The purpose of education is to increase empathy and equality – 500 words on #purpos/ed

I never did sign up for this, but, hey, the purpos/ed project is making a splash in our world and it is worth pitching in, even if my contributions are not timely, original or synthetic of what has gone before (see David Jennings, who took the synthesising route: Cristina Costa neatly exposes a key issue, saying, “… education is part of what we are and what we become” ( From this, I suggest that asking what the purpose of education is, is not far different from asking what our purpose is.


There is an explicit call in Keri Facer’s post ( opening the debate: “What is the part that education can play in achieving [the good society] and what is the part that others need to play?” (Q1&2). Who these others might be is not clear, but there is a pointer later: “What are the building blocks [inside and] outside formal education?” (Q3&4).

Implicit in the way the question is asked, is an answer of sorts: the purpose of education is to discover what the good society is and to bring it about. From at least Aristotle onward, discovering this has been one of the main purposes of education. But, also implicit in the way the question is asked is the observation that there may be different views as to what a (or the) good society might be and that people involved in an investigation such as this might have something to learn from those who hold different positions. The last implication of the way the question is posed is, I suggest: what is the purpose of our institutions of education? And, this is a very different question to: “what is the purpose of education?” (Stephen Downes rephrases the question, “The purpose of learning”, but that is yet another question.)

There are three problematic points: Why are we here? What is the good society? And, the us-and-them issue (who might these others be?). These require nailing some colours to a mast: taking a position with which others might disagree. To the first, briefly, there is no purpose to our existence. From background hum we emerged and to background hum our particles will return. However, we do not need a purpose to to orient our ethics. Regarding the “Good Society”, there are some principles that might guide us. Empathy is, for me, one of the most important (see, Jeremy Rifkin’s RSA Animate “Empathetic Civilisations”: Equality is almost as important (see Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). So, let me suggest that if we wish to bring about the good society we should increase our empathy and our equality. Therefore, among the purposes of education are to increase empathy and equality (but see Lou McGill: for problematising equality, equity, and equivalence). But, the last point (us and them) remains problematic.

Identifying the question as having a role for “others” implies a role for “us”, and by “us” I take it that “we” are conceived as education professionals working in and for education institutions (“our schools and universities”). David Jennings suggests “we” might be “… professionals of various stripes, plus the occasional sanctioned amateur” (, though I am not sure who the “sanctioned amateurs” are, who sanctioned them, or if they even exist in this context (David, look to thyself?). The institutions of society are actor networks, writ large. The “reproductive institutions” (family, religion, education, etc) of a society are how the norms and values of the society are codified, reproduced and transmitted. Though I may not like it, the norms and values of our society are not wholly founded on empathy and equality. And, sometimes the institutions of education serve to insulate us from empathetic feeling and to enforce and classify unequal outcomes. That is to say the purpose of education institutions is to serve various positions: social hierarchies, job markets, cultural elites, military power, access to resources, theocratic autocracy, and so on. And at the same time, the purpose of education institutions is to provide a place within which these positions might be safely challenged. Only when the challenges break out of the educational institutions, to become more than academic arguments, can the purpose of of education (as distinct from the purpose of institutions) to increase empathy and equality be attempted.

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K., 2009. The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, London: Penguin.

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