. Thus education, by acting as a pathway for both cultural transfer and cultural assimilation, creates cultures.

From the forgoing, it is clear that Sydney J. Harris’ avowal about the purpose of education is not a sophism. Education does turn mirrors into windows. Education has social, economic and moral purposes which are vital for the advancement of society. Education is a part of the solution to all global problems like poverty, ignorance, malnutrition and terrorism. It is high time education be taken seriously so that the mirrors of individuals and societies be turned into windows.

10 comments on “Was Sydney J. Harris Right?

  1. Wutor Mahama Baleng on

    Such a well-researched and well-written piece. I learnt a lot reading through this piece. I cannot agree with you more, I really like your succinct ending “It is high time education be taken seriously so that the mirrors of individuals and societies be turned into windows.”

  2. maaldu on

    Your piece is excellent and thought provoking. Education is a continue in all stages of life. It must be functional, if not it will be likened to an illiterate. Education is not limited to only reading and writing (literacy ) but all positive life experience which makes one to be useful to himself and the society in which he finds himself. I admire your research powers.

  3. Michael on

    This is very good bro. Indeed I am educated looking at your views on education. I would ahve loved to be told more about the modes of education you are considering. Is it only formal education?

  4. Aladago on


    Indeed, there are numerous forms of education. One can even argue that, there is nothing like an uneducated person, if education is defined as a process, or facilitation of learning. This is because, almost everything known to a person is learned. Only few are inborn. Nonetheless, this article, as indicated clearly in the introductory paragraph, considers only formal education cheifly because, the writer believes Sydney J. Harries was referring to formal education when he made the statement which this article is discussing.

  5. Cheye Maxwell Hudi on

    Brother, your article does not only educates but also entertains. It is really interesting. The appropriate diction sums it all. Education demystifies the pregnant world, thus changing society. I enjoy your writing skills.

  6. Sihle on

    I like essay and I agree with you to some certain extent. Indeed education can turn mirrors into windows but who decides what we see through this windows. I say this because I am not at ease with the way we are educated in Africa especially the idea someone needs to go to university to inorder to make a meaningful when only 5% of high school graduates in sub-Saharan Africa make it to university. What about the 95% and the litle education they have which they cannot utilise?

  7. Maxwell on

    A response to Sihle’s comments

    First of all, true education is that which makes the educated themselves windows. The well educated discover a lot of themselves, their perspectives of life is broad, and they have absolute control of their thoughts.
    It is true that, institutions and systems play a role in the way we reap the benefits of our education. Indeed, in Africa, people do not utilised the arsenal their education has given them, but it could be worse if they were not educated at all.

    To further clarify the point about education in Africa, I will like to acknowledge that, it is true education that turns mirrors into windows. For instance, we do not expect students who cheat their way out of education, memorize and reproduce during exams and who have little interested in the intrinsic value of learning to experience the edifying power of education. They are not even educated.

    Trust me, it is good that everybody should be able to make a meaninful life with or without education, but Africa would not have been where it is now, if the 5% did not get recieve some education. On the flip side, if they had experience real education, Africa would have been ahead of where it is now.

  8. Abdul-Razak Adam on

    Your article is really good and well researched. I love the way you brought out your ideas inline with the sayings of others.


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