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The Purpose of Education

This is the crux of the educational system you find so appalling.  Not to teach what to desire.  To teach how to be free.  To teach how to make knowledgeable choices about pleasure and delay and the kid’s overall down-the-road maximal interests.

pg. 429 Infinite Jest By David Foster Wallace 

Much of what I taught was directed toward finding out what the students saw every day–it was a way to honor their lives, which isn’t generally taught in public schools.

pg. 161 The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009: The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn 

 If you don’t take any risks, you’re not doing the right thing.

Howard Zinn

These are just a couple of quotes that I have come across that I really like.  Whenever I read a book or an article I constantly mark sections that I like and then add them into my Evernote account.  These notes allow you to have tags and these three quotes were under the tag “Purpose of Education.”

What is the purpose of education?  There are many opinions on this subject.  In this piece I will give what I believe the purpose of education is and why I teach this way.

It’s a really interesting question to ask your students, “Why do you go to school?” and seeing the kind of answers that you get.  Some will say, “because I have to” or “my parents make me” or it’s the law.” Others will tell you it’s because they want to make a lot of money in the future and school is a pathway to that goal.  Some will say sports.  Others will say friends.

Rarely when I have asked the students this, do you hear about the desire to learn. Education has lost it’s mystique as an institution where you go to explore the world and has basically become just a stepping stone in life.  You go to school and then you go to college and then you get a job and then you die.  Some things happen in between, but those are just details.  Too often in our society we are constantly worried about that next step and we don’t slow down and savor the world around us. Education should be about growing as a person, not a box to check of a list.

So to explain why I became a teacher, here are some reasons why I did not become a teacher.

1. I didn’t become a teacher so that a student will get a good job in the future.

2. I didn’t become a teacher so that students get high scores on tests.

3. I didn’t become a teacher so that students would obey my every word.

4. I didn’t become a teacher to boss around students.

5. I didn’t become a teacher to prove I know everything to my students.

6. I didn’t become a teacher so I could teach like everybody else or how to government wants me to.

7. I didn’t become a teacher to become rich.

So why did I become a teacher?  If you look at the first two points above, these are things that I did not become a teacher to do, but could be byproducts of the education that students receive in my classroom. Instead of trying to teach students everything that might be on a standardized test or every section of a history textbook, I ‘d rather teach a student how to think for themselves. That’s the bumper sticker I would love to see on a parents car.  Not “My child is an honor student,” but “My child thinks for herself.” Does remembering dates and battle locations help students in the future? It could, but probably nothing very important.  But, teaching a student to question everything that is presented to them and to critically inquire about the world, would that help them?  Hell yes!  I am not the molder of students.  The students need to mold themselves.  I am there to help them and push them to think differently about the world, but I am not there to tell them how it is.  This relates to points 3-6 above.

Too many times teachers abuse authority.  I refuse to ever do this.  I tell my students I do have a certain type of authority in the classroom.  I may ask the student to be quiet or do a homework assignment, but I will never tell the student that an idea that they want to pursue is stupid.  I’ll push the student to learn ways to back up their thoughts, but I won’t make them think like me or how textbooks or the government would like them to think.  I want independent students.  Not followers.  Not rote memorizers.  I will not indoctrinate my students with any ideology right or left. In my classroom we are more concerned with questioning power, and promoting equality, liberty, and community.  The students need to figure out their own path to navigate this world. Not copy somebody else’s.  Hopefully, my classroom will teach them that there is no authority but themselves, especially how they view the world. Too often people assume the worst about students.  The thing is that they are really smart, but in different ways than adults are.  They probably have life experiences that are completely different than yours and gives them a context which is truly unique to view the world.  That should be seen as a positive not a negative.

Will they get good test scores? I sure hope they do, not because the tests matter to me or should they to them, but because everybody wants to make everything in education measurable. But here is the real kicker that I think that most non-teachers don’t understand.  Teaching isn’t a science, math formula, or statistics.  Teaching is an art.  You can not take a math formula to decide what good art is.  This is something I can’t stress enough.  Another thing I cannot stress enough is that teachers don’t work with a product or numbers, we work with people.  Unique, diverse, brilliant, challenging, confused, amazing people.  Many reformers throw a lot of numbers out there to evaluate teachers.  When I talk about my classes, I don’t say I have a 95 percent passing rate (or whatever).  I say that Steve did this amazing thing today and Maeve made me think about something in a way I never had before and Padao is struggling with this assignment, but asked a lot of questions and is pushing forward.  I don’t teach to numbers or products.  I teach people.

And those people teach me.  I learn more from the students I have worked with than I ever did taking a college course or preparing for a standardized test.  I’m just trying to figure out the world.  Much like my students are.  I teach because I learn from them. They are more interesting and knowledgable about the world than any book I could read. I hope to work with them to figure out the world, but I would never presume to figure it out for them.

I risk teaching this way, at the threat of losing my job because I will not teach as part of the status quo. It’s a risk I take.  I put my all into teaching and I won’t do it any other way.  When the teacher union showdown in Wisconsin was going down, I wasn’t worried about the money part.  I didn’t became a teacher to get rich.  I was worried about the class size, academic freedom, due process, and curriculum. I was worried about the things that would affect the students.  I would teach no matter what they pay me. This isn’t a job for me. This isn’t a career for me.  This is my life.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Laura Shaw
    05/28/2011 at 12:11 pm

    At our school, we foster a culture of learning amongst our children. We talk about how people come together to play ball, build a structure, or produce goods to sell. We come together to do interesting and challenging work. We come together to ask big questions and discover the various answers and/or perspectives.

    We often hear the children talking to each other about challenging their brains. And we hear them asking big questions. Just the other day one of our 6 year olds asked, “How was nature created?”. This prompted a lesson about the big bang, which has generated more questions and more research for that child.

    • 05/29/2011 at 1:19 am


      That sounds amazing! Keep up the good work at your school. I think that sad thing is that many students do really want to learn at an earlier age, but by the time they get to high school education has just become a stepping stone instead of something to delight in. I can only imagine the joy you must of felt watching your students grow in front of your eyes.

  2. 08/18/2011 at 11:47 pm

    well wright mr. Howard Zinn


  1. 05/31/2011 at 9:38 am
  2. 05/31/2011 at 9:43 am
  3. 05/31/2011 at 9:51 am

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