I grew up in “alternative” educational settings. My elementary school and my summer camp were both educational spaces that focused primarily on human development, and the learning of content was seen as integral to the development process. I can remember trying to (and having considerable trouble) explain this concept, when I was twelve and thirteen years old, to my friends at the very “normal” junior high school that I attended in Toronto (and subsequent high schools) where human development was simply a by product of learning content.
Despite the fact that I spent many more days in elementary school than I did at summer camp, it was the summer camp that shaped me in much more resonant ways. My political views, pedagogical approach as an educator, interests, and goals were all heavily shaped at this camp, which was run by a larger youth movement. My elementary school experience was instrumental for me in creating a sense of comfort with these educational norms, but I learned to be a member of a community and an important individual at this camp.
Being connected to other human beings as a member of a community and feeling individually important in that community are, I believe, at the core of the answer to the central question that this essay asks: What is the purpose of education? Thinkers from Plato to bell hooks, and Jose Marti to Horace Mann all seem to point to the same broad answer to this question: that the purpose of education is to better society through the development of those who learn. There is more content to their answers than simply stating that education leads toward a better society. Plato, for example, writes that education ought to take on the goal of teaching citizens to take on the role of guardianship over society. He writes that good citizens should learn to be “philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong.” Yet, too many thinkers have placed too much importance on the insertion of content into the minds and bodies of learners in the quest to better the world. This has led to a view of education in the West as a means to produce “human capital,” which is described by Joel Spring, who is an historian of American education, as a process of investing in education to produce good workers to fill jobs in society. This is all done with the goal of keeping the economy strong in the future.
Each of the above-mentioned thinkers (and many, many others) has her or his own views on what the betterment of society means and what education should look like. Some view society as a concept that ought to be inclusive of all people, no matter their strengths or challenges. Others view society as a sort of arena where everyone has the opportunity to attempt to fight to the top. Here I will attempt to fill the term “betterment” with some meaning in order to understand what I believe to be the purpose of education.
By now, I am sure you are wondering what I mean when I write about “content” and “human development.” I have already dichotomized them, and I don’t mean to. In this context, content pertains all the “things” one learns in educational settings, be it in a school, at a camp, at a party, or at home. Content can take the form of proper spelling, the dates of some historical event, math formulas, or a political idea. Human Development, on the other hand, is the process through which someone learns to understand why certain words are significant, the importance of some historical event, why math might be useful in life, and the context in which a given political idea may have grown. Human development also includes learning how to put information together independently, and through careful thought, in order to gain the ability to criticize ideas that one is taught. In other words, human development includes the development of the skills to think critically about the world we live in. This, I believe, is the most fundamental skill that one can learn; this is the basis for development towards human empowerment and the foundation of a good society, which can be described here as a society where individuals have voice in their communities and workplaces, and where communities have voice in the larger society that links them.
To be clear, the good society is explicitly an inclusive society. It is a society that balances freedom for individuals and collectives with egalitarian values. Partnership and solidarity are valued as catalysts for healthy individualism; the uniqueness of the individual enriches the collective, and the collective enriches that uniqueness. In this society race, gender, sexuality, religion, and culture are all differences that enrich the bond of humanity rather than divide it.
I propose here that education needs to focus on human development through dialogue and experience. This will become clear by the end of this essay, but for now I will clarify dialogue as an approach that allows learners to engage, learn, and teach one another in discussions, presentations, and other modes of interaction in order to broaden the scope of who one can learn from and how learning can take place. To be sure, dialogue is not confined to various frameworks of conversation; it should be thought of as something that incorporates many forms of interaction that benefit inter-actors through the shared act of teaching and learning together. Experience describes educational processes which show, as opposed to tell, learners various lessons. A focus on this kind of human development will direct learners toward an empowered sense of selfhood and solidarity with a group of learners, as well as critical thinking skills. This too will become clearer below. Both dialogue and experience require guided autonomy: Teachers, guides, and others must allow learners to explore for themselves, with careful guidance from those charged with leading learners through their educational experiences. For example, working on a math problem, perhaps budgeting for an upcoming school party, in a group with guidance and support from an educator will develop social skills, partnership within the group, leadership experience, communication, and without doubt, math skills.
As I grew up, I began to understand that I had developed a distaste for authoritative leadership and teaching styles. I disengaged from lessons taught by these kinds of teachers and to this day I have trouble in situations where I am thought of as an assistant to someone else. I feel constrained, as if I am chained down and none of my thoughts, ideas, or actions will ever mean something in the world. I am probably overreacting in most of these situations, but my response is not entirely devoid of reason.
Empowerment is something that can be learned. Every human being has the ability and deserves the right to reach their full potential. Education toward empowerment is vital because it is based on the fundamental understanding that every person ought to be included in the decisions, whether in politics, work, community, family, or otherwise that affect them. It’s not about having a weighty referendum on every issue, and it’s not about placing individual liberty above the good of the collective. It is about creating human relationships and governance structures on every level that allow and encourage every person to be a part of the betterment of their world. This is essential to a positive societal experience as seen in the above described vision. Why? Because, when I feel like I am being told what to do, or what to think, I feel disempowered. It doesn’t feel good. I have a feeling that it isn’t just me who feels badly in those situations, but I also have a feeling that the “human capital” approach to education drains most of us of the will to struggle against those who would take our power away, whether they are teachers, bosses, or politicians. I think that after a youth spent listening, memorizing, and filling in multiple choice bubbles, we are left with a feeling that maybe we don’t deserve to have very much power over our lives and communities; we start to feel that it may be better if someone else takes responsibility.
Empowerment, from this view, can be reached if each person gains the skills to make thoughtful decisions that take themselves and those around them into account. Empowerment is about people reaching their full potential, so education is about learning to be empowered as an individual and as a member of a group. This was the central focus of my education at my summer camp.
The summer camp that I have mentioned a few times now was never just a few weeks in the summer. It is just one activity in a larger youth movement – an educational institution that was founded by members of Hashomer Hatzair, which is one of the founding organizations of the Kibbutz movement in Israel. The pedagogical approach that is used there has its roots in the Kibbutz movement, which means that the ideology at its core found its way into my educational experiences there. The Kibbutz movement’s educational program was set up to develop a sense of partnership between the individual learners and to build a group bond in learning groups. Each Kibbutz member was understood to have the potential (and in many cases the responsibility) to take on leadership roles in their communities. The community was at the center of their lives. The camp was set up as a youth village, more than a camp or a school. I grew up learning the value of a hard day’s work in the dining hall, sharing all the candy I brought to camp, because it was vital to our unity as a community, and learning through sports, games and intense dialogue on politics, race, Jewish identity, leadership, and sex. By the time I was sixteen, I was a movement leader and educator. I was still learning all of the above, but I was teaching it too. I was learning and teaching at the same time. I was in dialogue with my learners and with my teachers. We learned together about issues such as race relations, sexuality, vegetarianism, and politics. We learned through conversation about what it meant to be Jews in the world today, and while conversation from all perspectives was valued highly, everyone was well aware that inclusive and egalitarian values were at the core of our collective’s principles. Those principles served as an anchor for our dialogues and guided us through tough conversations. We learned through experiences that empowered us in situations that required teamwork, as well as being given the chance to stand out as individual leaders. We were given the chance to learn from one another and lead each other, and I very quickly fell in love with the idea that I could be an important individual and, at the same time, be a member of a team pushing our understanding of the world and our pedagogical approaches forward through experimentation and experience.
Dialogue is of vital importance to me as an educational tool. Bringing a subject or a piece of information to a group to learn about and then discuss until everyone has something to say is the focal point in this mode of education. This form of learning allows all kinds of different learners to take in information, think about it openly, and learn from the collective intelligences around them. The focus in dialogue is on the learners. The content is part of what is learned, but it is not the focal point. When the people in the room matter first and foremost, they feel empowered. When learners are important in schools, content will be important to them. At this camp, knowing the people who you live, work, learn and play with is the primary goal. This experience was essential in my human development
Of course one cannot operate in life without knowing facts, ideas that came before, and the state of the world at present, but without knowledge of the human beings who surround us, we can’t hope to build a sense of community. One can’t build a communal identity without a community, and communal identity is vital for people to feel important and empowered in their actions throughout life. Central to this process is the idea that everything we do and build in that youth village is incredibly important to each of us, the community that lives there, and the world around us. There is no sense that cleaning the bathrooms every morning is merely practice for some future responsibility. Everything we do matters for the village that we are constantly building and bettering. True, it is meant to prepare us to build and better the world, but that is the future. In my youth movement, emphasis is put on the present (the examples we set through current actions) as central to shaping the future.
As I have mentioned above, learning through experience was one of the most important ways we learned together. Reading a text and discussing it in a circle was important and fun, but learning about environmental sustainability through gardening and walks in the forest, learning about trust and solidarity through physical games and role playing, and learning about leadership through actual experiences as leaders was (and is) paramount in my human development. John Dewey writes about the importance of experiential education. He focuses, in part, on what criteria there can be for experiential education. “Every experience is a moving force. Its value can be judged only on the ground of what it moves toward and into.” For Dewey, experiential education is differentiated from the experience that all of life has to offer because it focuses on emotional and intellectual attitudes and leads learners toward the “growth” of their capacities for socialization, cooperation, and morality. Dewey explains the connection between experiential learning and learner-centered education by asking: “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?” Dewey is succinctly presenting a plain reality: Unless there is some connection between the facts, ideas, etc. that learners take in and the real lives of the learners, there isn’t much point in teaching it in the first place. The importance of those things will be lost. Providing a space to experience education through activities that matter to the learners, and providing a space for the development of the individual and the group through dialogue on the things that we learn are crucial elements of a better form of education.
One may be reading this and thinking about all the time wasted on conversation. When will we learn the dates, facts, and formulas? When will these kids go through all the boredom, all the long hours alone with a text book, and all the pains that make adults out of children? First, I see dialogical and experiential education as a means for building a deep sense that we can and do learn throughout our lives. This isn’t just for kids. I still take part in this learning community. I feel a deep sense of partnership with my community. My individual identity has been shaped by the community and my community has been shaped by me. Second, yes there is more time spent in dialogue. This means there is less time spent cramming facts into uninterested minds. This pedagogical approach develops the skills to learn and think critically about the facts that we cram. Learning through conversation – perhaps reading a short text and discussing its meaning and a group’s reactions – can challenge our preconceived notions of the world around us and emphasize the importance of each and every voice, no matter who they are. This means that instead of developing good, loyal, and silent workers, we are developing people who can make good work better by thinking about the things that we do in life. It means a politician who can think about new ways to organize government to better serve people; it means a factory worker who can make the factory experience more productive and more humane, because people will have the ability to think critically about the nature of their job. It means a waiter who can also manage, and a teacher who can also learn.
I have, looking back, sometimes felt like a fraud because the best learning I do is through dialogue and games. I have felt like a fraud because I, like most people, have this subconscious feeling that I am supposed to learn by listening to lectures and memorizing for tests. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t earned my stripes (a term that used to remind me of zebras until I realized it has a more militaristic background) because I have learned in such fun and interesting ways. I must admit that I am always impressed by the few people I know who truly and happily excelled in the current education system. They seem to know so many things. Often their vocabulary would get them through a cocktail party thrown by The New Yorker. I have learned to listen to people, connect with my community, speak my mind, and decipher some of the toughest political texts by carefully thinking and discussing with my partners. The learning of “things” and the enhancement of human development are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even though they are often treating as such.
The current state of education, at least in North America (and United States in particular), is that the system here is focused on preparation for standardized tests, which will determine a student’s worth according to various employers and higher institutions of education. This means that if one is better at drawing than writing or building instead of reading, the education system will report that he or she is no good at all. This system highlights listening at the expense of participating, and memorizing rather than understanding. If you ask most students in North America today, boredom will be one of the first five words that they use to describe their scholastic experience. If boredom is not the word they use, then apathy surely will appear on that list. These critiques are not new, I know, but they are important.
I believe that education ought to inspire a balance in each learner and between them and their communities. Here, balance doesn’t represent an always equal relationship; rather balance necessitates ongoing and active participation on the part of each person. Balance is egalitarian rather than equal. This means that sometimes one will find that their community takes precedence over the individual and vice versa. The balance shifts with fluidity, depending on the circumstance. Critical thinking skills allow each person to think about each context and understand where the balance must lie. Empowerment of the individual and the collective creates an unbreakable bond between the individual and the group so that each person can be counted on to make well thought out decisions, which take themselves and those around them into account. This balance is about the distribution of power in each person, each community, and each society. Education needs to equip each of us with the sense (nay, the reality) that we are empowered individuals and that each of us is a member of a (often many) collective. These collectives include our neighborhoods, learning communities, ethnic and religious communities, nations, humanity, and even all of life. Each level, from the individual to the universal is important in the next. This understanding of our own importance in relation to the importance of our collective(s) requires education to take on the deconstruction of oppressive ideologies such as racism, classism, and sexism. It also requires educators to draw out the voices of each and every learner. The good society comes from each individual understanding her or his importance and partnership within larger wholes.
Paulo Freire’s work is extremely important in understanding how this can be learned. He condemns the current educational reality of “depositing” information in the minds of the learners. Instead, he views dialogue and interactivity in education as vital to building actual democracy. If we expect people to be active members of society, acting as if we each have a stake in the good of the whole, then our schools must reflect that. Frontal lectures, and mechanized tests reflect authoritarian values. Discussion, group building, and interactive experiences are obviously more in step with our purported values as lovers of democracy.
bell hooks places her focus on the importance of critical thinking as the most important skill that people can learn in order to operate in and create a better society. Critical thinking is, at its core, a skill that allows its users to understand and shape the reality around them. Critical thought allows us to see beyond what we are told. It allows scientists to keep on experimenting and discovering new ideas about our universe; it allows oppressed people to understand that they are oppressed (oppressors rarely let the oppressed know that they are, in fact, oppressed); it allows young people to resist peer pressure, and so on. As hooks writes, critical thinking is about “utilizing [ ] knowledge in a manner that enables you to determine what matters most.” She goes on to describe the need for interactive education in classrooms to allow learners to practice thinking critically about the ideas that they learn throughout their education. It is a process that many students will resist because they are so used to passive learning. Nonetheless, critical thinking is fundamental to a good society. Indeed, progress and the process of bettering our world are dependent on people who can think critically about the current reality. Critical thinking necessitates experiential education towards human development because it focuses on actually using analytical skills, rather than simply being told that it is important to ask questions. Critical thinking is not just the process of asking questions, it is the development of the emotional and intellectual agility to know what to do with the answers, and perhaps answer those questions for ones self.
hooks poignantly suggests a link between development and content in critical thinking. Here it becomes clear that education should not be forced to choose between human development and content, but rather choose to teach content through human development. So, dialogical and experiential education, with a focus on critical thinking skills is vital to a good society that reflects the importance of each individual within his or her community and the community as a whole; an inclusive society which embraces the autonomy that each person ought to enjoy while placing a high premium on solidarity between individuals and communities.
But how do we implement such a thing in a society such as the United States? First of all, the word “system,” as in education system, is all wrong. Perhaps the word “network” is better suited for education. I believe that one of the fundamental impositions in the history of public education is the attempt to create uniformity across the board. This has led to the ridiculous and arbitrary testing culture that we find ourselves in at present. By placing ourselves in a system, we have attempted to normalize learning in a way that may only be useful for the small minority who excel in standardized tests. After all, there is nothing standard about human beings. Each is different. This means that each classroom, school, and community ought to inform the education that occurs equally to the national standards that are set. I am proposing that education ought to balance solidarity and autonomy in quite the same way that society ought to. Human development, as I have described above, is a universal necessity for a better society, and some content is universal too. In particular, I believe that inclusive and solidaristic principles that value human difference and human rights are values that are essential in this view of education and of the world. As well, I would not suggest that a community would be exempt from teaching different views of history or advanced math simply because they don’t want to, or because they have rationalized some reason not to. That is why it is vital that humans be associated through their communities to a wide array of communities and form democratic systems on national and international levels that reflect the empowered communal life which I have suggested above. This would reflect a society that empowers each person and community to take responsibility for the things that affect them.
A network, to me, somehow reflects a connectedness between unique and responsible entities, while a system reflects an attempt to normalize something that should not be normal, but unique and exemplary of the individuals and groups within the network. What I am suggesting here is that the national (perhaps the international) educational culture should focus on dialogue and experience in order to build a culture and society that is made up of empowered people who can think critically about their world and who can build unique and truly democratic ways of living, learning, working and playing together.
In Jewish scripture, the patriarch Jacob wrestles with one of God’s messengers. This short narrative from the Torah has informed generations of Jewish culture. Dialogue, argument, and conversation about issues great and small are ingrained in the Jewish education, discussion and celebration that I have experienced. I believe that this is one of the most important features of my culture. It allows us to grow as individuals and as a people. We find new meanings in old texts and old meanings in new texts. While some issues remain unresolved for generations, it is this culture of dialogue that allows us to continue to engage in debate towards the betterment of the world. This Jewish culture is vital to my identity as a human being.
I believe that it is when dialogue and critical thought are lacking that societies go through major upheavals. It is when individuals and communities find themselves with no voice in the issues that affect them that things change sometimes peacefully, and often violently; sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Change is a good thing when people are equipped with the skills to make change because they are empowered and encouraged to make their world better, rather than when people must act out of desperation, because the power to determine their individual and collective fates has been taken. Education towards empowerment and critical thought, through dialogue and experience is the best way to create a good society that encourages us to reach our full human potentials as leaders. Through education that is focused on human development we can create a better a world, which will be bound together in solidarity and inclusivity; a world that places great value on the differences that exist in each individual and community.
 Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. 2nd ed. 1968. United States: Basic Books-Perseus Books Group, 1991. p. 53.
 Spring, Joel. American Education. (14th ed.). New York: Mcgraw-Hill. 2010. Pp. 19-20.
 Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. (10th Anniversary Edition.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993.
 Dewey, John. Experience and Education. 1938. New York: Touchstone-Simon and Schuster Inc., 1997. p. 38.
 Ibid. p 23.
 Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. 1970. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1993.
 hooks, bell. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge, 2010. p 8-9.
 Genesis 32:24-33 found in: The Torah: The Five Books of Moses. New Translation According to the Masoretic Text (First Section). Philedelphia/Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1962. Print.