TED Conversations

Adam Burk

Founder/ Director, Treehouse Institute


This conversation is closed.

In your opinion, what should the purpose of education be?

Education is a prominent cultural institution used to perpetuate the prevailing values of a society.

Our modern education system has a sordid past largely rooted in industrialism. It's aim is to produce economically viable products--employable citizens. Nearly all our tweaks to the system in the last 100+ years are simply attempts to ensure that the products (graduates) are prepared for the work force.

I want to hear from YOU as I believe this conversation is crucial to lay a foundation to create significant and meaningful change.

Here is my answer:

I believe that education should be an empowering process that allows and guides children to develop their passions, critical thinking, compassion, and orientation towards wisdom for timely action.

In other words, self-cultivation should be the purpose of education. Understanding self-cultivation in terms of being a part of a unified field of relationships is key to the growth of a mature culture of peace. When the natural web of our relationships is used to strengthen our depth of knowledge, the feedback from the environment supports timely adjustments and refinements in our emotional and technical developments.

For this conversation, please focus on the question "in your opinion, what should the purpose of education be?"

We'll talk about the "how" in another conversation.


Closing Statement from Adam Burk

Thank you all for joining this conversation. There are beautiful aspirations here of bringing for the best of humanity through the development of individuals, married with tensions to ensure that society is served and supported and that the basics are not overlooked.

There are currently 365 comments and 365 distinct articulations of "what the purpose of education should be." The process to develop a consensus on this is beyond the scope and purpose of this conversation. However, I do hope that it is understood that this question and its answer are the shapers of education systems and in turn cultures.

And so I invite you to ponder the question Thomas Brucia raised earlier, "Who should decide what the purpose of education is? http://www.ted.com/conversations/8190/who_should_decide_what_the_pur.html

Once we decide who should be making that decision then we can return to my original question and ultimately re-inventing education.

Thank you all again for sharing of your selves.

In peace,

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      Dec 15 2011: QUOTE: "One purpose of education is learning grammatically correct language in order to clearly and succinctly communicate. Particularly with regard to written communication, one component of which is learning to differentiate between homophones."

      Another purpose of education is to learn social skills.

      Homophone or not, you understood the point. And the purpose of communication is to be understood and to understand.

      Many people on this forum are not writing in their native language.

      QUOTE: "Hence, literacy needs to be the primary purpose of [early] education, as it is an essential component of the foundation upon which critical thinking [and other cognitive] skills are built."

      Literacy is not necessary in every culture. In fact, we have been illiterate for most of our history ... and we did alright.
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      • Dec 18 2011: This is just a conversation. I do think, however we should be literate. Literacy helps people by enabling them to read books, books enable them to understand knowledge at a much faster rate, and this knowledge can be apply to help themselves or others. Unlike Kathy, I will not argue with you what people have to do to improve their knowledge, but I shall insist that literacy enhances knowledge. The fact that you can post blogs on TED is because you can read, but the fact that you can analyze blogs on TED can be because of other influential education such as observational learning. Now, now I do not mean that you are correct, I am just trying to be realistic and to be sensitive to other cultures. Moreover, literacy enables you to communicate and learn at a much faster rate, hence it improves neural networks at a much faster rate too. This will make the individual to have a higher potential of achieving higher intelligence, but this is only an increase percentage not a definite chance. I am sure; however, compared to literate societies, non-literate societies do not have a greater or equal potential of achieving that intelligence. This does not mean I cannot find a genius in those societies, but I more likely to find a genius in a literate society. I hope these thoughts can provide to you why we should be literate.
        • Jen S

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          Dec 19 2011: I agree that there's a lot of valuable information to be found if you can read and write, but I also question the idea that there are more intelligent, literate people than intelligent, illiterate ones. I think it depends on how we define "genius." I'm an intelligent person in the English department where I work, but my particular literacies and intelligence would not help me if someone dropped me into the Amazon rainforest from a helicopter. Different skill sets are valuable in different contexts. A lot of people who never learn to read or write are highly innovative and intelligent, just not in the ways we might typically think.
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          Dec 19 2011: Adam specified education as it relates to industrialized cultures and within this framework, literacy is invaluable.
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          Dec 21 2011: Hi Zared, Jen, and Nathan,

          I do think it is essential to teach literacy (and numeracy) in all modern and developing cultures.

          However, Adam's question is very specific: "in your opinion, what should the purpose of education be?"

          While he does mention modern education and industrialism, his question is more specific (or general, depending on your point of view) and it relates to the purpose of education.

          The purpose of education will be determined by many factors; most notably, culture.

          There are now cultures where it would be, in my opinion, inappropriate to teach "modern literacy." And who knows what the future holds? It may be unlikely, and even unpalatable to us now, but at some point in the future we may upload data directly to our brains and learning to read would be seen as "a waste of time."

          Which is why I qualified my earlier answer (that I have copied below.)


          [Posted December 2, 2011.]

          What should the purpose of education be?

          - Teach ourselves to think.
          - Teach ourselves to learn.
          - Teach ourselves to be highly functional.
          - Teach ourselves to be highly functional within the current social system.
          - Have fun.

          That's it.
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          Dec 21 2011: Hi Zared,

          You say the point I am making does not support the greater good. That may be true but it is also a value judgment and, it is a phrase I have always been a little uncomfortable with "the greater good."

          While we are likely in agreement that literacy is (almost) universally desirable, we may not reach agreement that there are exceptions.

          Frans mentioned an isolated culture that was still existing using stone-age technology; the anthropologists that studied it did so from afar so as not to alter their culture. Not too long ago there was a photograph making the rounds on the WWW, it was of a culture (in South America, I think) that had had no contact with the "modern world." The photo was taken from a helicopter. The people were aiming bows and arrows at the flying machine.

          I do not think it would be to the greater good to remove these people from their environment or teach them how to read (which, presumably, they cannot do.) Again, the "professionals" (the anthropologists) believe these people should not be "contacted" but, rather, left to live out their lives in the manner of their own choosing until such time their civilization comes to an end. Which it will, no doubt, do.

          I agree with them.

          You might not agree with me.
        • Dec 23 2011: Nathan "Adam specified education as it relates to industrialized cultures and within this framework, literacy is invaluable."

          Agreed, regarding industrialized cultures literacy is key! Looks like someone failed to notice that particular part of the question when giving his tedious responses about indiginous people..
      • Dec 19 2011: I understand your point, but I am not talking about displaying skills. I am trying to state that intelligence revolves around the adaptability to new skills. Illiterate people do in fact can be intelligent, but I am sure that literate people have the greater potential to be intelligent due to the increase neural networks created by the acquired knowledge of reading books or writing. Perhaps, genius is too strong of a word, but regardless of that concept, reading and writing highlights a greater potential to be intelligent. Keep in mind, reading and writing does not grant automatic intelligence, but they will definitely grant you to think harder and to analyze more.
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          Dec 22 2011: QUOTE: "Of course, reading and writing will damage their outlook to culture, but it will increase their potential for survival on the individual scale."

          Hi Zared,

          I think we will have to agree to disagree. I see no benefit to teaching members of functioning societies to learn to read if their is no need for them to do so.

          As I mentioned in another post, I know many people who do not know how to read and do not need to know. They function very well within their societies. But, as is obvious to all, these societies are vanishing.

          But just as a thought experiment: If we are going to "educate" the tribespeople in some remote section of the world, should we teach them to read in Spanish, English, Mandarin or some other language?

          In some respect, we are all "illiterate" ... I can read, write, and speak English; I am learning Mandarin. I can speak a little and understand a bit more. I can "read" about 100 characters. I am illiterate in China which is where I live. It will likely take me about 15 years to become fluent ... and literate.
        • Dec 22 2011: You both have very interesting points but I would like to point out that from my perspective, it seems as though you're caught looking at it from our cultural and social perspective.
          Zared - you mention that Literate people have more of a potential to be intelligent than not.. but what is intelligence? I would start with that as the root. Intelligence(in my opinion) is the ability to be highly functioning within your own cultural and societal parameters. If you're part of an indigenous tribe, intelligence may have nothing to do with literacy and everything to do with knowing how to survive in the wilderness, protect others and lead. There is a difference between learning something in a book an learning something via experience. In our society, literacy can gain us access to more knowledge about a specific subject, which can get us a job, which will feed us and help maintain our life. That is the reason you are coming to literacy as such an important piece.
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        Dec 21 2011: Thomas, you said: "Literacy is not necessary in every culture. In fact, we have been illiterate for most of our history ... and we did alright."

        I agree on the last part. We did alright then without reading or writing. Now we live different times and I think you know that cultures transgress into literate ones. Even Indian peoples in the rainforests in Amazonia that choose to live traditionally have a PC to communicate with the world.
        In our world those that can’t communicate outside their group are ultimately wiped out.

        If you look back into history you can distinguish enormous boosts in human development at a few moments in time. One as we started to speak, one as we started to write and again as we started to print. Maybe the internet and use of images give the next boost that we are now working on.

        So, to say that reading isn’t necessary within some cultures isn’t something I would say.
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          Dec 21 2011: Hi Frans,

          Of course I agree with you, generally speaking. However, as I mentioned, there are still (apparently) one or two cultures that have not had any contact with the outside world.

          Should we teach them how to read and write?

          Personally, I don't think we should.

          I think the purpose of their education should be to prepare them to live well within their cultures.

          And as I mentioned in an earlier post (that may have been deleted) there are still tribes within Africa that do not need "modern literacy" to flourish within their societies.

          Yes, these groups are small and vanishing but I contend their lifestyle is meaningful as long as they choose to maintain it. Teaching them to read and write would not only be detrimental to their way of life, it would very likely contribute to its accelerated destruction.

          Some of us might think this a good thing.

          Some of us might not.

          I think, not.
        • Dec 23 2011: I think we should stop quotes. They are kinda insulting. You are right, so what do you think the purpose of education is?
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        Dec 21 2011: As you put it that way Thomas I agree all the way.

        Once I saw a documentary about an island somewhere around India. People on that island lived in the stone age and anthropologists were studying them from afar from boats. They didn't want to make contact for by that they would change or influence their behavior.
        I never heard of it again and still am curious about it. Maybe someone heard of it
        • Dec 21 2011: Thomas,

          The point of which you are making is not supporting the greater good. Of course, reading and writing will damage their outlook to culture, but it will increase their potential for survival on the individual scale. These groups are dying off from many reasons rather than just becoming literate and if anything, it will help them to survive from harmful factors. Honestly, as long as we record their culture, then it will never disappear.
        • Dec 22 2011: Thomas.

          I am at a fault once again. I probably should of not used the phase,"greater good", but regardless of this point, my point and your point still has value. I respect preserving these ancient cultures, but eventually, they will all be effected by the modern world either in a good way or a bad way. We should not try to isolate these cultures from the fascinating modern world; instead, we should record their lifestyles.
      • Dec 22 2011: To be literate, all you have to do is be literate in at least one language. The tribe people should learn how to read and write in the language that is common in their geographical location. I respect that you are defending your point in the manner of your belief, but in the end logic triumphs. If they are going disappear over time no matter what, we might as well save them from the modern world by teaching them how to adapt to it.

        Deeply sorry, if my last or this comment came off rude, I am just trying to state a point. I respect your beliefs and the cultures around the world.
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          Dec 23 2011: Hi Zared,

          No, your comment did not come across as rude. Not in the least.

          As I say, we will likely simply have to agree to disagree.

          I do not think people in functioning societies should be taught to read if it is not already a part of their culture.

          You think they should.

          Both positions have merit. However, I do suspect you have never interacted with illiterate societies that are fully functional.

          I have. And in my opinion, it would be completely inappropriate to teach them to read (unless they wanted to learn.)

          Now, if an indigenous culture is being assimilated by another, then I agree, the young people especially, should learn to adapt the the new prevailing culture.
      • Dec 23 2011: I am not talking about forcing them to read or write. I am stating that it would benefit them. The purpose of education is to enable people to become adaptive to the environment. Learning and communication is faster through writing and reading, but illiteracy does not prevent learning or communication. It is just slower than the opposite. I am sure we can both agree that being literate is more beneficial than being illiterate and in that sense, we can establish that my point has more value to it, but I still respect your beliefs and those of the indigenous cultures.
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          Dec 27 2011: QUOTE: "I am sure we can both agree that being literate is more beneficial than being illiterate and in that sense, we can establish that my point has more value to it ..."

          Hi Zared,

          No, I would not concede your point has "more value." It excludes those rare, but significant, instances where it would be harmful to teach people to read and write.

          My point, as it relates to our conversation is: The purpose of education is to "teach ourselves to be highly functional within the current social system."

          If our current social system is pre-literate, and it is likely to remain so for our lifetime, their is no point in learning how to read.

          Shall we teach the Sentinelese to read and write? How about the 45 tribes (estimated) of uncontacted people in New Guinea?

          I don't think we should.

          My position, it appears to me, is more inclusive ... and, though it is not a term I would use, of "more value."

          We (the literate world) lose nothing by not teaching indigenous people to read; they lose a lot if we do.

          Perhaps it's because I am (probably) older and have had closer involvement with people who were "forced" to adapt to literate, or "differently" literate cultures (First Nation residential schools in North America, Nomadic tribes in Africa, etc) but I reject the idea that literacy is of universal value.

          Culturally appropriate skills - that, I support 100%.

          As I say, we may have to agree to disagree.
      • Dec 27 2011: Of course, literacy is not a universal value, I am talking about its beneficial values. I think we can both agree on that concept. Also, you should probably stop using quotes from me and other users because it can come off as mocking. I understand you are just using it to clarify your point, but I am sure that it is not clear to some people.
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          Dec 27 2011: Hi Zared,

          Thanks for the heads up on the quotes. I use them because the structure of TED conversations often separates a response from the comment that is being responded to. I'm pretty sure most TEDsters would not interpret that as mocking.

          I do not think literacy is always beneficial.

          I believe we understand one another's point of view.

      • Dec 27 2011: Agreed. By the way, check out this discussion. I think you can deliver something real to it.


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