Looking for a Renewed Focus on the Purpose of Education

Oct 12, 2017

As a high school senior, I have noticed a lot about learning and education.  The biggest issue I am seeing today is that there is a change in perspective on the purpose of education and the way students approach learning.  

Instead of pursuing learning as a valuable, enriching experience, many students think only to the future and disregard the present. This mindset is hurting education and making it a competitive sport. Students only take classes to look good for colleges, and one-up each other in grades.  Instead of finding their passions and enriching their minds with what they love, students are thinking only about financial security and college reputation.  These students see failure as unacceptable and set ridiculous standards for themselves, leading to inevitable stress. This issue is why we must re-evaluate the question: What is the purpose of education?

To find out more about how people feel about this issue, I headed to the streets of Portland this summer.  The first answer I got lined up with the competitive mindset: a woman responded with: “to make people smarter and allow them to get a good job.” Financial success is very important and education absolutely sets many people up for college and careers. 

The problem is that the motivation for research and education should not be getting a stable job; it should be about getting excited in the present moment about knowledge that sparks our interests and helps us discover our passions.  Success is looked at from the wrong direction; many look at financial security and then analyze what needs to happen for them to reach that, which traces them back to perfect grades, and one-upping their peers.  Life should be looked at from the other side, what is happening right now, and what excites me?  Jobs and finance will come in the future, but we cannot skip over everything else that makes life exciting.

To my surprise, I found a lot of people who shared my views of the purpose of education. I spoke to a young woman who mentioned that we cannot evolve without education. This is one of the underlying principles of the issue; when we make education a competition and don’t accept failure from ourselves, we cease to work as a community, and only work as individuals attempting to outshine each other. This halts progress in society, and closes doors that could have helped us understand different perspectives and ideas. As one woman noted, the purpose of education is to “expand our horizons, deepen knowledge and open us to new ideas and thoughts.” If we treat our peers as competition, we lose them as knowledgeable individuals with with valuable insight on the world.

I have personally known many people who go beyond occasional grade comparisons; they continually use grades to judge their peers’ intellect.  Some students use their superior GPA as a reason not to go out with friends or experience their time as a high schooler. They do this because they feel the need to keep their reputation up in order to set themselves up for a successful future. 

This ideology is depressing, because what it really does is set up a work ethic that is so unbalanced with other aspects of life, that it creates workaholism. This may well be a temporary lifestyle, but the real sadness is the lost opportunities that fly by these young people. These students might miss out on what it is like to be an emotional high schooler: they miss out on all those life-changing experiences and mistakes that help people learn about themselves and grow into better people.  They miss out on all those memories just so that they can say they did better than everyone else.  

A peer of mine was also working on a piece about education for Raise Your Voice and we did street interviews together during a summer writing workshop in Portland. He was asking what the most valuable memory or experience was that people got out of high school. Most of the answers were about lessons learned through relationships with people. Those relationships and experiences should not be thrown out as unimportant to future success. I heard many local Portlanders speak about how those social experiences and relationships were the most valuable memory of their high school experience.

This new perspective might be generated by the unnecessary gravity that many place on the importance of undergraduate college study. Many high school students believe that their undergraduate major decides their future.  This misconception is definitely a major contributor to the new competitive approach to learning. 

Many students don’t understand that undergraduate study is purely a chance to explore your interest, and learn about the world. My mother was a philosophy and romantic languages major, and she went on to law school. This is just one example of how undergraduate majors are truly just a jumping off point for the rest of your life. College does not define our future. At the end of those four years, we will have a baseline of information that will help us to contribute to society and follow whatever path inspires us. 

If this was made clear to high school students, there would likely be less competition in grades because getting into college would be seen as less of a deciding factor of what students get to do for the rest of their lives. As one man I spoke to pointed out, education ensures that “when you’re 30 and the job you trained for is done, you can still think and be a broad-minded person.”

Students truly need to open their eyes to a bigger perspective on the world. Education is about more than just getting employed; it is about opening our minds to new perspectives and ideas, helping us to become informed and engaged members of society. Education helps to bring people together to talk about issues and gain new points of view. If people forget about these enriching values that can be gleaned through education, we will lose creativity and individuality. 

We need people to care about more than just being better than others. We need to see education as a way to grow and learn from each other. Students should see spending time with their friends as a valuable opportunity to form relationships and learn from each other, not a distraction from their “real work.”  Education and schooling is not king of the hill, and if students could understand that and collaborate, we would be building a future for society, not just individuals.

Jesse Pearlman is a senior at South Portland High School. He produced this piece during the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Portland sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.