What is the purpose of education? To express and exchange ideas about matters which concern us all. To exchange those ideas freely and openly without fear of ridicule, in spaces where we are respected equally. To be privileged to listen to the ideas of significantly knowledgeable others. To share and grow in our ideas. To participate in collective experiences, to grow in understanding and to make meanings. To learn about and respect other cultures. The purpose of education is to open the box and draw on the imagination of individuals and collectives in the passion for learning and to influence and shape our societies.
Sadly the reality of education is different. All too often education is based on divisions between those that have and those that don’t, differences of class and income, differences of gender and religion. Education is about conforming to the norm, heterogeneity, of fitting in to prevailing power structures and economic realities – realities dictated by the logic of capitalism. Education is institutionalization, testing and certification. And for those who do not conform, education is about rejection and failure.
Thus we see a very basic contradiction in the debate around the purpose of education. A contradiction between the provision of free or subsidized education to provide the factories and enterprises with sufficient skilled labour to produce profit and between educators and learners who value ideas and knowledge to shape and change society.
And technology is important. Educational technology has achieved little other than facilitating the management of learning. But the internet has allowed knowledge and learning to escape from the walled gardens of the institutions. Some forty years ago, Ivan Illich envisaged how we could use computers to deschool society and open learning to all. Freire developed the idea of a critical pedagogy where education meant the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. Friere wanted to overcome the dichotomy between the teacher and the learner, thinking instead of the teacher-student and student-teacher.
The internet provides us with rich and free spaces for expansive learning. The institutions only have left their monopoly on funding and on certification. And so capitalism has begun a new project. The first aim is to strike out at democratization of learning by privatizing education, by deepening barriers to equality and access. And the second more audacious aim is to privatize knowledge itself, to turn knowledge and learning into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other consumer good.
Thus we find ourselves at a turning point for the future of education. The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system. For those that believe in education as the practice of freedom there are two challenges: to develop a societal discourse around the purpose of education and secondly to develop transformative practice, as teacher students and student teachers.