The main purpose of education
October 2010 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
The main purpose of education is to strengthen your mind so that you can more easily learn to deal with specific challenges you will face throughout your life. Even though you will forget most of what you learned in school, the intense effort you spend struggling with difficult academic material tones your mind, just like how physical conditioning tones your body (even though it serves almost no practical purpose).
Every single child has asked his/her parents the following question regarding what they have to learn in school: "When am I ever going to use this?" It's a fair question—after all, kids in the developed world are forced by law to spend over a decade of their lives listening to lectures, doing homework, and studying for tests on material that seem mostly irrelevant to their everyday lives. Even worse, everything that they must learn can simply be found on the Internet, so it's reasonable for them to wonder why they must go through the motions of learning all these facts in the first place.
I'm not an education expert by any means, but I have a hunch that many parents cannot give their kids a satisfactory answer to "When am I ever going to use this?" Their responses range from misguided attempts to find direct applications (e.g., "If you want to become an astronaut, you've gotta first learn to solve systems of two algebraic equations in case you need to, ummm, do that while you're up in space and your computer breaks") to cliches like "it doesn't matter what you're studying, you're actually learning how to learn!" Since I've been disappointed with the answers I've heard so far, I've decided to make my own feeble attempt at responding to this age-old question.
My response to kids is that the main purpose of education is to strengthen your mind so that you can perform better in the sport of life.
To reinforce my claim, I'm going to make a cheesy sports analogy. Imagine your favorite sport. For this example, let's say it's basketball. Your goal is to become the best possible basketball player, within the limits of your biological capabilities. To do so, you will need to spend many hours each day on two types of activities: playing basketball and doing physical conditioning. The former is obvious: You can't get good at basketball without actually playing a lot of basketball. However, the latter is also crucial: Physical conditioning activities like stretching, running, and weightlifting all strengthen your body so that you can play better basketball. Similarly, to succeed in the sport of life, you need to practice two types of activities: Learning how to directly deal with life's challenges and doing mental conditioning. The former is obvious: If you want to do well in your job as, say, a pilot, then you need to spend thousands of hours flying planes. However, the latter is also crucial: Mental conditioning activities like practicing math, writing analytical essays, and studying history all strengthen your mind so that you can more easily learn to adapt to future life challenges.
Do you see the parallel I'm drawing between physical and mental conditioning? Just like how stretching, running, and weightlifting are forms of physical conditioning, your education is your main form of mental conditioning. An aspiring basketball player might whine and ask coach, "When am I ever going to use this?" regarding seemingly-boring conditioning exercises. Why should a basketball player work so hard on trying to run fast or to lift heavy weights? After all, he/she isn't trying to become a world-champion sprinter or weightlifter, so why does being fast and strong even matter? They matter because being physically fit will indirectly improve one's basketball skills, enabling one to be sharper and more stable on the court. So, why should a student work so hard on math and science homework? After all, he/she isn't trying to become a Nobel prize-winning scientist, so why bother slogging through all of that homework? Studying in school matters because being mentally stronger will indirectly improve one's skills in dealing with real-world professional and personal challenges. For example, math teaches you to reason logically, science teaches you to think empirically, and the humanities teach you to read critically and analytically. Even if you don't remember most of the specific facts, your mind will be stronger for having learned them, and it will be harder for people to deceive you with misleading facts or reasoning.
As a particular example, consider biology class. Although knowing about the parts of a living cell might never benefit your career, just the fact that you know a cell is comprised of physical components rather than 'being magic' strengthens your mind by reinforcing the idea that humans can empirically observe and test theories about the natural world rather than simply inventing myths. Even if you don't work as a biologist, an understanding of the scientific method will help you to become a more effective problem solver in any domain. Speaking of myths, learning about mythology in history class also strengthens your mind by deepening your understanding of individual and group psychology and the origins of human culture. Again, even though you're probably never going to directly apply your history knowledge, an understanding of psychology and culture will undoubtedly help you in dealing with interpersonal issues in any professional or social situation.
So if schooling is actually mental conditioning that supposedly strengthens your mind, then how come so many kids graduate from high school with their minds still as soft as mush? Well, to get conditioning benefits, you actually need to make an active, deliberate effort to learn and absorb the subject matter, not just half-ass your way through classes with minimal effort. Half-assing your way through school is like half-assing your way through physical conditioning exercises. Even the most out-of-shape fools can still do some half-ass stretches, run a lap slowly around the track, and lift tiny dumbbells each day, but does anyone expect those fools to actually strengthen and tone their bodies? They're doing the exact same activities as the serious athletes (e.g., stretching, running, weightlifting), but they won't ever get physically stronger since they don't challenge their bodies with intensive training. Similarly, students who don't actively engage with the subject matter and immerse themselves in it won't have their minds strengthened. They can still get by and graduate, but their brains won't receive much long-term benefits. Nothing can substitute for active, deliberate practice and hard work.
Of course, mental conditioning doesn't guarantee professional success or life happiness; it's merely a foundation. Similarly, physical conditioning doesn't guarantee athletic success; it's merely a foundation. The strongest and fastest person in the world will still be terrible at basketball unless he/she has trained intensely on the court. However, nobody can get good at basketball without being physically fit.
In closing, just like how an excellent coach can bring out an athlete's greatest physical potential, an excellent teacher can boost kids' motivations to strengthen their minds through efficient and focused practice. Teachers aren't just relaying information about specific topics; they're responsible for building stronger minds, which can have a lifelong positive impact on kids.