What is the purpose of Education?

by Annelise Mitchell July 27, 2017

What is the purpose of Education?

We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.”

This reality doesn’t dawn on you until you are in your job or profession for at least a year but when it does, it is a bloody sore realisation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American scholar, saw this dilemma almost 200 years ago.

The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.”

We don’t go to school to get educated, says Emerson. We go there to get the skills we need to enter a profession.

What Emerson saw as the reality of 19th-century educational institutions is still a truth for anyone leaving formal schooling today, including teachers.

Of course, many will say that the role of Education should be to prepare you to get a job. And that you only gain real-world knowledge once you get out there, practising the job you have been learning to do. My colleagues and I called it learning through the “School of Hard Knocks.” And for us, it was a baptism of fire.

But after a few hard years, many of us felt awfully let down by the Education system. The day-to-day realities of the job – the poor behaviour of students and some staff, large class sizes, the relentless focus on assessment, etc. – caused many of us to leave. We either blamed ourselves or the system, and if we blamed ourselves we were in for a world of hurt, but if we blamed the system, we imagined an education utopia that must have existed in the past. Where real learning took place and teachers felt valued for what they offered the world.

But was Education really better in the past?

A quick glimpse of the history of Education through the eyes of Emerson reveals that things haven’t changed all that much since the mid-nineteenth century.

Emerson, himself having experienced teaching and learning in schools, describes the conditions for teachers in the mid-19th century.

You have to work for large classes instead of individuals; you must lower your flag and reef your sails to wait for the dull sailors;* you grow departmental, routinary, military almost with your discipline and college police.”

Emerson foresaw the temptation of large systems to “govern by steam:” where the student is treated like a product on a factory line, to be assessed and reassessed. Like a machine or automaton getting ready for sale.

Our modes of Education aim to expedite, to save labour; to do for masses what cannot be done for masses, what must be done reverently, one by one.”

It is the Education system’s factory-line design that Emerson identified as problematic for teachers and students, and it is this very design that causes so many teachers to leave teaching within their first five years.

Why did Emerson leave teaching?

Emerson, like teachers today, didn’t leave teaching because of the lack of money. In fact, Emerson was more than adequately compensated. But, like so many of us, Emerson left because he saw clearly that for him to remain the person (or educator) that he wanted to be, he had to leave. He did this again later after drawing the same conclusion when working within the ministry.

It is a conclusion that you no doubt have at least thought about. If you stay in the job you are currently in, you risk becoming someone you don’t want to be. But to leave would mean facing the same “terrible freedom” that Emerson faced once having handed in his resignation.

"It is awful to look into the mind of man and see how free we are … Outside, among your fellows, among strangers, you must preserve appearances, - a hundred things you cannot do: but inside, - the terrible freedom!"

Emerson’s decision to leave was not without consequences.

He got sick and was in the throes of despair for at least a few months as he flailed about from one thing to another. His whole family were on high alert, worrying themselves sick about his future. What made it worse, is that his family wanted him to go back. To each one of them, Emerson had left a guaranteed social position that promised him institutional affiliation and support for the rest of his life.

Emerson knew, as many educators today know, that if he stayed in the position of Boston minister, he would have all he needed to provide for his family and become a contributing member of society but he would not be expressing who he was. He would be forced sooner or later to conform and silence forever his inner voice. A price that was too high and for Emerson meant certain death.

To Emerson, the purpose of life and education is to grow into who you really are. And you can only grow through direct experience in the world. Direct experiences that you have chosen through being guided by your natural enthusiasm.**

The world, - this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself.”

A safe job in the ministry was not going to provide Emerson with the freedom to explore ideas. Worst of all, it would silence his inner knowing. He was faced with a dilemma that every educator will face. That you may be facing right now. Emerson no longer believed in the traditional teachings of the institution that he worked within. He wanted to tell his audience the truth. The truth as he experienced it.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force.”

As Boston minister, Emerson’s truth conflicted with the traditional teachings of the church. Not completely and utterly, but enough to make him realise that if he stayed, he would be conforming to views that were not his own. He would become a “parrot of other men’s thinking.” He would also be a cog in the industrial machinery, ready to be spat out when used and abused.

It is this conflict that causes many teachers to leave the profession of teaching in schools. (This may already be your experience.) You may love building relationships with your students and sharing ideas, but the bureaucracy and politics of the system feel like it is hanging you out to dry. What is worse is it feels like you are merely an enforcer of assessment regimes.

Many teachers in Australian schools also no longer have intellectual autonomy. Their lessons are dictated by an external curriculum body. This body outlines the exact requirements of what students will learn. If they are caught teaching something that is not in line with what other teachers are teaching at that exact time, they will be reprimanded.

This is far beyond what I went through when I started teaching. I, like my colleagues, had the freedom to create our own lessons and even entire units. In fact, in my first five years of teaching in North Queensland schools, I created all my own resources.

In today’s classroom, teachers don’t have anywhere near this level of autonomy. They are not allowed to create their own lessons. They are provided with the same lesson that every other teacher will be teaching at that exact time. They can “choose” to deliver their lesson with more flair or not, but it will be the same content and worksheets no less.

Of course, the reasoning provided to teachers sounds legitimate. “It would be unfair for students to have unequal teaching experiences,” they assert, “where some teachers are teaching different content than others.”

Emerson would have seen this diatribe as “tampering and thwarting and too much governing.” But most of all, he would have seen it as the institution’s attempt to silence the individual. A defining characteristic of societies that tend toward collectivism or leader worship.

In making his critique of socialist communes that were sprouting up at the time (Brooke Farm and other socialist inspired associations (i.e. Fourierian), Emerson saw the inherent negation of the individual that these societies demanded.

When making his critique of communes, Emerson noted how these systems “treat man as a plastic thing, something that may be put up or down, ripened or retarded, moulded, polished, made into a solid, or fluid, or gas, at the will of the leader.”

These systems attempt to make everyone equal, but in the end, the individual no longer exists and succumbs to the dominion of the group.

Without a commitment to the individual or the principle of individuation, the individual’s soul or spirit is suppressed. The individual is forced to conform, rendering him or her impotent for the rest of their life. They may “contribute to society” like a robot in a factory, but they are certainly not active creators who share their inner voice and conscience. They become no longer human.

This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true.”

In Emerson’s opinion, a better society can only come about through the voluntary association of fulfilled individuals, not the suppression of the individual spirit.

What happens when we don’t learn to share our truth?

If you can’t share your truth, or you don’t even know what your truth is, the education you have received has failed, and you and society will ultimately fail.

A world where individuals silence their truth is a world where tyranny reigns supreme. The people may be “educated,” but they don’t listen to their inner voice, and over time, they can no longer even think for themselves. Emerson was committed to the belief that unless individual reformation (mostly through self-directed education) came before social reorganisation, nothing could change for the better.

The long-term trend towards teaching the same content and having one assessment that applies to everyone is one way towards a tyrannous future, not to mention that it is far removed from the original ideals of education as espoused by ancient Greek philosophers. The word “education” is derived from the Latin words Educare and Educere. Educare is “to bring up, to train and to teach,” but Educere is “to lead and draw out that which lies within.”

We now focus solely on the former meaning and neglect the latter to our peril.

But don’t we need formal education to learn how to read and write?

Of course, and on the topic of teaching and learning, Emerson still believed in the teacher’s role to provide students with basic skills, like reading and writing.

Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, - to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Emerson, himself, had learned practical English that taught him how to use rhetorical grammar. It was his early acquisition of these literary devices that enabled him to write some of the most powerful essays in the English language.

But this function of opening and feeding the human mind is not to be fulfilled by any mechanical or military method.”

To Emerson, it is not enough just to learn facts that will help you survive in the world.

Ultimately, what you learn should help you live as you are in the world.

If we live truly, we shall see truly.”

And to really know something, the education you receive should provide you with direct experience of the world around you.

In Emerson’s words, we can only really know or learn something after we have acted to test whether it is true.

Only so much do I know, as I have lived.”

In other words, for thought to become conscious, you must take action. Without acting your ideas out in the world, you will never know the truth.

Without [action], thought can never ripen into truth.”

And this is the true purpose of education.

To draw out the light within you, to bring out your natural self, a self that shares their truth with the world and acts to see if it is true. This is referred to the “invasion of God into the old dead world.” The individual, who has divinity within him or her, drives the “perpetual romance of new life” through this process. In other words, they breathe life into society. For Emerson, society only grows through the individual’s truth telling. They reinvigorate and innovate.

Therefore, the teacher’s role is to promote the student’s self-cultivation and self-knowledge – for it is the products of this self-exploration that is the end goal of life itself.

"The teacher of the coming age must occupy himself in the study and explanation of the moral constitution of man more than in the elucidation of difficult texts."

Through “respecting the pupil,” the teacher’s aim is to help the student learn knowledge that will fire up his or her natural enthusiasm. This entails encouraging the student to explore the world around them and choose (and act upon) what they want to learn. For it is the student who “holds the key to his own secret.”

Just like it is for you. If you are forced to learn the same things as everyone else, you will be “hindered from [your] end and kept out of [your] own.” You won’t be you. And that is something that you cannot do, both as an educator and as a student.



*The “dull sailors” are the students who have lost their enthusiasm for learning. They have retained their “appetite and indolence,” in other words, they still want to have things but they have become lazy.

**This is a powerful argument for the development of apprenticeship-style education for teachers. Through being directly engaged in the teaching and learning experience, they can quickly learn whether they have the natural inclination to pursue the endeavour (no matter its structure) or seek other ways of living in the world.



Emerson, R. W. (1837). “The American Scholar,” Digital Emerson: A Collective Archive. Retrieved from http://digitalemerson.wsulibs.wsu.edu/exhibits/show/text/the-american-scholar

Emerson, R. W. (1841). “Self-Reliance,” Mathematics at Dartmouth. Retrieved from https://math.dartmouth.edu/~doyle/docs/self/self.pdf

Emerson, R. W. (n.a.). “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Lectures, Emerson on Education,” American Transcendentalism Web. Retrieved from http://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/education.html

Richardson, R. D. Jr. (1995). Emerson: Mind on Fire. London: University of California Press.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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