The most direct way to describe the core purpose of schools is to say that our job, as teachers, is to equip and inspire students to cultivate their humanity. This is not an empty slogan for me; it is an architectural drawing with which to build a living school and a way to express what education can be.
The heart of the matter is this idea that the job of education is to cultivate our humanity. On the face of it, this is a rather grandiose assumption, particularly if we believe that schools are essentially about preparing students for the world of work. But this phrase is intentional, for it is meant to occupy a distinctive position in the debate about why we have schools and what we are trying to accomplish when we commit our children to these institutions.
There are at least three versions of what schools are for and therefore what they are meant to accomplish. In the first version, schools are a giant sorting and selection mechanism that are designed to determine who goes to university and who flips hamburgers at McDonald’s. As they are supposed to do this on the basis of merit, much attention is paid to ensuring consistent and transparent mechanisms of assessment. The success of this system is reflected in how well it places the right student in the right position, particularly in reference to the smooth running of our consumption-driven economy.
A second version of schooling is one that seeks to identify and develop “individual potential” in students, wherever this may lie. This is a distinctly modern approach that puts a great emphasis on individual choice that is to be serviced by a broad menu of electives. Success within this system is measured by the extent that individual needs are recognized and met.
To say that the core purpose of education is to “cultivate humanity” is to point to a third version of what schools are for, and of what education could be. This version is classical in nature, for it presupposes that human beings have certain powers (e.g. to think, to create, to be moral agents, etc.) and that part of what it means to express one’s humanity is to develop and enhance these powers. The job of schools, in this version, is indeed to “equip and inspire” students to meet this challenge.
I endorse and would promote this third version of the purpose of schooling. While I am not adverse to “developing individual potential” or attempting to meet individual needs, I see education as something broader and more fundamental than just this. I see education as an opportunity to show students how they can express the very best of what it is to be a human being.
Before trying to illustrate how this might be attempted within the context of Island Pacific School, I would like to linger for a moment on the audacity and beauty of this goal. Imagine what it would look like if schools took seriously that their job was to equip and inspire students to cultivate their humanity. Imagine how teachers, students, and parents might come to reconfigure how they understood, for example, the learning of mathematics, given such ultimate aim. A great educator once said that the purpose of schools is to initiate students into the great conversations of human inquiry. Imagine what it would look like if we taught mathematics as a “great conversation”, as a delightful puzzle pursued through the ages that represents a magnificent human achievement. Imagine if we taught all our subjects that way.
Imagine further if we embedded within our teaching of history, art, literature and science an ongoing, and critical, examination of how we ought to live? Imagine if we gave students the tools and ability to think about such things in a coherent way? The Roman poet Pindar once admonished young people to “Become what you are”. Far from being an invitation to “follow one’s bliss”, this was instead a challenge and clarion call to embody human excellence through the expression unassailable virtues.
In the contemporary world—particularly for adolescents—there are many invitations to stupidity and precious few clarion calls to “become what you are” in Pindar’s sense. It seems to me, therefore, that the larger purpose of schools—if they mean to educate in any genuine sense—is to stand as a countervailing force against the ignorance, banality and superficiality that is so prevalent within our times. In the broadest possible sense, this is the contribution that Island Pacific School should make, both to its students and, through them, to society as a whole.