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Purpos/ed and the social shaping of technology

February 21st, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I’ve been enjoying the Purpos/ed debate on the purpose of education. If you have not seen it Purpos/ed aims as a “non-partisan, location-independent organization … to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?

Although they say they have a three year plan, the first action, e daily 500 word blog by invited participants, has proved lively. Even more encouraging seems to be that those not on the ‘official’ list, are blogging, linking and using the Purpos/ed logo. And a Spanish language site is likely to launch in the near future.

I am down to contribute my 500 words sometime in March. But I cannot resist commenting on the contributions so far. Most people have focused on education for creativity and liberation, for self fulfillment, for personal development, for expressing hopes and desires. Contributions have been open, personal and optimistic.

Most seem to be loosely based within an Enlightenment idea with education promoting critical thinking and reasoning and the development of knowledge through sensation and reflection.

These are all worthy ideas with which I cannot disagree. But if Purpos/ed is to open this debate, we need to go further. Within advanced industrialized countries education has become seen as largely a means of providing the skills and competencies needed by the economy. I suspect many of the contributions to Pupos/ed are a kneejerk reaction against such economic reductionism.

Yet education does have an important economic and social purpose in our societies, and potentially a purpose that goes beyond the mere drilling of employability skills. Education is intrinsically linked to knowledge development and to innovation. Many of the contributions to Pupos/ed seem to have been framed within a overtly academic approach to learning. Yet education could have a key purpose in helping people to shape and control the use of technology within society and through that the forms of production within our economies. Here vocational and technical education have a central role to play. Yet within the UK we have largely ignored vocational education. essentially education provides a credential prior to starting employment. And thus the link between learning and work becomes lost, in terms of our understandings of the role and organization of work. Indeed the provision of employment is subject to mysterious forces of the world economic system or the global needs of capital.

In exploring the purpose of education, we should not shy away from the links between education and the economy, but rather subject the nature and form of those links to a more radical critique. That inevitably involves exploring power relations, it also involves looking at the whole schooling system.

For me the purpose of educations should be to allow us to collectively control and shape our society. But that means education itself becomes embedded in that society, no longer the prerogative of the walled gardens of the educational institutions.

More (and hopefully more coherent thoughts) to follow.

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One Response to “Purpos/ed and the social shaping of technology”

  1. Doug Belshaw says:

    Thanks for this, Graham – I like the way you encourage us not to polarise the debate between academic and vocational but instead focus on the underlying power structures. Got me thinking. 🙂

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