Is true education a mental training or a preparation for special pursuits?

By Shareefa Mowlana. Shareefa is a writer. She lives in Dehiwela, Sri-Lanka. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

What is the main object of education? The word “education” is derived from the Latin word meaning “to draw out”; and true education is to draw out the mental faculties, not a mere “putting in” of knowledge. An educated man is not so much a man who knows a large number of facts but a man whose intelligence has been awakened and whose latent powers of observation, reasoning and thought have been trained. Education is the development of the special and general abilities of the mind.

There is, no doubt, much to be said for vocational training or technical education in schools. Previously there has been too little of it, but it is being introduced into the training of students more and more. People often criticize the whole system of school education as not being practical enough. They recognize the value of reading and writing and some elementary arithmetic, for these will be wanted in later life; but they say much of what children now learn in school will be of no practical use to them afterwards. Why, they ask, should so much of the children’s time be taken up in learning useless subjects such as history, geography, grammar and bits of literature? Such subjects will not help a student earn his own living. This attitude assumes that the main object of education should be to train the pupils to earn a living when they grow up. Their time at school should be devoted to learning carpentry, metal-working, weaving, book-keeping and accountancy, business correspondence, farming, engineering, or any other craft or trade. Then when they leave school they will be able to take up a job at once and earn an honest living. School education should be practical, a preparation for some special pursuit.

Such people seem to misunderstand the meaning and purpose of education. If school education should be narrowed down to mere vocational training, it would miss the whole point of true education. Education is a method for developing and training the mental and moral faculties. Vocational training, while a desirable thing in its place, is by itself altogether too narrow a training to take the place of real education. At best it develops manual dexterity, attention, carefulness, and pride in good workmanship. But to draw out and develop the mental faculties, a much broader kind of education is needed. When will students ever want knowledge of Algebra, for instance, or ancient history, or theories or philosophy? They do not realize that the study of any subject is meant to develop and exercise the pupil’s mental powers. Knowledge of history for example, may never be of any practical use in earning one’s living; but it broadens the mind, gives it the right perspective of life, creates interest in human affairs and progress, and so humanizes and refines the student’s mind.

The subjects which practical people label as unnecessary are a form of mental drill or gymnastics. In the gymnasium you practise on the parallel and horizontal bars, the rings and the “horse”; though your life may never depend on your ability to turn a somersault on the bars. These physical exercises are meant to develop muscles and give you physical strength and agility. So your studies are meant to develop and train your mental faculties which, if trained, will be of the greatest value to your life. They give a mental training that purely technical education could never give.

This mental training begins at school. It is carried further in university, which provides what we call higher education. Taken rightly, this higher education has many valuable advantages. First, it gives the student higher knowledge of certain subjects; a desire for knowledge, and an interest in the search for truth. It awakens the mind to the wonder and mystery of the universe in which we live, and a thirst to know more about it. Secondly, it still further trains the intellect, and develops thought, logical reasoning, the imaginative and critical faculties. Thirdly, it imparts culture, the cultivation of taste for the best in all things. It turns an educated man into a cultured man. Lastly, it will influence the rest of a man’s life, so that he will eagerly continue education, which will never cease till he dies.

9 comments on “Is true education a mental training or a preparation for special pursuits?

  1. Fabian on

    The article is a hopeful prayer for a better education system than a strong advocacy to overturn the misguided practices of our times. It is weak on its prosecution for the lives, and generations lost at the altar of profit.


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