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The purpose of education: preparation or .... living?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Excerpted, with minor modifications, from a manuscript in preparation (July, 2010) by Paul Grobstein and Alice Lesnick tentatively titled "'Rethinking Preparation: An Evolutionary Model (and Metaphor?) of Education."  Made available as a contribution to discussions in a session of the Bryn Mawr Summer K-12 Institute on Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education, and other relevant discussions of education.   Comments are welcome in the on-line forum at the end of this page.  


Across various contexts, teachers struggle to reconcile regard for individuals’ distinctiveness and unknown futures with pressure to prepare them for participation in pre-existing structures of knowledge and interaction.  An always handy way to resolve this tension is to define education as a linear progression from integration to creativity: survival first, then (if you are lucky), freedom.  Formal education tends to be dominated by a belief that process, inquiry, creativity and generative disarray all depend on the prior acquisition of particular bodies of knowledge and skills demonstrably attained according to particular standards. From this perspective, only people who can demonstrate successful integration with pre-determined knowledge are free to challenge or change this knowledge.

We are skeptical of this resolution for two reasons, one related to individuals’ relation to the past and one to their relation to the future.  First, it assumes that an individual’s lack of attention to past beliefs or practices necessarily amounts to ignorance of or disrespect for collective, cumulative understanding. (For a recent articulation of this view, see Brook, 2008.)  In fact, there is no need to envision the relation between the individual and the group, the present and the past, in such oppositional terms.  Individuals enrich communities by virtue of their unique perspectives and critiques; these are part of the cumulative understandings on which we draw to live.
Second, it presumes that it is possible and in fact maximally responsible to help people cope with indeterminate future threats by assuring their proficiency in a given, current, body of knowledge and skills.  This tacit theory of competence and protection reinforces the idea that people survive and thrive by becoming, and being recognized as, knowledgeable and competent in certain predetermined ways.  From this perspective, formal education can only be responsive to human needs by striving to equip people with this knowledge and competence and by judging and sorting them on this basis.  Of course, within formal educational systems, this theory has a self-fulfilling quality as students move up from ladder to ladder of standardized testing and credentialing. That this parallel universe of socially constructed necessities for educational advancement exists, though, does not justify it.

An understanding of "life itself" as an ongoing process of change formed and informed by biology and culture provides a way to see these apparently conflicting interests as instead intertwined in a mutually supportive way. It also points directions for changes in educational practice that would help achieve a more coherent, useful, and broadly-based picture of education to guide policy and practice. In particular, we suggest that creating and sustaining abundant, flexible connections and exchanges between formal and informal learning -- the classroom and the world -- at all levels of the educational enterprise promises to help people -- as living beings, biological and cultural -- to themselves pursue integration and freedom in tandem, in ways that do not involve sacrifice of either one for the other in action or conception. 

Our notion of education as “life itself” draws on biological evolution as both a foundation and a metaphor, and integrates it with considerations of brain function and cultural organization.  Our hope is that others may find that the “education as life itself” perspective opens the door to reconsiderations of the idea of preparation in pedagogical practice at all levels of the educational enterprise.

There is, in the evolutionary process, no sharp distinction between "preparation for life" and "life itself", nor between "integration" and "freedom" or "survival" and "liberation."  Individual organisms come into existence with a set of tools (provided by their genomes) that reflect in part previous experiences ("natural selection") and in part random variation.  There is no "optimal" set of tools, the tools available to different organisms (both across species and within a species) are different, and each organism both hones its tools and develops new ones throughout its life.   In short, one doesn't prepare for life and then live it.  Life is itself an ongoing process of both living and, in so doing, preparing for future life. While our human characteristics of reflection and acculturation add both possibilities and problems (of which more below), it is important to emphasize that we are biological organisms, and share with other organisms the more basic capabilities of life as a process, one in which there is no clear separation between living and preparing for future life.

Similarly, both "integration" and "freedom", and "survival" and "liberation," are fully entangled in living systems.  Interactions with other organisms, both like themselves and different from themselves, are simultaneously constraints and scaffoldings for new directions of exploration.  Tapeworms, for example, would not have come into existence but for the prior existence of other organisms in whose intestines they now live.  "Integration" and "survival" both promote "freedom" and "liberation", and the latter in turn promote the former.  One both survives and integrates by building new forms on existing scaffolds, and without them there would be neither freedom nor liberation.   Neither set of apparent opposites can be achieved without the other. In biological systems, whatever an organism finds around itself is always simultaneously constraint and opportunity.


Regina Toscani's picture

Preparing vs. Participating

Perhaps if peolpe can switch from being in a "survival" mode to "experimental" mode we could more readily see education as more than preparing for "the real world".  Right now the majority of people are filled with concerns about the economy, terrorism, lack of/inatiquate medical insurance, etc.  The fears of today inhibit a person from exploring/experimenting with possible options.  It is easy to become convince that only "formal" education will lead to a better tomorrow.

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