In any education discourse, one should start with the basic question:
What is the purpose of education?
This fundamental question draws different answers from different people, depending on one’s worldview, upbringing, agenda, ideology or any combination thereof.
For example, an economist might view education as a tool for economic development. To them, the measure of the educational attainment of a country is closely related to the economic numbers, such as the GDP growth or productivity growth.
An industrialist, perhaps agreeing with the economist, would see education as a necessary process to supply the workforce.
A politician sees education as a propaganda tool. Was it Che Guevara or someone else who said that — and I am paraphrasing — give me the education of the youths, and I will capture the whole country?
The way we view the world affects the way we see education, and how we answer the fundamental question above. Furthermore, this worldview will impact how we think of how the education system should be.
A tech worker would push for more hard skills and digital competencies to be taught at the school level, while someone with a civil service background would prefer more emphasis on civic studies and nationhood in the curriculum.
All of these views are valid.
Our society is made of people from different backgrounds, all coming together to build a nation. A police officer, a wildlife conservationist, a computer programmer, a politician, and a gamelan performer, all have stakes in the nation-building agenda.
The purpose of education is to serve everyone in society.
The purpose of education is not just to impart literacy and numeracy, or to create the future workforce; it is to develop people into complete human beings. Human beings with different physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, economic and psychological needs. Human beings whose choice of life to live is practically unlimited. Imagine two diametrically opposite members of society. For example, imagine a rice farmer who spent his whole life toiling in the paddy fields, and a corporate head honcho working in her C-suite office in the Golden Triangle.
Education should serve them both, and everyone else.
What does it mean to be a complete human being? A complete human being, at a minimum, should be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good member of society and a productive member of the workforce.
So how to educate people towards this goal, as their needs are different? We cannot cater to every student individually with tailor-made education, unless a student comes from a rich family and can afford personal tutors, like the princes of European royal houses in the 18th century. The rest of us have to go to school. The school has a system, which is supposed to approximate the ideal education system to develop complete human beings.
Students should be taught Language (which includes the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric). Mathematics and Science, to prepare them for economic and scientific activities in the modern world. Literature, History, Geography — to learn about the world around us through different prisms. Home Economics and Commerce to function as human beings. Moral or Religious Studies to develop positive values. Civics to learn how society — and the institutions that govern it — function. These are basic subjects that all students around the world learn at school.
In other words, the subjects we already have in school is a close approximation to the ideal education system. That is why people have been teaching the exact same subjects for centuries.
I never really buy the argument that the choices of subjects are obsolete, that this type of education system was designed during the industrial revolution to cater to the employment needs at the time (factory workers need literature and geography?).
No, even back then the education system was created to approximate the ideal education system, which purpose (I believe) is to develop complete human beings. It was not created mainly to churn out uncritical people so they can be put on the assembly line. This is somewhat of a modern education meme, but its veracity is not supported by historical facts (as a matter of fact, classical education thrived the most during the Industrial Revolution).
There’s a reason why schools the world over teach roughly the same set of subjects at the primary and secondary levels. It has been proven to work. It has created the modern world as it is. It is a close approximation of the ideal education system which caters to members of society with different needs.
And I am suspicious of any effort to radically change the curriculum away from the existing system and into a “modern” curriculum with an emphasis on technology. Either these efforts are driven by Big Tech (who wants to sell “education solutions” to schools and parents), or driven by misguided tech cheerleaders who know very little about the actual education system, but want to force their worldview on the education system using tech buzzwords like IR4.0 and Digital Economy. Alain de Botton called this type of thinking boosterism.
Let us get back to basics, leave the good parts of education alone, tweak the ones that do not work, and let us not radically change the system under the banner of technological boosterism.
The purpose of education is to develop complete human beings, not automatons.