What Should Be the Ultimate Goal of Education?

  • Posted on: 19 August 2013
  • By: Tina McCoy

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” - Leo Tolstoy 

What is the role of education in serving humanity?  While the answer to this question in terms of current public policy perspective is typically unstated, clues are found all around us: Competition in the global economy. A generation better prepared for the demands of the workplace. Higher paying jobs. Students prepared for successful futures. The USA should remain ‘on top’.

Unfortunately, most of the reasons that drive improvements in education (in the form of accountability) in our country are very ‘self-centered’.  They focus on competition that ultimately equates to financial success either for the individual or for our country as a whole: Financial prosperity, acquisition of material resources, and schooling as job or career training. But in our quest to use education as the lever to move the world (to serve ourselves and ‘our own’) we risk losing part of our own humanity. 

I recently visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. so that I could visit my husband’s grandfather who was touring it as part of the ‘Honor Flight’. Myron is in his nineties – a veteran who is precisely the same age as my own father (also a WW II veteran). As I strolled around the monument on that beautiful spring day, I became lost in reverie.  WW II Memorial – FreedomI thought of the WW II generation and what their lives were like.  My mother, a child of the depression, had only two dresses and wore them both at the same time to stay warm.  She worked in a military airplane factory before going to college. My father was pulled out of the University of Illinois to serve as a Tank Commandeer. He had three tanks blown out from under him, and his gunner died in his arms. And Mryon, who was forced to kill a Japanese solder in a Pacific island jungle.  It was a kill or be killed situation, but the sadness of having to end the life of someone so like himself has haunted him all of his days. Any so many, many young people never returned to their homes and families. 

What has this to do with education? It strikes me that in all my years, I never head this generation ‘complain’.  There was no trace of ‘why me’ or ‘why us”?  Their perspective, in contrast to the current (and pervasive) view of success as materialism, was very different. I wonder why. Certainly family and societal values came into play.  But public education is the right arm of society.  For better or for worse, it has great power to influence the thinking of people in their formative years. This generation had no aligned curriculum, no research-based instruction and no technology to support their learning.  And yet, they succeeded in life.  They did compete in the global marketplace. They did ultimately prosper. The worked hard, and served their country.  They took care of themselves without blaming someone else for the problems they faced.  They looked within themselves to find a means to live. They weren’t perfect, but many of them tried to serve humanity and in doing so, found meaning.

My father used to say, “The pendulum swings both ways but it never stays in the middle.” Right now, the pendulum in education to fully swung toward increased curricular standards, accountability, competition in the global marketplace and high achievement for all.  This is not bad in and of itself, but to what end do we strive? If the driving forces and the ultimate goals of these shifts continue to be economic success and self-centered materialism then we will lose more than we gain. We will lose compassion, personal responsibility, a sense of duty to others, a higher purpose, and much more.  

As we move deeper into the 21st century and the age of educational accountability, let us embrace the challenges that are before us.  Much good can come out of high and consistent standards, excellence in instruction, and assessments that can guide continual improvement.  But let us not focus all of our energy in that direction at the exclusion of what is still profoundly important: respect, service, responsibility, compassion, tolerance and all of the values that are so essential for authentic success to be actualized. Let character education continue to be an important part of every student’s schooling. Let us acknowledge and affirm the many schools that have voluntarily embraced community service as an essential component of education. The role of education is not to guarantee financial or material success for every student, but to give each student the strength and knowledge to find meaning in his or her life, through their own service to humanity. Academics are important, but they are a means to an end.  The question we must all answer for ourselves, especially as Leaders in the field of education, is ‘What is the end’?  I argue that the ultimate goal of education is to prepare students to serve humanity and the world. 

With freedom comes choice: the choice to give or to take; the choice to serve or to be served; the choice to ‘raise up’ humanity or to maintain the status quo. As educators, it is essential that we teach our students to use their freedom wisely: freedom to thrive, freedom to care, and freedom to serve. Combined with character education and service-based values, our increased demands and higher standards will do more than ensure that our students are, in the words of Dewitt Jones, ‘not the best in the world, but the best for the world’. Collectively, we can truly make the world a better place.