The history of formal education begins in the Middle East. The ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia (circa 3150 BCE -30 BCE) required education systems that maintained their cultures. In Egypt, the priests were a “powerful intellectual elite  who  . . . taught practical subjects as science, medicine, mathematics, and geometry in formal schools.” In Mesopotamia, the priestly class was also responsible for training upper class boys to become scribes and priests.  That curriculum ranged from  “basic reading, writing, and religion to higher learning in law, medicine, and astrology.”

In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, great thinkers questioned the purpose of education. The conclusions have ranged from the philosophical to the pragmatic. In the Far East of the 5th century BCE, Confucius’ primary goal for education was to  reform government. Therefore, he maintained that the  education of  individuals who would serve in the government should center on the cultivation of character.  Similarly, a quotation attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Character is destiny” reinforced the Western  concept that character development was of paramount importance.  The Greek philosophers of the 4th century BC had an idealistic concept of education.  Plato, Socrates’ most famous pupil, offered the Socratic ideal that learning should help mankind reach a level of self-fulfillment. Throughout the centuries, these concepts of educational purpose have reflected the principles of prevailing society and culture.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, as in ancient civilizations, religious instruction was the primary goal. Therefore, the Church was the main source of education.  In addition to the seven “liberal arts,” boys received practical experience in animal husbandry and farming. The invention of the printing press  during the Renaissance had an enormous effect on education. As literacy increased, education became more broadly distributed and democratized. Literate people could learn on their own from textbooks. “The printing press made it possible to collect and organize knowledge and pass it on intact.”   Centuries later, the Puritans had an educational goal that aligned with the philosophy of the Middle Ages: the Puritans encouraged education for religious reasons. “Puritan parents believed that the education of their children in religion was their premier duty.” 

The Industrial Revolution caused a major shift in society from farm production to industry and created the need for universal schooling. Therefore, the goal of education was essentially pragmatic. “Factory owners required docile, agreeable workers who would show up on time and do what their managers told them. Sitting in a classroom all day with a teacher was good training for that.” In the 1930’s, Eleanor Roosevelt challenged that concept, instead maintaining a more humanistic view of education’s goals that seemed to broaden the Confucian concept . She believed that in a democracy, the primary purpose of education was to produce good citizens.  Later in  the 20th century, John Dewey  proposed education should be relevant to students’ lives, helping them to  become fully developed human beings.  In 1964, Martin Luther King succinctly stated that the function of  education is “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”   These humanistic and pragmatic approaches to education need not be mutually exclusive.  In fact, they have coexisted for centuries. 

The rapid pace of science and technology in this era would support the concept that the main purpose of education is the development of “critical thinkers who are keen to shape a better world.”  Education can prepare students for life, work and citizenship. How close are we to fulfilling that purpose today?