Study on the purpose of education in society

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"There are no circumstances that you will learn nothing." These are the words from my tutor that etched so clearly in my head in a discussion that I had with him. It set me thinking. While researching, I came across John & Evelyn Dewey's quote above. Indeed, whatever we see, hear, touch, or even smell, we can learn something from it. Education, thus, is about learning, and learning, is everywhere.

"Education is an instructive or enlightening experience that knowledge and skill is obtained." (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2010). Man craved for knowledge, as evident from the biblical story in which Adam and Eve defied God's instruction to eat the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil so that they can become wise (Genesis 2:16 to Genesis 3:8). It is this same craving for knowledge that made education an important pillar of society ever since then.

Figure 1: Countries fall into three broad categories based on their Education Index: high, medium, and low human development.

Source: The 2007/2008 edition of the Human Development Report was published on November 27, 2007, taken from

Till today, education is still viewed as a vital process. Statics have shown that there is increasing emphasis put on education throughout the world (Refer to Figure 1). From Figure 1 above, it is clear that the number of countries in the world with high education index forms the majority. In addition, it is these countries that are the most developed, such as America and Europe. Universal primary education is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals and great improvements have been achieved in the past decade (Steer and Baudienville 2010). As a result, most countries now would have some sort of a Ministry of Education run by the government to dictate the education policies for the country. It is evident that the world is putting more focus into developing its education.

Purpose of Education

Education of current generation passed down to the next generation

Dieter Lenzen, president of the Freie Universität Berlin (1994), said that "education began either millions of years ago or at the end of 1770." I choose to believe the first, due to the numerous historical evidences. Clay tablets with pictorial diagrams created by the Sumerian 6,000 years ago, or that Egypt had it's first library more than 4,500 years ago made it evident that the human civilisation found ways and means to educate their people. Though each civilisation has a different way to educate, the common purpose was to pass on knowledge that is essential for survival to the younger generations. With the education of a generation, there will be a pool of learned educators to provide the needed knowledge for the next generation. The development of previous knowledge will aid in the progress of the society as knowledge gets built up for the reference of the following generations. This is a snowballing effect. One will learn from the previous generation a certain set of knowledge. After becoming competent, one will then be able to use this knowledge on research and development, resulting in more cutting edge knowledge and ideas to be created.

Economical advantages

According to Marxism and the theory of capitalism, the development of a country is driven by the economy largely. It is due to the knowledge of the people that allows the country to produce sufficiently for its own survival, as well as surplus production for the income of the country. The basic education provides people the base knowledge that is needed to support their learning of specific skills. Therefore more educated society may lead to more new and innovative methods and inventions to simplify complex processes that are used to do certain things.

As we can see, one of the most important factors is human capitalisation. Human capitalisation is further enhanced by the quality of the education system in the country, since most people who graduated from the school system will enter their countries workforce directly. A good education, simply put, will allow the person to receive a higher pay to make him or herself better off. Not only that, as he is a 'successful product' of the system, this person would naturally put more concern into the education system by giving more feedback or coming up with methods of improvement so that future generations can reap the benefits.

When bringing this point down to the individual level, education allows people to secure jobs in industries like engineering, which requires specific skills, so that they can earn a living. Just like what Lao Tzu, a mystic philosopher of ancient china, and best known as the author of "Tao De Jing", quoted, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." From this quote we can infer that if the people in the society just constantly rely on government grants (if any), they will learn nothing and no skills would be and just become a burden to society. However, by proving them with the tools essential for survival, he or she would be self-sufficient.

Development of the country economically

With the development of the people's minds, a country is able to make use of the collection of knowledge for its development. Through education, we are able to learn from others, such as the improvements made in Singapore due to the technologies and skills learnt from other developed countries. The knowledge that one learn from education will increase the productivity of an individual. By applying their learnt skill in the local firms, they have the ability to maintain or even improve the firm's production methods and output. As output increase, the countries' net export will also increase, thus generating more income for the country. With this extra income, the country will then be able to purchase new technologies and this whole cycle repeats again. Therefore, education plays a vital role for the economic growth of the country.

To develop one's mind

Another important purpose of education is to develop one's mind. Though education does not guarantee learned minds, it does produce learning and thinking minds, which is the most important. Education allows the development of creative thinking and lifelong learning habits that are important in life. In this highly competitive society, employees are constantly looking for creative solutions to solve problems. Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) require thinking adults to work in teams and apply what was learnt in schools on projects that the company is embarking at the moment or in the future. Creativity and teamwork are skills learnt through the process of education and not from education. Through education, we are not only taught the ability to critically analyze and evaluate every single problem we face, but also to quickly come out with a simple yet effective solution to solve that same problem. Education also teaches the ability to accept and adapt other people's ideas and solutions, hence allowing us to find the most effective and simple way to solve problems. Not only that, education is also able to create questioning minds, which are important. This allows one to be able to critically evaluate a piece of information by questioning, instead of accepting it wholesale. The importance of education is thus the process of development of one's mind. With the knowledge given, human is able to think more and develop evaluations of his own, leading to further development of the mind.

Developing moral values of the people

Education is important as it is a channel for moral values to be imparted and inculcated. Furthermore, it is also through education that national identity and loyalty to the country is being strengthened. Not only that, Confucius, a Chinese thinking and social philosopher of the Spring Autumn Period also stressed the importance of education for moral development of the individual and also the ability to put the knowledge attained into good use.

Moral values in students are still currently a debatable issue in today's education system. Greek philosopher Aristotle referred good character as knowing the good, desiring the good and doing the good. However, one can be very smart about matters of right and wrong but yet still subconsciously choose the wrong. Therefore school's play a vital role in teaching students to make the right decisions at the right time.

It can be seen that the knowledge that people have academically is not enough to support the country in the long term. A country without moral values will be corrupted and hence, defeating the purpose of building up the economy as people will not contribute back into the society. Education will allow the creation of people with high moral and ethical values. These people, having a deep understanding of the principles and philosophies in life will in turn create a responsible, thoughtful, and healthy society that will be wonderful to live in.

Implications to Singapore

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (2005) said that "Singapore was able to grow and transform economically as the government has committed to invest heavily in the education system, thus, allowing the human capacity of the country to be enhanced. And this investment will continue to ensure that the Singapore economic will be competitive." Singapore has minimal natural resources, and the government knows that its people are the country's biggest resource. Thus, the government places a lot of focus on developing the education system. This can be seen from the fact that education is one of the sectors that uses a huge percentage of the economics budget every year. The aim of the Singapore's education system is to develop talented individuals who are not only good in knowledge, but also creative and inquisitive. Not only that, the people should be morally upright and proud to be a Singaporean. This can be seen from the desired outcomes of education, which hopes an individual will become:

a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;

a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;

an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and,

a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him.

(Quoted from Desired outcomes of education, , 2010)

In response to this need, the Singapore government implemented the following changes in the education system.

Emphasizing on 21st Century Skills and developing thinking mind

Since 1998, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has started a series of reduction in the syllabus so that teachers can focus less on curriculum and spend more time nurturing thinking skills and delivering national education messages for the students. At the same time, Extra-Curricular Activities (ECA) was also changed to Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) as MOE saw an importance of developing character building. Thus, the education system in Singapore has changed in focus from passing down knowledge to developing students holistically.

The recent model of teaching released by MOE, the Teacher Education 21 (TE21) (2010) further emphasises the need for our students to have 21st Century Skills, which are:

Civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills

Critical and inventive thinking

Information and communication skills

(Quoted from MOE to Enhanced learning of 21st Century Competencies and Strengthen Art, Music and Physical Education,, 2010)

Not only that, there is also a need for students to have social and emotional competencies, so that they can "recognise and manage their emotions, develop care and concern for others, make responsible decisions, establish positive relationships, as well as to handle challenging situations effectively. " (MOE 2010).

In order to survive in today's society, lifelong skills are equally important after having obtained intellectual knowledge. Therefore, most schools and teachers are using Socrates method of teaching to educate our students. A classical Greek Athenian's Philosopher, Socrates' method of teaching is to facilitate and not teach, by asking back thinking questions when the student raises a question, instead of just telling them the answers. This is to allow the students to be able to come out with their own solution to their own problems, and thus develop thinking minds.

It is now common to see that schools are using the Problem-Based Learning approach (PBL). PBL learning began 34 years ago at McMaster University Medical School. (MCLI, 2001) The way PBL works is that students are given a problem that they need to solve. These questions are triggers for learning in the respective fields and students are usually given real life cases. They will then need to diagnose the problems, conduct their own research and come out with creative solutions. In the PBL setting, the students have the biggest responsibility in deciding what they learn, with teachers being facilitators rather than lecturers, to guide the students' learning process.

The beauty of PBL is that the students are not spoon-fed with knowledge and solutions. Instead they can use their own ways to determine which content is relevant to solve the problem. Hence, learning is much more active as they would also learn how to apply what they learn instead of just learning for the sake of doing so.

By developing our students this way, they are able to acquire life skills that are important to them. As said above, the ability for our students to develop thinking minds that are needed when they graduate from school and step in to the new globalised, fast changing society. With PBL and TE21, schools are not only providing students with the sufficient knowledge to solve problems, but also the tools to solve the problem. Students, now equipped with these 21st Century skills are now able to work more effectively and thus increase economic productivity for the country.

Creation of new universities as a centre of learning and research

In recent years, Singapore established new universities like Singapore Management University (SMU). Private universities like Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) and Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) are also created to offer local students distant learning degrees. These schools offer degrees from good universities like University of London (UOL) and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Singapore also plans to open a fourth local university in 2011. Dr Tony Tan (2009), chairman of the International Academic Advisory Panel (IAAP) stated that the university offers students with "a truly enriching learning experience that would equip them well to meet the complex demands of a globalised knowledge-based economy." This links back to my first point where "Education of current generation passed down to the next generation". The opening of these new universities allows our citizens to equip themselves with important knowledge. At these universities, students learn from people who excel in their areas of studies. Furthermore, these universities also provide a venue with top notched facilities where students, upon graduation, can choose to stay on for their independent research and studies. Thus, the universities not only act as places where knowledge can be imparted, but also a venue where new knowledge is created.

Developing Morally Upright Students

There is always a big focus on civics and moral education in our school systems. This lesson is now being given more focus in TE21. TE21 stresses that values is the core pillar with knowledge and skills are developed around it. Therefore, this underlines the importance of values in the Singapore's education system.

Cochran-Smith et al (2010) mentioned that teachers can start by using moral dilemmas or scenario case studies to ignite the moral thinking within each child. Having open discussions as a class would also help them.

In view of developing thinking minds and morally upright students, it is now common to see teachers using thinking scenarios and moral dilemmas like the Kohlberg's (1958) moral dilemmas. Khloberg dilemmas use a series of dilemma scenarios to invoke students thinking on their actions if they are placed in similar situations. From there, teachers are able to track the growth of students morally and guide them if needed too.

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hien said, "Of what use is the education system if it produces smart crooks or selfish individualist who feel no obligation to society, or loyalty to nation? Education must imbue the next generation with the right value system. Through values education, we must develop future citizens with upright character who can contribute to their community. We must also inculcate in our young a deep sense of bonding to the nation, so that they will be prepared to stay and fight in terms of adversity." Through education, Singapore hopes that its students will be morally upright individuals who will contribute back to his home country.


Therefore, teaching is more than a job, or rather, a calling. As stated in the MOE website (2010) teachers are required to "make children excited with the wonders of science and the majesty of mathematics, and make them fall madly in love with the beauty of the arts and the humanities. Thus making schools the place where students can discover their talents, and aspire to greater heights."

The job of teachers is simple, yet difficult to achieve. To put it simply, the teachers are the street lamps, there to guide students along the path of developing and discovering of themselves. Teachers assist in laying the foundation stone for all other professions. Teachers are training young whom will be the pillars of society in future. Therefore, not only must teachers be to relate what they teach to the future, they must be able to empower their students with skills that are relevant in society.


The content of education is always changing, due to the fact that it has a direct relation to the society. This implies that educators need to be relevant in terms of content that they are going to impart to students. Although the content is different, the purpose of education does not change. The purpose of education is still learning and developing of a person. Just like the parts of the car, we cannot pin-point which is the most important car part. Every single part of the car needs to work together in order to transport a person to another location. Just like the car, education works in the same way. Every single point mentioned above is equally important. Every individual, when born, is a raw gem. Education is thus the process where an individual will go through transformation to become a polished gem; one that is knowledgeable, thinking, holistic and morally upright and able to bring in revenue for him and the country.

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