20 March 2019

Nigeria: What Is the Great Purpose of Education?


First, the value as well as the pervasive relevance of education is an inexhaustible topic. Therefore, I take the liberty to roam wide in this lecture. Second, I choose this topic for the reason that I see around me -and with a bit of sadness - a prevalent lack of understanding of what 'education' really means, what great purpose it ought to serve, what aim it should accomplish, what goal it must achieve: in sum, what difference 'education' should effect in the educated person, and through him, impact upon the society of which he is a part.

There are, of course, purposes of education; but there is the great purpose of education. The former are sub-parts of the latter; the latter is the (constructive, progressive) sum total of the former. This lecture examines and argues for the great purpose that education ought to serve -for the individual, and for society.

People acquire education for such purposes as the desire to know, to earn recognition, to be certified fit for a job and to earn a living. But, in line with Spencer's postulation, there is - as there should be - a higher and ideal purpose of education. This 'great' purpose is, I must declare quickly and directly, is that the educated man acts consistently, in pursuit of the Catholic Church definition of common good.

What is education?

Webster's (2004) says Education is 1."the systematic development and cultivation of the natural powers, by inculcation, example, etc." 2. "instruction and training in an institution of learning". 3. "the knowledge and skills resulting from such instruction and training". Wikipedia (22/10/18) says education "is about teaching, learning skills and knowledge".

There is no human society that does not have a system of education to nurture members of the community so they can be responsible and value-adding citizens. Every human community has its unique structure, system, process and procedure to educate its members from childhood. This is for good reason so aptly put by Aristotle. Greek philosopher Diogenes Laertius recounts that Aristotle was asked how much the educated was superior to the uneducated and he replied, "as much as the living is to the dead". Obviously, an educated (enlightened) person is vastly more beneficial to himself and to the community than one Webster's describes as "destitute of education". It is also necessary to educate members of the community because the cohesion and survival of the community is sustained by an adherence by its members to extant comprehensive code of behavior.

Education is a refining process with, as opined by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, "immense power" to transform the whole being.

In truth, one who is 'education processed', meaning in learning and in character, cannot be the same thereafter, I would even say that the process of our education is akin to a process of emerging from darkness into light. There should be no end to our education because we never fully come into complete knowledge or into full light.

It is said that to know more is to be more. In the history of Mankind, the 'ignorance choice' is not the norm. Instead, the desire-nay, the yearning- to know in order to enlarge perception and understanding of the self and the world is instinctive to man. This natural inclination toward knowledge explains Man's effort to explore and understand the universe, to even manipulate physical and non-physical forces of nature to his own advantage -good or ill. Inevitably, the instinctive desire to know also propels the development of tools to achieve this end. Continuous learning is not only intrinsically good, it is a necessity laid upon Man by his nature. Granted that it is the nature of Man to want to know; to not seek knowledge is, one should conclude, not normal and not natural.

Types and Impact of Education

There are two broad types of education: the formal, structured education that is given and received 'in school, where a person may learn basic academic or trade skills'; and the informal education that is given and received as part of the process of nurture, growing up within the family and living in the community. Informal education may also be acquired by voluntary self-education including general reading.

I have read of formal education also described (I think it was Bertrand Russell) as 'conventional education' acquired through secondary sources of books, teachers and other intermediaries; and informal education as 'unconventional education' acquired through primary or firsthand real world observation and experience. In the Yoruba culture, (informal) education begins early in life in the form of home training or "eko ile". This includes modes of greeting and other forms of behavior appropriate to persons and situations, toilet manners, eating manners, emulation of adult behavior "awose", play acting, performing chores and running errands. Hawking of goods trains a child in commercial skills and accounting skills. Home training is a communal responsibility. The character of "omoluabi" is molded by training on greeting, deference to adults, and appropriate behavior in different situations.

The building block of education is knowledge of facts and figures. But mere knowledge of facts and figures will not do; it must lead to understanding - the ability to, in the words of Francis Bacon the philosopher, 'weigh and consider' the diverse and complex relations between data, and to grasp both immediate and underlying and meanings and motives. But even that will not do. The ultimate end of knowledge and understanding is wisdom. The Book of Job (NKJV) in chapter 28 has much to say on the incomparable value of wisdom. Of course Job should know: he was a man of whom God said "there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil". I urge you to read it. "The beginning of wisdom is to desire it," says Solomon ibn Gabirol (Shapira, 2016) Haim Shapira warns however that whereas "Knowledge can be handed down from one person to another [but] wisdom cannot be transferred... [it] cannot be taught". So, every man must desire it, seek it, and find it by himself.

What is 'wisdom'? Wisdom is the ability to draw, not just meaning from a mass of information, but to reach the right, and enduringly useful conclusion. Webster's defines wisdom as "the power of true and right discernment". Wikipedia says it is 'the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, common sense and insight'. A Chinese proverb says "wisdom is knowing that you don't know what you don't know, and that you know what you know... " (Haim Shapira, 2016) Ultimately though, both the books of Job and Proverbs acknowledge with reverence that 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' and Ecclesiastes teaches that "... wisdom gives life to those who have it".

Education is an 'intrinsic good'. By this I mean that to be educated is by, and of itself, good as well as beneficial. But that is at the most basic, the most ordinary, and level of the purpose of education. No one, however would want to exist mere ordinary level. beyond 'education for education sake', education is also a personal good (I don't mean "private good" ) to the extent that it adds value to the human person, and makes the educated valuable and beneficial to herself. Education also serves the public good. Because it refines and enriches such that the thought, the words, and the deeds of the educated man is a positive influence wherever he is, the educated person is able - if he chooses - to serve and advance the public interest. I raise here the factor of choice because we are witnesses to the way and manner that persons with even 'higher education' and who occupy high public offices and political positions do, in exercise of their freewill, choose to betrayed public trust and in turn, the great purpose of their education.

Education should also be a 'common good'. This is to say that, as all common goods, it should -nay must- be accessible as a right, to every member of society. This is how it should be (how else?) because for education to safeguard and advance the genuine and equitable interest of one, it must be made to safeguard and advance the genuine and equitable interest of all. As the saying goes, the only guarantee of personal safety is collective security.

To be continued tomorrow


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