I’ve always chuckled at the bumper sticker that reads “Not all who wander are lost.” It’s a quote from one of my favorite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, and that in itself makes me smile. But seeing it plastered on the back of a car reminds me that it’s probably not the best idea to follow that particular driver if I want to get where I’m going any time soon.
The same is true in education. It’s easy to buy the shiny new curriculum you just saw on Instagram. You know the one. The posts about it feature rapt children gathered around Mother as she sips tea and reads poetry aloud. Or maybe the kids are gently holding a butterfly (never a nasty spider!). Everyone is clean and smiling; no toddlers are melting down and no babies are eating dirt. It’s a beautiful vision. It’s also completely unlike any actual homeschool I’ve ever seen.
For that reason, I encourage you to do some thinking before you enter your credit card number on that site (or even on this one). In a recent episode of the Good Enough Homeschool Podcast my co-hosts and I discussed the importance of developing your personal educational philosophy as a homeschooler. The show notes give a list of books we think are must-reads for parents as they do that, but here I’d like to take a closer look at what I consider the single most important question you need to answer before you spend a dime on curriculum. It’s one that has exercised parents, politicians, and philosophers nigh unto forever.
What is the purpose of education?
In her recent piece on curriculum, my friend and colleague Courtney Ostaff outlines several possible answers. I’d like to echo those and expand her list with a few more options, plus a mnemonic device for the whole lot. While these aren’t the only possible ends of education, and there is some overlap between them, they represent some of the most common goals.
We can sum up the answers to that central question—What is the purpose of education?—with six C’s. The first three are utilitarian responses; they are means to desirable ends, or what Aristotle would call instrumental goods. The second three are what we might call intrinsic goods, or things that are good in and of themselves.
Education for Citizenship
Because all adult citizens in a democratic nation share responsibility for maintaining the country’s democratic institutions, society benefits when children receive an education that prepares them well for that task. Where education for citizenship is a primary goal, students should not only learn the bare facts about their government, but will also be expected to adopt the civic virtues associated with democratic societies: tolerance, civility, fairness, cooperation, and so on. Inculcating these virtues is therefore a part of education for citizenship, and proponents of citizenship education, such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., call for schools to promote national unity by encouraging patriotic sentiment. While some would not endorse the civic religion Hirsch proposes, most would likely agree that students should, at very least, understand how their government works, what their rights and responsibilities as citizens are, and how to advocate for just and prudent public policy.
Destination: Informed Citizen
Education for Career
If you asked most adults what the purpose of education is, I’d wager a strong majority would say, “To get a job.” Whether that goal is near or deferred for a few years by college, gainful employment remains the single most pressing concern for most students, and especially for their parents. Although the career portion of that well-worn phrase, college and career readiness, is often assumed to refer only to students who plan to enter the workforce immediately after high school, it applies much more broadly. Virtually all students will eventually need to find work, and many who enroll in college will not complete a degree. Strong literacy and numeracy skills, a broad knowledge base, and the soft skills employers prize therefore remain a pressing need for all students.
Destination: Paid Employment
Education for College
Or, education for more education. Since a bachelor’s degree is now the minimum educational requirement for many white-collar jobs, college readiness means career readiness for many of today’s students. High schools that offer a college-preparatory curriculum are expected to provide not only courses in the arts and sciences that meet college entrance requirements, but also a level of academic rigor that will allow the graduating senior to succeed academically once enrolled.
Destination: College Degree (and Paid Employment)
Education for Culture
Education is the formal part of the enculturation process by which young people internalize the values of the society in which they were raised. Seen from this perspective, education’s primary purpose is to ensure cultural continuity from one generation to the next. In its most conservative form, education for culture can easily reinforce the social, political, economic, and religious status quo by replicating dominant cultural norms, however prejudicial. We see this all too often in classical curricula that champion “Western Civilization” or in lawmakers who refuse to confront painful histories and their resulting social and moral ills. Retrograde traditionalism is not the only possible outcome of education for culture, however. When all students are afforded access to the cultural capital enjoyed by the elite, education for culture can encourage social mobility, economic uplift, and critical engagement with tradition. This is the mission of the Core Knowledge Foundation and of certain charter schools.
Destination: Cultural Literacy (may come with a bonus ticket to College or Career)
Education for Cultivation
If education-for-culture represents the outward-facing, social aspect of education, cultivation is its inner counterpart. Here, education aims at developing the capacities of the human person to their fullest extent. In the context of liberal arts education, cultivation refers to the development of intellectual habits—often labeled critical thinking skills—urbanity, and a certain liberality of outlook. A quick survey of college brochures and classical curriculum catalogs will show that teaching students how to think and broadening their intellectual horizons remain widely held educational goals, apart from any economic advantage they may confer. Education for cultivation can also encompass broader personal growth goals, or what Courtney refers to as self-actualization in her article.
Destination: Self-Actualized Human
Education for Character
A related but distinct goal is education for character. Education-for-cultivation molds the intellect, while education-for-character forms the will. Like culture and cultivation, character formation—also known as virtue education—is one of the primary goals held up by many classical educators and virtually all religious ones, but it is by no means limited to them. You will find the individual character virtues in all types of educational settings under names like grit, resilience, and work ethic, while their social counterparts appear as kindness, cooperation, and empathy. There is even a small library of guides to character education, complete with didactic literature.
Destination: Virtuous Human
Before you chart your child’s educational journey, it is critical that you decide which of these goals represents your desired destination. Of course, most parents want children who exhibit personal and civic virtue and cultural literacy and social graces and keen intellect and generosity of spirit. They’d also like them to move out of the basement some day, and that means becoming employable through either vocational training or a college degree. There is some overlap between these purposes, of course—both college- and career-oriented students need a good work ethic, and we hope that some of the ways we pass on cultural understanding to our children, like reading literature, will also result in cultivation. But all curriculum creators have assumptions—many of them unspoken—about the purpose of education. You want to build your curriculum around products made by people who share your vision of an educated adult.
So, before you press buy on that curriculum purchase, take a moment to reflect on your understanding of the purpose of education as it applies to your child. Then ask yourself exactly how the product you’re considering will help move them toward the destination you’re aiming for. Will it lead them closer to the end you have in mind, or will it cause them, and you, to wander off track? Is it even heading in a different direction entirely? Do you trust the curriculum provider to know the best route to take? Do they have the experience to predict when the road might wash out or where you might miss a turn? Can they show you a roadmap in the form of a scope-and-sequence document or a list of educational outcomes? Is there any there there, or does the mirage of happy, attentive children fade as you approach?
Not all who wander are lost, but time, money, and opportunity can be. Choose your route wisely.
Copyright 2021 by Drew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.
Drew Campbell is the author of Living Memory, I Speak Latin, and Exploring the World through Story, and co-author, with Courtney Ostaff and Jennifer Naughton, of How to Homeschool the Kids You Have. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.