Horace Mann, a man often regarded as “the Father of the Common School” and a major proponent of public education, back when it was a revolutionary concept, was the first person ever to cite education as “the great equalizer.” That this phrase has become a cliché both in and out of the classroom should be telling of how true it’s regarded to be by educators and lawmakers alike. Something that’s hardly ever addressed, though, is the question of what the role of education actually is. Should it serve to prepare students for the adult world, wherein they’ll be saddled with jobs where they’ll need skills X, Y, and Z to survive until the end of their shift? Or should education stimulate their minds and encourage them to be open-minded both in logical and social terms? Should students be given a ‘toolbox’ with which to solve the problems that life will place before them? Or should they be taught and encourage critical and creative thinking to come up with new, unconventional solutions where the traditional ones fail?
For example, all students are taught the conventions of language and are familiarized with some culturally significant (even if a bit dry) reading material. All students are expected to be able to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and barring some more politically-charged subjects (such as the causes of the Civil War in the United States); education on some parts of history can vary in content and quality depending on where in the country the student is receiving their education. However, all students are expected to know the ins and outs of major historical events. Standardized tests that bar a student from graduating if the minimum requirements of both curriculum and mastery aren’t met ensure (at least at the moment) that when they walk across the aisle to accept their diploma, their brains are full of information that the system has deemed not only necessary but vital to being a successful adult.
Thus it could be argued that education is meant to prepare students for working life.
But then there are the more specialized and advanced subject matters: the realm of higher education. There are, after all, subjects not covered sufficiently in a high school classroom. A simple diploma or a GED are hardly indications that a student is qualified to represent someone in court. Someone who can say with confidence that they have passed pre-calculus during their senior year is not necessarily qualified to design buildings or engineer space shuttles to fling probes into the outer reaches of the solar system. There are subjects offered, too, that serve no immediate practical value to students looking to get even a 9-to-5 at their local supermarket, such as various art and music courses, theater, psychology, or sociology. The list goes on. These arts encourage creative thinking and are used as an outlet for the more – well, artistic impulses of students. The social sciences encourage analysis and thinking critically. Both serve to broaden the mind, even if they have no immediate value to a burger-flipper at McDonald’s. Such pursuits are often heralded as the end-goal for educators. Every teacher wants to be able to say that they played a role in making the next great author or writer or philosopher or politician who they are today.
Thus it could be argued that the role of education is to broaden the minds of students.
So where does that leave us? Very rarely in life is there ever a simple, clear-cut answer to a question such as this one. And even more rarely are questions taken as black-and-white or this-or-that. So, the answer to the question of what the role of education is (or should be) in our society lies somewhere between the extremes.
Education must prepare students for the working world; that much is certain. There is some knowledge that is required to perform useful tasks, be it as a cashier at a retail store or as an accountant for a large corporation such as basic mathematics and language skills. There are some skills that are required for people to be able to hold intelligent conversations; given that most if not all jobs require some form of human contact, social skills are necessary for survival in any workplace. Workers, too, should be able to communicate intelligently with their managers, their co-workers, and whatever clientele that business may attract. Whether it’s a man who’s craving a good cheeseburger, a family looking for help with filing their taxes, or a doctor sitting down to talk with a patient, it doesn’t matter. And needless to say, students have to know where they have come from to know where they’re going, which necessitates the learning of history even more than the notion that those who do not learn it are doomed to repeat it. Progress is not a straight line, but there are trends in history which can help to put into perspective societal problems that plague us today.
But education also needs to serve to broaden the mind. UNESCO agrees with this sentiment, stating that education “should be a means to empower children and adults alike to become active participants in the transformation of their societies” and that it should instill in people knowledge and values that “enable them to live together in a world characterized by diversity and pluralism.” It could be argued that this should be the job of higher education. Unfortunately, the two notions put forth by these two seemingly-separate schools of thought are inexorably linked; any educational system that has failed in its duty to do one has failed to do the other. While the ideal scenario is that they strive to do both, failing to broaden the minds of students enough that they can adapt to and interact appropriately with diverse people who they might meet once or one hundred times is a categorical failure. People can and will be exposed to people who are different from them in terms of race, sex, gender identity, or creed. Differing opinions, too, are something that they need to learn how to parse and deal with, without being wholly dismissive or confrontational. The educational system must open their minds enough so that these students can transition into a diverse world.
In conclusion, having an open enough mind that one can not only accept others for who they are but coexist with those with significant differences is as essential a skill in the workplace as arithmetic. Due to the ever-increasing diversity in today’s world and the establishment of a global culture through mediums such as the internet, refusal or failure of an educational system to acknowledge this is a sign of that system’s failure to provide a thorough education to the students within it. Education should provide a toolbox for students of all ages to draw from in solving their everyday problems. The value of the ‘toolbox’ approach shouldn’t be discredited by educators or those they strive to educate. However, neglecting their horizons, leaving their minds to be narrow, and never teaching them that things exist outside of their established paradigms can be just as fatal not only to their present success but to their future opportunities.