Another Brick In The Wall

To talk about the purpose of public education is to imply that public education has only one purpose – and that is to oversimplify matters drastically.  Major purposes of public education include in no particular order:

  • Teaching basic skills
  • Allowing people to reach their potential
  • Social Mobility and Cohesion
  • Relieving pressure on parents
  • Base Economics
  • Prevention of Child Abuse

Teaching basic skills

Times they are a-changing.  Claims that your sons and your daughters are beyond your command are nothing new – indeed complaints of the sort reach back to ancient Sumer, at least 3700 years ago.    But we live in the future – I have in my pocket right now a device I can contact people all across the world or read thousands of books, and either watch or even record video.  The first Web servers outside CERN date back to 1991.  The rate of change has been spectacular and almost no one can keep up with it all.  Especially not parents who have sleepless nights, children, putting food on the table, their own jobs, and the like to take care of.  Teachers on the other hand can specialise because schools are larger, and this allows them to be held to standards.

Also teaching is itself a skill and not necessarily an obvious one.  Never mind “Them as can do, them as can’t teaches” – the best teachers are often those who struggled to work out how to do things themselves and so had to work it all out rather than it coming naturally.  And this is doubly true for someone teaching without teacher training; one of my friends has a parent who was very good at carpentry.  So every time my friend even started to make a mistake with any form of DIY the parent would take away the tools and say she wasn’t good at it.  Oops.

So without a dedicated schooling system it’ll be easy to miss things that children need to know, and even where what’s needed is known, non-professional teachers in many cases simply won’t know how to teach them even when they themselves have mastered the skills.

Allowing people to reach their potential

It is my belief that the best natural inventor the world has ever seen was an illiterate peasant who never travelled outside their own village and spent most of their days farming.  But what good was that to anyone?  Without knowing what has been invented all they could do was reinvent the wheel.  Possibly literally.  There are more paths under heaven and earth than one single person can know, and learning a range allows people to find out what they are good at and what they can do effectively.

And when one person is doing what they can usefully do (benevolently – I don’t want this read as endorsement of real life Hannibal Lectors, Patrick Batemans, or Gordon Geckos) then the extra they do from finding their niche helps all of us.  But without strong, systematic education most won’t find their best path.  And this is doubly true for people who invent or create knowledge, both of which cause ripples that reach far beyond their own circles.  The number of lives saved by Norman Borlaug and dwarf wheat is orders of magnitude beyond that of a normal doctor or nurse (some invent vaccines) and rivalled as far as I know only by Stanislav Petrov refusing to launch nuclear missiles because he thought it was a false alarm.

Social Mobility and Cohesion

So far I’ve only given purposes of universal education rather than of public education.  Why do it on a public model?  Other than all the opportunities it gives, why not use a voucher system?  Simple.  It means that children meet children who come from other social backgrounds.  At a very basic level it’s hard to ensure someone is carefully taught to hate and fear Bill, Mary, Sally, and Peter when all four of them are in the same class as the child being taught – and a whole lot less alien than the teacher standing at the front.  Not impossible.  But unless you’re as obvious about it as my link, it’s a really good reality check.

So people learn that the other isn’t so other after all.  And indeed that others in other groups are, when push comes to shove, just like them.  And this has an effect beyond that – it encourages people first to try, and then that there is a point trying to progress.

It also erodes certain class-based in-group barriers; you have far fewer fish-out-of-water situations because you’ve turned the bubbles people live in into a venn diagram.  And most people can at least find a point or two of overlap.

Relieving pressure on parents

Parenting is hard work.  Especially for people on low incomes who have another set of mouths to feed and children to look after.  There are really obvious reasons we don’t allow child labour in a civilised and affluent society.  Which makes children a drain on families incomes – especially ones that can’t afford it.  Send them to school and both parents can work and bring in income – or do other things.


A good rule to run a thriving economy is twofold – invest, and keep the money in circulation.  (Take it too far and you end up with the Broken Window Paradox – but that doesn’t apply to education as there’s value produced).  Education is part of infrastructure – it also puts the money where it’s needed and increases net value of employees.  It also offers pretty huge economies of scale; you can have specialist teachers with big classes – and economies of scale to employers as they don’t have to spend as much time training their workforce.  A public education system right down to the poorest is a huge benefit economically.

Prevention of Child Abuse

As Libby-Anne has been pointing out in her series on the HSLDA, we can only prevent child abuse if we can see it.  And one of the easiest ways of seeing what’s happening to children is bringing them somewhere they can be seen by bystanders; around 30% of child abuse is by family members and 60% by neighbours, babysitters, and the like.  (Which makes sense in the light of the Westermark Effect indicating that sexual attraction to people you were extremely close to as kids is unusual but I’m rambling).  And the bystander effect is neutralised because teachers are supposed to take responsibility (never mind that the Kitty Genovese story is mostly mythology).  So sending kids to school definitely prevents a significant amount of child abuse.

To sum up

Some of the many reasons behind public education – there are some I know I’ve missed out and others I simply haven’t thought of.  Each another brick in the wall – but unlike Pink Floyd’s metaphor, the wall isn’t people – it’s a structural wall of this civilisation.

One thought on “Another Brick In The Wall

  1. Pingback: Forward Thinking: The Purpose of Public Education

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