An immeasurable number of times, I have asked (myself and others) the question: what is the purpose of education? Often people’s answers to this question exist on a continuum from 1) an explosion of meaningless market-driven buzzwords (skills, competences, attitudes and capabilities) to 2) equally market-driven but somewhat more pragmatic understandings of education (‘to get a job’), 3) and finally, to some incredibly deep and reflective understandings of power, justice, citizenship, equity, inclusion, humanity and emancipation. But when I am to ask – what is not the purpose of education, people’s answers take on a spirit of such unanimity that it makes me proud to be human. The purpose of education is not:
- To perpetuate hatred, fear, violence, stigma and/or discrimination
- To disempower, antagonise, oppress, silence, numb, block or anesthetize learners
- To exclude, dehumanise or devalue
- To foster apathy, conformity, indoctrination and/or the uncritical acceptance of the status quo
- To kill imagination and the human spirit
- To naturalise, internalise or normalise inequalities and injustices
- To be “irrelevant to the dangers facing humankind” (Fielding & Moss, 2012, p. 28), and
- To generally make the world a more horrible, unsafe and unsustainable wasteland
If this (rather short) list is any indication of “who we are” (and who we want our children to be), then what strikes me most is the huge paradox between “what we say” and “what we do” (which seem to be at rather opposing odds). Take for example, the political “game of truths” being played with the science of climate change. Whilst on the one hand, civic entities fight against environmental degradation, on the other, in even the most “advanced” places in the world, politicians are still arguing about the existence of climate change. Where does this leave us? Are such topics too political, or in other words, too “taboo” for educators to discuss with children and young people? What is the role of education in preparing children for the future if we cannot (or do not) teach children about what is happening in and to our world? How then is it ever going to be possible to make education relevant to the dangers facing humankind?
These are just a few questions. Others are equally haunting:
- How can we, in a culture of “high-stakes” standardized testing and pre-packaged curricula ensure that we aren’t killing the imagination of learners? Particularly if “learning” is measured by memorising/regurgitating the “correct” answers?
- How can we teach children and young people not to hate, dehumanise and discriminate when disciplinary practices inside educational settings disproportionately impact “the impoverished, those of colour, maltreatment victims, students with special education disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” learners (Mallett, 2016, p. 15)?
- How can we teach learners to be inclusive whilst the system segregates on the basis of ability and/or impairment/disability labels?
- How can we teach learners to treat others as equals whilst (increasingly privatised) education systems (re)produce ideas of who is “desirable” and “undesirable” on the basis of money and power?
The thing is, none of these things seem to happen deliberately – that is, no one educator sets out to be ableist OR kill the imagination OR perpetuate social oppression OR naturalise injustice. Practitioners may rightly argue, “that’s just how the system is, it isn’t my fault!” But systems are made of people, and just because it isn’t deliberate, doesn’t mean that we – as educators, don’t have an active role to play in challenging discrimination, oppression, injustice and inequality alongside children and families (Freire, 1970). Troublingly, research indicates that many educators tend to distance or “shy away” from teaching children about topics that are “too political” or “taboo” – not just those related to climate change, but also those related to social oppression (e.g. race, class, disability). One of the reasons that educators give for this is because they believe that these topics are irrelevant or cumbersome (“an unnecessary burden”) to children’s lives (Han, 2013; Kelly & Brooks, 2009). That, for example, being a White teacher who does not experience disability in a predominantly White, middle-to-high-income context means that one does not need to learn/teach children about racism, ableism or inequality because children “are not affected” by race, disability or class. Firstly, if the purpose of education can have anything to with transforming injustice, then injustice cannot be irrelevant to education. Secondly, this problematic creation of a “them and us” or in other words, “the othering of other people’s problems” is as frustratingly counterproductive and untrue as it is inhuman. You would think that by now it would be a truth universally acknowledged, that whatever else we are: we are ALL of us, first and foremost, human beings. Extending on the wise words of the author Richard Flanagan, the point here is, that people who experience disability, or those who are homeless or people seeking asylum – these people “are not like you and me. They are you and me” (Flanagan, 2016, para 235, emphasis added).
If we teach children to treat disability, diversity or difference with silence, or worse, polite pity, or even worse, fear and abhorrence – then we not only rob them of the opportunity to learn empathy, we also cheat them from being able to grasp or value our “shared humanity” (Cologon, 2013). Moreover, teaching children to value and embrace diversity is not the same thing as teaching children to be silent about it. Children internalize implicit views and understandings of what society has constructed as being “normal” and “not normal” – therefore, by ignoring difference and diversity we teach children that diversity, difference and/or disability are “bad” or “problematic” – something to be afraid of or avoided (Boutte, Lopez-Robertson, & Powers-Costello, 2011). By doing this, what we are also doing is teaching children to exclude and ignore rather than interrupt injustice – instead of teaching them that “exclusion, intentional or not, is a political act and, therefore, a choice” (Michalko, 2002, p. 16).
Oftentimes, the other argument put forward by educators afraid of engaging with “the dilemma of difference” is that children – particularly young children, are not capable of “seeing” difference, or that young children are not able to understand the complexities of things like racism, ableism, sexism, classism, etc. But research (and the work of many incredible educators/practitioners/families) conducted with diverse young children (who do and do not experience disability) tells us the opposite – that in fact, young children are not only capable of understanding social oppression but that they are also capable of, and motivated to, challenge and change it (Silva & Langhout, 2011; Souto-Manning, 2009). This opens a world of possibilities for educators to teach children about the ethical, social and political nature of difference, diversity and disability, and in turn, to recognise that education is an ethical and political act.
Recognising that education is an ethical and political act may seem like cause for fear, but it isn’t. What is scary, is thinking that education can be neutral or free from politics. It cannot – because to be “neutral” is to side with the status quo. For example, (as I mentioned earlier), being silent in the face of injustice only contributes to injustice, because it perpetuates the privilege experienced by the privileged, and the oppression experienced by the oppressed (Freire, 1970). Waking up – and waking other people up – to the systematic, ideological and political nature of oppression – and acting to transform or “gnaw off the arm of the system a little bit” (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 229) from the inside, is arguably, one of the fundamental roles of education and educators.
And I won’t lie, it isn’t easy. There’s barely any room in the curriculum, or any time in the day, systems are exclusionary, resources are scarce (particularly those that depict disability in a positive light) … BUT it is possible, and it is worthwhile. Inclusive education, and education for social justice these two beautiful, frightful, interconnected things wrap themselves around the “dilemma of difference” because they are never finished (Cologon, 2014). As Cologon (2010, p. 45) says, “inclusion is really what teaching is” and teaching, is as much about the process of becoming human as it is about belonging to this ever-emergent, complex and intricate thing called humanity (Cologon, 2013). This is true in more ways than one, because as the wise Belmonte (2009, p. 37) says, “we teach what we are far more than we teach what we teach” – which leads us right back to the original question: What do you think the purpose of education is?
Belmonte, D. (2009). Teaching from the deep end: Succeeding with today’s classroom challenges (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Boutte, G. S., Lopez-Robertson, J., & Powers-Costello, E. (2011). Moving beyond colorblindness in early childhood classrooms. Early Childhood Education Journal, 39(5), 335-342. doi: 10.1007/s10643-011-0457-x
Cologon, K. (2010). Inclusion is really what teaching is. ARNEC Connections, 3, 45-48.
Cologon, K. (2013). Recognising our shared humanity: Human rights and inclusive education in Italy and Australia. Italian Journal of Disability Studies, 1(1), 151-169. doi: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/35563168/Rivista_Vol1_N1.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1471880849&Signature=dJwbMI8y0P49fzeqU1VXlqNwW6Q%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DItalian_Journal_of_Disability_Studies_-.pdf
Cologon, K. (2014). Better together! Inclusive education in the early years. In K. Cologon (Ed.), Inclusive education in the early years: Right from the start (pp. 1-26). South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Fielding, M., & Moss, P. (2012). Radical education and the common school: A democratic alternative. London: Routledge.
Flanagan, R. (2016, March 4). Notes on the Syrian exodus: ‘Epic in scale, inconceivable until you witness it’ The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/05/great-syrian-refugee-crisis-exodus-epic-inconceivable-witness-lebos-islamic-state
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Zed Books.
Han, K. T. (2013). “These things do not ring true to me”: Preservice teacher dispositions to social justice literature in a remote state teacher education program. The Urban Review, 45(2), 143-166. doi: 10.1007/s11256-012-0212-7
Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Kelly, D. M., & Brooks, M. (2009). How young is too young? Exploring beginning teachers’ assumptions about young children and teaching for social justice. Equity & Excellence in Education, 42(2), 202-216. doi: 10.1080/10665680902739683
Mallett, C. A. (2016). The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Children and Adolescents. Education and Urban Society. doi: 10.1177/0013124516644053
Michalko, R. (2002). The difference that disability makes. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Silva, J. M., & Langhout, R. D. (2011). Cultivating agents of change in children. Theory & Research in Social Education, 39(1), 61-91. doi: 10.1080/00933104.2011.10473447
Souto-Manning, M. (2009). Negotiating culturally responsive pedagogy through multicultural children’s literature: Towards critical democratic literacy practices in a first grade classroom. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 9(1), 50-74. doi: 10.1177/1468798408101105
 That is, education which is critical and aware of social oppression, which values and embraces difference, diversity and disability.