The purpose of education

There are different views about the purpose of education. Here are three approaches.

The first one is a pure economic one where education is seen as important in terms of developing knowledge, skills and improving work productivity. The benefits of education are considered in terms of increased productivity through jobs and remuneration. People choose education based on expected return of their education in economic terms.

This view is a pure instrumental one. It assumes that people know in advance completely all future jobs and salaries that they can command as a result of their education, and that people are rational enough to gather such information about the future, rank them and decide to undertake education accordingly.

This is highly improbable and quite unrealistic. At best, people are guessing about these outcomes and in shifting economies, for example from labour-based to automation, or in declining economies, such guesses can be quite irrational.

Although there is nothing wrong with taking on a return-on-investment view of education, it would be interesting to consider other non-economic ones.

From a policy perspective, if education is to be evaluated purely based on instrumental benefits, it can lead to unjustified discrimination in providing education. Is education for those that are disposed to be employed more worthwhile than education for those that may not be disposed to employment for no fault of their own e.g. those with disabilities?

The second approach focuses on the right to education. This is the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It considers that every human being must be able to acquire adequate education for its intrinsic value rather than instrumental benefits of economic returns.

But in practice, right is not actually and universally guaranteed. It is also complicated by foundational principles and administration. Is it legal or moral rights? Is it the responsibility of the government, the sector, the institution, or at the individual level e.g. teacher, student, principal etc? Often, these rights conflict at various levels.

Even if rights are enacted, the opportunities and processes of schooling themselves can lead to discriminatory application thereby preferencing certain groups and marginalising others. Do English texts in literacy curriculum discriminate against students from non-English speaking background who may not have access to the contexts in which those texts were written?

The third approach is the capability approach. It considers education to be a basic capability because education is important in itself and is useful in increasing opportunities in one’s life.

The capability approach sees education as developing the person as an ends not means to jobs or employment. In other words, education enables human flourishing in its entirety and keeping in mind all aspects that would impact a person’s opportunities in life.

The benefits of education are about expanding people’s choices and freedom to choose the kind of life they want to live.

So, if by having a university degree, a person has increased their opportunities and ability to choose things that they want to do as they value, then they have increased their capability.

But if by having a university degree, the person has narrowed their pathway with less opportunities and ability or freedom to choose the things they want to do and be that they consider valuable, then they have not increased their capability. Although if the narrower track provides higher remuneration which accord with their want, than that would also be considered in the capability equation.

The capability approach puts the person at the centre of their education. They are in charge because ultimately, they are considering the benefits of education according to their own values, rather than others’ values.

In application, this approach is difficult to implement at a policy level because of its multifaceted considerations. But certainly, for every one of us who are living in our everyday life, it is worth the thought.

Does your education enhance your capability?