What is our education system for?

Education plays a big part in every election campaign. But it seems that the only debate is over funding. It is implicitly assumed that the only way to improve our education system is by higher funding levels and that if only more young people could do A levels and get a degree then our economic productivity would rise and they would all be better off.

What I would like to see is some examination of what our education system actually does and reconsider if that really should be its goal.

Learn to write

Education can be seen as the way that students are taught to write and communicate “properly”. In particular, they are taught Standard Written English (SWE). David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage” examines how “rules” in English usage and grammar can be better understood as “norms” more similar to “ethics” than to “scientific laws”. Importantly “a dialect of English is learned and used either because it’s your native vernacular or because it’s the dialect of a Group by which you wish to be accepted”. Therefore, students from less privileged backgrounds have to learn SWE because it is the dialect of “power and prestige.”

You may find this form of education objectionable. My view is that given the structure of our society, it is useful for the individual. Highly paid professions require fluency in this dialect and if we want any social mobility this has to be taught.

If I look at what is taught at a UK university, I quickly conclude that they go much further than this in the enforcement of dialect. Peter Elbow in “Everyone Can Write” discusses the teaching of “academic discourse” which is the language academics use to write to each other. This is the form of writing that is taught and highly valued at university. But as he points out, there is not a single form of “academic discourse”. Historians do not write in the same style as Biologists. Even within subjects, there can be wildly different forms of acceptable dialects.

The purpose of these dialects is to provide a barrier to entry to the discipline. It is how academics can signal to each other that they are part of the same sub-group, and by enforcement of their dialect exclude outsiders. Much of academic writing appears to be deliberately obstructive to the lay reader. Within academia this is irritating, but when it forms a central part of the education of a population it is a lot worse than useless.

Learning to write in this dialect does not prepare the student for the tasks they will face after university. The language of business is very different from the language of English Professors. Hence the common complaint that not only do graduates have to be taught so much, they actually have to “unlearn” what they have been taught.

Learn a subject

In UK universities, it appears that the purpose is to train future academics. The subject matter is very narrow, the syllabus relates to one discipline and the student is encouraged to go deeply into a specific area within that subject. Ask a history student about anything and they will say “not my period”. Talk to an economist and they will refuse to have a conversation without a mathematical model. Lawyers learn the intricacies of Roman Law.

Unfortunately, it is not obvious that excelling at a narrow and specialised area has many transferrable benefits. It does not produce a well-rounded graduate with a range of interests and perspectives. It provides a very highly refined ability to do something they will never be asked to do again, unless they become an academic of course or maybe a macro manager.


It is a signal

This is a compelling driver for getting an education. It can be used to give very valuable signals which are important in your life. For example

  1. Getting into a selective university signals that I am intelligent and hard-working
  2. High grades signal that I am intelligent and hard-working
  3. Going to certain universities signals that I have been socialised into a specific culture and am motivated to belong to it. This is why investment banks interview Harvard students.

These signals have numerous costs, not just the financial and time cost of a university education.

Getting good grades at school to gain entry into a top university has become a growing driver of school education. We are obsessed with league tables, and education up to the age of 18 appears increasingly to be a competition. There are many other things that could be the focus of our children’s attention. Teaching to pass an exam necessarily leads to focus on a defined syllabus and the subordination of creativity and imagination to regurgitation of the approved answers.

The desire by students for high grades creates a strong demand for courses which can be graded and for the students to be ranked. To rank students effectively, a syllabus is required which leads to a test with a decent dispersion of results. This leads to a particular kind of subject matter being preferred. In subjects such as economics and finance, what I observe is a lot of time focused on the teaching of complex and rather arcane methods of mathematical and statistical modelling. This creates an exam which even some of the very smart students cannot do well and so it is possible to differentiate between them. But not on a basis which is necessarily meaningful.

If I taught a course, I have lots of things I would like to include. But I have no idea how I would examine it. What I would want to teach are concepts which are not very difficult. Everyone in the class could understand them and get an A. But just because there are not difficult does not mean that they are obvious or commonly understood. Perhaps the most important lesson would be that they should never use any of the sophisticated mathematical techniques they are learning in their other classes. Care and attention in assessing what the characteristics of the data are and what can reasonably be done with it are far more important.

For an individual, this signalling can produce compelling and powerful success stories. In many ways, my personal story can be expressed in this way. Teresa May wants to bring back Grammar schools because she went to one and ended up being Prime Minister. But this type of anecdotal reasoning leads to poor policy and worse outcomes for most children. http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2013/01/28/grammar-school-myths/

What should the purpose of education be?

We could add a focus on developing knowledge and skills which are useful for people to have

  1. In the workplace
  2. In their lives
  3. As a member of society

The opportunity is there. I meet many students who enjoy their time at university. I meet very few who enjoy their academic work and even fewer who think their academic work is useful.

My recent experience

I have to admit a tendency to get overexcited in the adoption of new things. I spent a week touring US colleges recently and was overwhelmingly surprised and impressed. I met students who described doing courses that were “not too hard, but really useful”. I never did courses like that.

I do not want to single out any one place as there were so many positive impressions. But this was the best video.