Many of the excellent contributions to the purpos/ed debate have focused on specific and very persuasive arguments. My addition is going to solely focus on principles. Why? Because they matter. They drive the hard ‘effective’ strategies when strength is low or there are hurdles to face. They also inform the decisions many of the other participants point to but remain hidden by the policies/actions we all regularly draw attention to. Principles also drive what I do on a day-to-day basis and the debate also allows me to answer Ken Booth‘s challenge that sometimes we need to have the courage of our convictions and speak out.

Goethe’s statement, ‘treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you can help them become what they are capable of becoming’ captures for me the problem we face in terms of thinking about the purpose of education and also the opportunities. How do we treat our students, family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, conference delegates and people we pass on the street? What are we helping them to become?

I believe the key purpose of education  (in its most expansive sense and not just in the classroom) is to help us become better. Better than we were yesterday. Better than we were last week, last month or last year. The resulting effect of being better might mean becoming a more proficient worker, dancer, teacher, student or scientist. However, these tags or identities refer ultimately to what we do, not who we are. Even changing identity to something more personal, be it a son, daughter, husband, wife or friend does not get to the core focus for education even though our relationships based on these descriptors will undoubtedly improve as a result. For me, the purpose of education is to become a better human being; recognising that we share a commonality with others around us and that we are bound to the ones who walked before and the ones to come.  It allows us to draw on the experiences of the past and help prepare us to face the future (with all its attendant opportunities and issues). Conceived in this sense, it allows us to remove the primacy of the veneer (worker, teacher, student, friend) and reinstates these (important) roles within the context that they form part of a larger whole. Doing so would also allow us to rethink the relationship of means and ends and unlock the powerful impact this reconfiguration can have for the lives of people around us when we do treat them as they should be.

My view is unashamedly liberal and deeply humanistic. It does not provide all the answers nor should it (if it did, it simply means I am not asking big enough questions). Nobody should pretend that there is an easy answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ but I believe that we already have the capacity to achieve a resolution but we must start by being clear: what are our principles?

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