What is Education for?

Forget the three R’s. We need the four I’s.


in Blog


What is the purpose of education? It is usually assumed that the major purpose of education is instruction: the transmission of information and the imparting of particular skills like the classic three R’s: ‘readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic’.

But instruction is the least important part of education. Most information is accessible from books and the media. Basic literacy and numeracy are important, but many if not most skills used by adults in daily life are picked up on the job. The main objective of education in every enduring society is to transmit authoritative cultural, political, and ethical traditions from one generation to the next. We can speak of the major purposes of education as the Four I’s: Initiation, Indoctrination, Inculcation, and Instruction.

Initiation. Every society, from a hunter-gatherer tribe to a continental empire to a modern nation-state, has some set of core stories and symbols which are so important to the community’s identity that they must be transmitted to the next generation. For Jews, this consists of the scriptures and the commentary which grew up around them. For the ancient Greeks, the canonical tradition was Greek mythology and the Homeric epics. In China, Confucian texts and classic poetry defined Chinese culture, generation after generation; classical Chinese culture is being revived today, after the Maoist attempt to suppress it. Today’s Hindus in India from childhood grow up exposed to the Indian myths and epics, which continue to provide subjects for TV shows and bestselling fantasy novels.

The same is true in the case of the Greater West, including the nations of Europe and the overseas settler nations they founded, including the U.S. In the West, unlike in China and India, premodern civilization and nationality do not overlap. Since the fall of the Roman empire, the West has been a single civilization with numerous nationalities and languages. And the inherited Western cultural tradition itself is a complex amalgam of three major traditions: the Greco-Roman classical tradition, the Biblical tradition, and the traditions and folklore of medieval Christendom.

Less important than philosophers like Aristotle and theologians like Aquinas are the stories that educated Westerners are and should be expected to know: Hector and Andromache, Joseph and his brothers, Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, Cinderella and Jack the Giant Slayer. As in contemporary India, in the contemporary West premodern traditions provide subjects for television and movies. Versions of Biblical stories, retellings of the story of the Round Table, new versions of the tales of Troy and Thermopylae are constantly appearing in popular culture. This is not a dead civilization, but a flourishing one. And it is a cross-class culture; even less-educated people in the West can recognize the names of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

One must master one’s own civilizational heritage before moving on to others. A native Indian who knows about the Knights of the Round Table but not the Ramayana is like someone fluent in a foreign language but inarticulate in his own. So is a Westerner who knows the Buddhist scriptures but does not understand a reference to the apple in the Garden of Eden. Education in these civilization-defining stories is far more than mere instruction; it is initiation into an ancient and living tradition that defines a communal identity.

Indoctrination. Next in importance, after initiation into core civilizational traditions, is political indoctrination.

I can hear the gasps caused by the phrase “political indoctrination,” along with the thud of readers falling on the floor in a faint. In the dictionary, synonyms of indoctrination are “brainwashing” and “propaganda.” “Political indoctrination” summons up images of Stalinist or Maoist re-education camps.

I am being deliberately provocative. If you don’t like the phrase political indoctrination, then the same thing can be called “civic education.” The point is that in addition to having a shared identity, any enduring society must have a political consensus which by its nature includes some values and excludes others.

Earlier generations of Americans used to speak of America’s “revolution principles.” We don’t use that language any more, but American political debate is still structured according to the categories of 18th century Enlightenment republicanism. We use the language of rights, political corruption, democracy, and popular sovereignty.

What is the alternative? It is one thing to acquaint American college students with alternate traditions of political thought, and another to teach American first graders that liberal democracy, military dictatorship, and heretic-killing theocracy are options that they should consider before deciding which ones they prefer.

If you want a Viking warlord society, you must indoctrinate the next generation of warriors into despising weakness and glory in battle. If you want a theocratic society, you must indoctrinate the next generation of the pious into embracing asceticism and obedience to clerics. If you want a democratic society, you must indoctrinate the next generation of citizens into valuing the rule of law, checks and balances, and voting. A modern constitutional democracy cannot work with citizens who have the values of Viking pirates or medieval Crusaders.

But wait — isn’t there a contradiction between today’s liberal democratic political principles and the stories which make up the Western heritage, many of which involve characters and values which are quite barbaric by modern standards? In practice, this is not a problem, because people distinguish fact from fiction and the past from the present. There is little danger that students who read Le Morte d’Arthur will be inspired joust to the death during recess or to cast spells on the school principal.

If cultural initiation defines the community against other communities on the planet, indoctrination ensures that the values of the next generation will fit the inherited political institutions. If you want to replace liberal democracy with warlordism or theocracy, you can try. But attempting to maintain liberal democratic institutions, without transmitting the values necessary for their successful functioning, will merely result in a crippled and dysfunctional democracy.

Inculcation. The third important function of education, following initiation and indoctrination, is the inculcation of morals and manners. This is a duty first and foremost of families. But schools, the institutions outside of the family which dominate the lives of people in modern societies throughout childhood and adolescence, have a duty to socialize citizens in the norms of good behavior.

The more standardized and invariant the norms, the better, from a democratic and egalitarian perspective. Upper classes are always devising new customs, new manners, and new dialects, as a way of identifying outsiders from the wrong class or ethnic background, who can then be frozen out of the social elite. If everyone in a country uses spoons the same way, there is no danger that your improper use of a spoon will mark you as a provincial or an arriviste or doom your career.

Traditional schools in the U.S. and Britain long put more emphasis on encouraging the ability to work with others in teams, for example by playing sports, than on mastering particular areas of knowledge, like the overrated STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This makes sense. You can master particular disciplines later. But if, as a child, you do not learn to get along with others, including bullies and people you do not like, your career as a physicist, computer programmer, or mathematician is likely to be blighted.

As in the case of initiation and indoctrination, inculcation involves an authoritative tradition. All of these traditions are subject to revision and renegotiation over time, but not on a day-to-day basis and not on education’s front lines. A teacher should tell children, “We do not punch and kick each other.” A teacher who says, “In my opinion, we should not punch and kick each other, but you may disagree,” is guilty of dereliction of duty.

Instruction. At last we come to instruction, which is the least important aspect of education, although it is the most widely-discussed. Among educational theorists, a vast amount of energy is devoted to proposing new methods to help students master particular bodies of expertise or information. It is possible that many different techniques can work reasonably well.

In any event, Instruction is not that important, compared to the other three I’s. An educational system that turned out students who could write code, but were bullies, narcissists, and petty tyrants who knew nothing about the constitution and could not name any cultural figures other than those in contemporary comic books or movies or video games would be a catastrophic failure. The chief purposes of American education should be to initiate students into enduring, central national and civilizational traditions, to indoctrinate them into the principles of a democratic republic, and to inculcate ethical habits and polite manners. An educational system that turns out technically competent graduates who are also anomic sociopaths would deserve a failing grade. •

Feature image  courtesy of Richard Lee via Flickr (Creative Commons).