David de Carvalho, CEO of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), discusses the role of education, and how it extends far beyond preparing students for the future workforce.
I have now been the CEO at ACARA for six months. It is a great privilege and responsibility to be in a position working with passionate people committed to improving our school education system. But in order to think critically and creatively about how to do this, one needs to have a clear idea about the purpose of education more broadly, and of schooling as a particular, socially organised form of education.
Perhaps a good way into this is to start with the oft-heard complaint from some students who ask something like this: “Why do we have to study Shakespeare? What use is that going to be for getting a job?”
Putting aside for now the various reasons that could be given as to why a study of Shakespeare would indeed be useful preparation for the modern world of work – with valuable insights into character, power, personal relationships, communication, self-deception, problem-solving, just to name a few – and what is noticeable about this lament is the assumption that the purpose of education starts and ends with employment.
Of course, being able to make a contribution to one’s society in ways that attract financial reward is vitally important for one’s own physical survival and wellbeing.
But while acquiring the knowledge, skills and attributes that improve one’s chances of employment is a fundamental part of any educative process, it is really only the most basic function of education, upon which other higher level functions can be developed to meet higher level needs.
In addition to serving this basic function at what might be termed the ‘vital’ level of need or value, which is concerned with the goods essential to the quality of physical life such as food, health and shelter, education also serves, in ascending order, social, cultural and personal needs and values.
At the level of social values, education supports the effective and harmonious interaction of individuals with one another as members of ever-larger groups, from families to communities of various kinds (e.g. friendship groups, churches, clubs) to wider society. Effective socialisation also supports our ability to meet our basic vital needs, since collaboration is increasingly important in our complex world for the earning of a living.
Beyond physical survival and effective socialisation, and dependent on them, there is the level of cultural values, which is concerned about the meaning of life, as mediated through story, myth, philosophy, science, history, the creative arts and literature, and many other systems of meaning that have developed over thousands of years as our society evolved.
At the core of our being, at the centre of the human condition, are questions of meaning. Human beings desire to answer the questions: “How am I to live my life? What am I to do with myself? How do I make sense of the world into which I have been born?”
Education, insofar as it operates at this cultural level, supports us to make sense of the world and the society into which we are born, and to interpret it. And just as cultural expression has the meeting of vital and social needs as a prerequisite, it also informs the ways we meet those needs.
But, ultimately, we must also be capable of understanding and shaping ourselves and our own lives as individuals. We are not just products of our physical circumstances or of a deterministic socio-economic or cultural process. The family, society and culture into which we are born influence who we are, but do not determine us.
As self-consciously thinking and feeling beings, we have agency to make meaning for ourselves, and so education, operating at the level of personal values, serves to empower us to become people of integrity, authenticity and wisdom.
‘Know thyself’ is the earliest recorded advice on the design of a curriculum, inscribed above the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi in Ancient Greece: only a truly self-aware person was able to understand the mysterious utterings of the oracle, and be able to make wise decisions.
Importantly, an individual who comes to appreciate fully their own agency is also able to critically assess the society and culture into which they were born and which influenced their development in crucial ways.
Thus, education at this level of personal values has not only shaped the world view and values of each person, but also empowers them to be agents of change. Education therefore paradoxically serves simultaneously the purposes of social and cultural continuity, and social and cultural change.
What an exciting and essential enterprise with which to be involved. I and all my colleagues at ACARA look forward to continuing to engage with the readers of Education Matters as we undertake our work.