When I recently wrote on the question of the government's purpose, I mentioned that I see education as a foundation of people thriving. Now I'd like to examine that assertion in some more detail.
Thriving means that we're empowered to develop and live our lives to our fullest potential in whatever areas we find to be most rewarding. In order to discover what areas we find most rewarding we need to try different things, learn about them, and then determine whether that's something that we would like to continue doing and improving in. For example, music. In order to determine whether we like music, like making music (such as playing an instrument or singing), and so on, we must first be exposed to music and get a chance to be involved in things like playing an instrument. Likewise for science, literature, writing, sports, and so on. Without exposure to such things, we cannot possibly know whether that is an area of life and culture that we would like to grow and develop within.
This is where education comes in. An ideally designed education system would make sure that our children were exposed to a wide variety of topics and activities. It would give children a chance to explore these various topics in some depth, the better to give them the opportunity to discover where their interests and talents lie. Once they've discovered that, this system would then encourage and allow them to develop further along those paths, in order that they might better grow in their abilities and develop to their highest potential.
This is beneficial to society as well. When we're empowered as individuals to develop our abilities to their fullest potential, that means we can then turn around and use those abilities to benefit those around us. A musically talented individual who is able to develop that potential can turn around and add to the overall pleasure that others experience in this world by playing or writing music for others to enjoy. A mathematically talented individual who is able to develop that potential can turn around and empower the world through excellent science, engineering, or perhaps pure mathematics that leads others to new realms of science. Someone who's mechanically talented can go on to empower others by fixing up cars. And so on, and so forth.
There's another aspect to education that I think is worth mentioning, one that I don't think is appreciated enough. It helps us to understand who we are, and our place in society -- both as it is, and as it may be. Human beings are social creatures, and we exist as social creatures. Part of being social creatures means that in order to have a sense of self, we need to have a sense of ourselves as distinct from others.
How does education help with this? Well first, keep in mind that much of education is not the explicit things that we generally think of, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. A good deal of education, whether it takes place in the home or the school, is implicit. It takes place at an unconscious level. At that unconscious level, we learn things like love, trust, gender roles, loyalty, familial roles, how to talk to and relate to others, and so on. In the school system, learning how to relate to peers and to authority figures is obviously a big thing. In extracurricular activities teamwork is often a big thing that we learn. Yes, much of this is explicitly presented to us, but it often doesn't sink in properly until we observe (unconsciously) the examples provided by others, and have a chance for trial and error. Of course, it's not all positive: bigotry is learned as well.
On an explicit level, learning history increases our understanding of our society and the world we inhabit, and can even help us develop the ability to dream about new shapes to our society by studying the examples of past heroes, and learning about the (often competing) dreams that have shaped how society looks today. Through all of this, we come to understand our place in society.
I haven't mentioned the obvious role of education, and that's to prepare us for the workforce. I haven't harped on that because I think it's rather obvious that we need quality education to produce quality workers. However, it should be clear by now that I don't consider that the end purpose of education, or even the main purpose. The main purpose, put succinctly, is to create empowered individuals who go on to empower society so that everyone can thrive together.
Education's impact on our society, and on us as individuals, cannot be underestimated. We are all shaped by the education we receive, and what it tells us about ourselves and our place in society. When a poor school is unable to give a quality education because it simply doesn't have the dollars to maintain the school, provide textbooks, and such, that tells the students of that school that either they don't matter, their education doesn't matter, or both. They can develop the sense that they cannot do certain things that should have been within their reach in an ideal society, and that sense can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if someone doesn't believe that they matter, in what ways might they act out? Will they bother to vote? Will they take care of themselves? Will they in any way become productive citizens?
We as a society need to recognize the importance of education, not just to the individual (which is huge), but also to society (which is also huge). What kind of education we provide, and who we provide it to, will shape society for generations. We are finally beginning to bring the education of girls and women up to par with the education men receive, but we need to do better. We need to combat the institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism that keeps people of color, women, and the poor from advancing as far as their talents would otherwise allow. If we don't, we will never thrive to our maximum potential as a society, even if a lucky few are able to thrive as individuals (and I'm not sure that those lucky few are thriving as much as they otherwise could).