Monday, May 31, 2004

The Purpose of Education

Wrote this for my application to MOE.

Some, today, question where the ultimate responsibility of educating a person should lay – whether with the state, parents, educators, or mentors in life – but none dispute its importance and value. However, beyond the state’s appointed educators, few people ponder about the real purpose of education and to ask thoughtfully about the objectives and values that underlie Singapore’s education system.

Martin Luther King Junior offers in his 1948 speech that the function of education for man and society concerns utility and culture. More specifically, to educate is to impart and imbue a person with information, knowledge, skills, character, attitudes, and values, all of which are necessary towards preparing today’s youth for tomorrow’s life challenges. In particular, the latter part of this grand and all-encompassing statement is significant in implying that educators should adopt an open and forward-looking stance in anticipating challenges to be faced by the leaders and forgers of the future. Another implication is the need to provide diverse paths with sufficient opportunities and resources for the young person to discover his abilities and interest as he seeks his own aspirations in life.

Formal education thus begins in the formative years with developing a child’s intelligence and mental faculties through imparting skills such as communication, arithmetic, problem-solving, science, and spatial visualisation. These are taught through the familiar subjects of languages, sciences, and humanities, initially at a rudimentary level and then at progressively advanced levels at later developmental stages. A well-rounded education also consists of creative, physical, and moral development through programmes such as co-curricular activities. These would aid in sparking the young person’s interest in life beyond the classroom, his textbooks, and his computer games, and also to foster an awareness of current affairs, and personal and social responsibility. A crucial yet historically neglected objective at this stage is to aid the young person in developing a curious and critical mind, capable of probing for and weighing information. Also, the tacit development of life skills – specifically, psycho-social and interpersonal skills – although compensated by group project work and student leadership positions, is often eschewed by educators and even parents.

The next logical question to ask is who are to be educated. For this, there are two arguments. The first is of egalitarianism: to provide equal opportunities for all – from the disadvantaged to the elite – to gain the requisite knowledge and skills to survive and hopefully prosper in life, and to be provided the opportunities and resources to realize his full potential and to develop his talents in various fields. Hence various programmes, i.e. streams, have been deemed necessary in schools to cater to differing learning abilities and needs. The second argument is of economy and concerns the elite: it states that the system should focus its energies and resources to groom and nurture only the best and the brightest to produce leaders who will maximise their utility in society. For this reason, youths who excel academically are identified as being gifted and are further challenged to encourage their mental growth. With unlimited and perfect resources, an ideal education system would be able to satisfy these two fundamentally opposed arguments, but clearly this is not the case in reality.

Education is also necessary for adults. Singapore’s declaration in 2003 of its aim to become a global education hub strongly attests to the need for the modern day adult to continually educate and update himself by rethinking his paradigms and acquiring new skills and knowledge as he pursues and builds his career.

That the state should ensure the education of its people may appear to be a noble and altruistic objective; however it holds significant repercussions at the collective level, namely economic, socio-cultural, and political ones.

Firstly, the intellectual capital of its people is particularly important to resource-scarce Singapore; it is a key determinant of the country’s attractiveness in today’s global knowledge-driven economy. The unpredictability and instability of the shifting global economy dictates that the state must readily tackle the challenges of adapting the educational infrastructure to meet the manpower and intellectual needs of the economy. In this respect, lifelong learning has been heavily touted as an important attitude to possess. The emphasis on entrepreneurial and creative thinking also motivates the need for diverse educational paths. Secondly, as Martin Luther King Junior reminds us, “intelligence is not enough”. It is thus imperative to inculcate our young with a uniquely Singaporean identity to keep them rooted and also a set of values that will act as an internal compass to direct actions that are responsible and ethical. Failure in this department will impair nation-building and even breed intelligent but immoral mind capable of unimaginable evils. Lastly, Singaporeans possess an infamous apathy towards the state of political affairs at home. Attributed mainly to the self-interest and material possessiveness that afflict our youths today, this worrying trend indicates a potential future dearth of passionate and selfless leaders to govern the country. For this reason, education strives to facilitate and increase the young person’s awareness of current affairs and politics.

Through highlighting main points and arguments, this short essay has only briefly addressed the big question of the purpose of education where philosophers and educators alike have not presented a definitive response. But it can be seen that the responsibility of educating a nation is an important and weighty burden that has be shouldered appropriately.


CNN (October 13, 2003). “Singapore hopes to become global education hub.”
Retrieved May 23, 2004 from, http://...

Hull, G. (January 11, 2004). “Egalitarianism: The New Torture Rack.” Capitalism Magazine. Retrieved May 23, 2004 from http://...

King, Jr. M.L. (1948). “The Purpose of Education.” The Seattle Times. Retrieved May 23, 2004 from http://...

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. (May 24, 2004). “Education.” Retrieved May 24, 2004, from http://...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

WOW! What a philosophical view of education! It even comes with a bibliography! Dang....typical Honours research students! Kekekekeke.....

DC (you know who I am!)