The changing purpose of education: "How is instrumentalization affecting the ESL problem?"*

Wednesday 11 February 2015, by Igor Bijuklič

It is not the same if the purpose of education is a well-educated person able to think, judge and understand the world or, on the other hand, a specific conception of social progress and economic growth. If we have a confused understanding what is the purpose of education we also risk to fail defining our objectives and direct wrongly our endeavour for coping with this problem.

In our discussion we will deal with the phenomenon of instrumentalization, which can be defined in one part as a technical treatment of human capabilities and affairs, which are perceived and reduced to the final instrumental category of “means and ends”. We can recognize this phenomenon as prevailing also in the field of education, where educational purposes are becoming inadequate in the face of social demands (“education must serve society”). When education becomes subjugated to other purposes, then its character soon becomes instrumental. Why is this of crucial importance also in coping with the ESL problem? We can agree that if we have a confused understanding what is the purpose of different levels and types of education we also risk to fail defining our objectives and direct wrongly our endeavour for coping with this problem. The purpose of education is not to solve economic problems or prevent poverty, but to educate. A very different perspective of education is opened in this article compared to official guidelines and policies, which are dragging the whole educational system into solving problems that are not in its domain (example ET 2020). As such this paper is offered here to potential readers also for rethinking the ESL problem and how to cope with it. To educate, which is the meaning (purpose) of education, stands for an activity where new generations are introduced into the world and prepared to take responsibility for it as active citizens. In the following article I propose to take into consideration this purpose of education as a basis of how to give meaning to education and present it to those who are to be educated. In defining and solving the ESL problem we should take into consideration which are and which should be the purposes of education.

* The article presents the author’s own reflections on an ESL problem. The article has not been peer-reviewed or proofread in order to preserve the author’s authentic view on the problem.

In the attempt to carry out a qualitative analysis on the given subject and phenomenon (early school leaving) we must also mention and examine a variety of specific fundamental transformations that are occurring in the educational process and in the general understanding of its purpose. Because school systems, where the educational process is taking place, are conceived as a crucial part of social systems, they cannot be questioned and analysed without considering a broader social perspective. For this reason we will pay attention to those general social transformations that are without any doubt and exception affecting the ways and modes of understanding what should be the purpose of school and educational process.

In the foreground we can identify the phenomenon of instrumentalization as a dominant mode of perception that defines our conceptions of human activities and conditions. Most generally it can be defined as a technical treatment of human capabilities and affairs, which are perceived and reduced to the final instrumental category of “means and ends”. This phenomenon is not only present in the production processes of today’s postindustrial societies, but has become a general and universal perspective of experience, that describes the world in its own language, significantly reproduced and taught in academia. We can begin with the observation, that until recently accepted purposes of education are becoming inadequate in the face of social demands. If we take into consideration this new call - “education must serve society” - we must also ask ourselves to what purposes and ends is education now dedicated. This question is justified by the fact, that educational institutions are more and more willing to renounce to their own purposes and justify their activities with purposes directly “from outside”. In this case that means society. But society is never something neutral or undefined. It is quite the contrary, historically; society can be understood as a specific form of human organization that has its own historical origins in modernity. But more important, regarding our topic, is that in every historical period we can recognise and identify which dominant paradigms constitutes the modes of perception and experience in society. We can deduce very easily from the way reality is interpreted today, that the dominant social paradigm, which is forming the only horizont left, is articulated in a (psevdo) economic language as social growth and progress. So, to take seriously into consideration the general call “education must serve society”, which is now functioning as a self-evident and unquestioned general command in forming educational strategies and policies, also demands from us, that we have to recognize and expose its final part, to which this command is directed to.

But the problem is not that the dominant social paradigm of growth and progress, taken and accepted as a basis of society, is obscured or untold. On the contrary, outspoken sentences like “the currency of today’s economy is knowledge” or “education is a prerequisite for success [1] are explicit enough to confirm how the purpose of education is understood today or where it is directed. In other words, the expectations from the transition to “knowledge society”, no matter all claims and discussion about the direct connection of education and “common good”, were nothing else than the quest for “knowledge economy”, which should improve the level of competitiveness or more precisely, which should fill the void and restore the decaying economic conditions in the West after its deindustrialization. Therefore, “knowledge economy” is nothing that is already present in its full realization, but is something, we are told so, that we are headed to and to which we should submit our potentials and efforts. The path to this is obviously education and educational process on all levels. But where exactly is the problem? At the first glance there is nothing unusual or wrong with the fact that educated people can contribute to their local or national economies. But if we stress the argumentations that are introducing the inevitability and necessity of “knowledge economy” more precisely, then we can realize that “economy” is established as an entity from where everything is derived and to what everything is subjugated. In this order knowledge and education are now interpreted as human potentiality and activity, whose purpose is to serve economic needs. Many official documents and surveys of OECD [2] and European Commission [3] are confirming this change of purpose and we will discuss them later.

This is the point where we can discuss how educational institutions are losing or renouncing to their own purposes and in this case, becoming a serving instrument for something else. Undoubtedly, it is not the same if the purpose of education is in itself or in other words a well-educated person able to think, judge and understand the world or, on the other hand, a specific conception of social progress and economic growth, which is demanding such educational output that results in a person with specialised and applicative knowledge that has to correspond and justify itself in processes of innovation and production. [4] We have to mention, that the core of the problem is not the existing (defined) divisions between vocational and classical education or per example university research departments that are already cooperating with industrial subjects. The problem is in the opposite direction, in the generality of claims, statements and strategies that are voicing education as something “vital for jobs, productivity and growth” [5], which are, due to their general character, opening the possibilities to introduce this new purpose of education as something universal. This is the main threat we should pay attention to also in our case, because it is blurring or even worse, eliminating traditional boundaries and distinctions between different types of education and submitting “the whole” into an instrument. The currently persisting paradigm of development in the West has unfortunately narrowed only into technical solutions and has no other answer that this one. Consequently it is possible to deduce that the more the economy will be in crisis, together with its main paradigm that is incapable of solving it, the more education will risk to became instrumentally submitted as a whole and on all levels.

As we have already mentioned, the imperative of “knowledge economy” is transforming both knowledge and education, giving to them an instrumental character and a new purpose. Because this imperative is usually formulated in general sentences that are pretending to universality, we face an imminent threat that we will lose the possibility to recognize that there are different purposes for different types and levels of education. Why is this of crucial importance also in coping with the ESL problem? We can agree that if we have a confused understanding what is the purpose of different levels and types of education we also risk to fail defining our objectives and direct wrongly our endeavour for coping with this problem. To know the purpose of something is an indispensable condition for knowing where to direct our efforts and how to act.

According to statistical data and different surveys [6] the main leading reason for early school leaving can be summarized in poverty or student’s poor socio-economic background. It is possible to classify poverty as a systemic problem and therefore also political, not only economic, but most importantly, strictly speaking, this problem does not belong into the domain of educational process in the sense, that the purpose of education, regardless the fact that more educated people risk less to become poor, is not to prevent poverty, but to educate. To prevent or reduce poverty is mainly a task of politics. Because misunderstandings on this point became general, it is our responsibility to point out some possible consequences that are threatening the whole educational system and can at the same time misguide our effort in the ESL problem. Although education can improve someone’s chances and abilities to get a decent standard of living, we should not understand or treat education as a social service system or an institutionalized way to personal economic success. That would require an immediate redefinition of school curriculum, which would have predictable consequences in directions toward applicability – “how to survive on the market”, etc. We can observe that exactly this is in part already happening, mostly because the current EU policies are still based on an interpretative narrowness, that the crisis is only economic and caused by economic factors, which per definition requires a wide range of direct solutions for economy that are believed to restore its competitiveness, innovativeness, efficiency or in other words the accepted domineering paradigmatic fundamentals of society itself. Solutions of this kind, like that to introduce substancial entrepreneurial skills [7] in all levels of education in order to reduce per example the level of unemployment, prove clearly enough that this perspective, established already as official, is mobilizing the educational whole for solving economic problems or to serve productive ends. Nothing could be more short-sighted, especially if we consider that the current crisis in the West is far from being only economic but is even more political in character and demands more than other new political horizons and responses. Namely, the exisiting political realm is where the expired paradigm of development is reproduced and implemented. The “crisis” in the West has not begun in education and it would be futile to search the reason of it there, on the other hand, to simply follow the existing policies and deploy education into demands of production and innovation as a “strategic solution” for a decaying structure of economy, would only result in a new systemic crisis, this time in education.

Overlooking this fact, instead of think it over, and on the other hand, reflexively dragging education directly into solving economic problems could soon result and partly already is, that education, together with other social systems, will be set as fully available for use in solving problems, that are not and should never be in its domain. In the case of implementing “strategic solutions” according to conclusions like,if something is not right with your economy, you should fix your educational system, the central purpose of education, which is to educate, would be irreversibly lost and along with it the possibility to educate new generations in the ability to think, understand and act in the world. The latter is now necessary more than ever, especially if we do not hesitate in recognising that the fundamental social paradigms of our time are in deep crisis too and need to be rethinked thoroughly, a present and future task, that cannot be done with entrepreneurial skills, which have different goals and which are introducing new generations into just one part of the world, through just one specific human activity that is in a specific way concerned almost exclusively with necessities of life itself and personal bettering of conditions for it.

As we have already said the purpose of education is not to solve or prevent poverty, but to educate. On the other hand, participants in the educational process of poor socio-economic background are a fact, also the main cause for ESL problem, and have to receive full concern. Without any doubts, the main task of educational system on high school level is to include the ESL problem and its causes into rethinking and defining its own pedagogical approaches toward students. Especially, because “it is not widening participation per se that causes drop-out. The problem is rather a lack of attention to the needs of a more diverse student population.” [8] This point of view becomes even more relevant, if we consider gathered data that examined the causes of drop-out on the side of students and their relation/attitude to the educational process. According to the National Education Longitudinal Study, [9] conducted in 1988, 77 percent of eighth graders who dropped out mentioned school-related reasons as decisive for their drop-out. As the most specific reason for drop-out 46 percent of students listed “did not like school”. Considering more recent studies [10] similar results indicate and point out school-related reasons like lack of connection to the school environment, perceptions of school as boring, lack of motivation, etc. Around 47 percent of students listed “that classes were not interesting” as major reason for dropping out. In connection to this, even a higher percentage was recorded (69 percent) when students listed, that “they were not motivated or inspired to work hard”. If we take this data seriously, we have enough grounded evidence to expose another relevant reason for ESL, which is located on the side of each school system and is, in contrast with poverty, in a direct domain of the educational process, curriculum and pedagogical methods.

After exposing these two reasons for drop-out, located in different spheres of influence and also different in character, it would be appropriate to mention, that there is a noticeable tendency in specialist discussions about ESL problem to treat this two reasons as structurally intertwined, which should be eliminated together by including them into one single elaborated approach. The argumentative line behind this could be illustrated in the following manner: If poor socio-economic background is one of the main “outside school” reasons for ESL and if the other prevalent reason concerning school system and curriculum is disinterest for educational content and lack of motivation for learning, then the solution should be to offer students exactly those educational content, which is supposed to correspond to their current socio-economic needs as a remedy for them in the future. Many exisiting proposals for solving the ESL problem are reflecting this type of reasoning. In practice it results mostly in the attempt to improve teaching and curricula to enhance the connection between schools and work in a way that students would realize that there is a connection between education and getting a good job. It is needless to say that this connection is hypothetical and only in potentiality, but what is even more significant, is that it presents the purpose of years of education as just a form of training for future job opportunities. A similar, but more systemic approach can be traced in introducing extra vocational education in cases, where drop-out is expected or to re-enrol students back, if it has already happened. We are not going to discuss what are the results of this approach and which rate of success are they displaying, research on this topic are already done. On the contrary, according to our discussion so far focusing on purpose of education, we will open a different perspective, which is neglected in already mentioned official guidelines, policies and documents of EU and OECD and also very poorly represented in discussion about the ESL problem. At this point I would like to list two observations, which should adequately support the opening of another perspective. Before this it is crucial to emphasis, that this is only an attempt to open a new perspective of thought and not to give a ready-made solution. First one is directly related to the question of purpose in education, which is now drifting toward instrumentality and all solutions for ESL that are simply proposing a redirection toward applicability (labour skills) or just favouring it over other possibilities are going, consciously or not, hand in hand with it. Second, although introducing vocational education or job training can be suitable in some cases and also display perceivable results, it certainly cannot be taken as a universal remedy that should be implemented in all types of education and that could solve the question how to give meaning to education and how will those who educate present it to those who are to be educated.

Both observations are pointing to the purpose of education, which we should recall once more, this time in a different way. We have already said that the purpose of education should be to educate, and not to directly solve poverty, unemployment, economic questions and so on. But where exactly education is grounded and what is about? We are not searching for an answer that would correspond to a specific school subject or field of knowledge or to a just one separate part of human activity (per example work). One possible answer to this is the following dilemma: is education a matter of preparing students for life (art of living) or should be education dedicated to teach us especially about the world as it is and thus enable us to share the world with others? If I call on this point into discussion Hannah Arendt, her answer would be that education cannot be only about “life” itself and how to be able to serve to its necessities and constantly renew conditions for it (preparations and specializations for job) but also how to fulfil its exclusive assignment, which cannot be done by anybody else, that is to tell us about and introduce us into the world, which is always older than those who are to be educated. Why is this aspect so important and why it significantly bears the meaning (purpose) of education?

Crucial political questions of our time like poverty, inequality or political freedom cannot be even addressed, without the recognition that we are living among other people in specific types of political organizations and share with them a common world. Here our working diligence as singular persons or as a working collective of individuals is entirely insufficient, simply because these questions and problems do not belong solely into the field of work or production. What count the most in addressing and solving these problems are our political capabilities of thinking, judging and acting, something that it is given to us as a possibility by nature, but cannot be realized without education and exercise.

We have opened a very different perspective of education considering current official guidelines and policies, which is offered here to potential readers also for rethinking the ESL problem. If we consider the sphere of influence regarding this problem that lies on the side of school, we face a crucial question, namely how to give meaning (purpose) to education to those who are to be educated. This question is not only justified by surveys and gathered data about students disinterest for educational content and lack of motivation for learning, [11] but by the bare absence of this question in the school system, mostly because it is perceived as something dislocated that does not belong to the educational content and process, although it is meaning (purpose) itself that offers the standing ground to education. The question of giving meaning to education is not relevant only in ESL cases, but is something that should take into account the educational whole. Speaking specifically about ESL, to focus only to job or entrepreneurial skills in order to reintegrate dropouts or even worse to prevent them, would mean that students are introduced only into one part of the world, where necessities of life itself are prevailing, even more, they are introduced there as singular persons in a conviction that all their issues are only personal (private) in nature and can be solved with the activity of work, production, innovation etc. To overlook the meaning of education, formulated in the described assignment that education has, namely to introduce new generations into the world and to prepare them to take responsibility for it as political beings and active citizens in their political community, also means that educators will fail completely in taking their part of responsibility, which begins by giving meaning to education and adequately present it.


[1Obama, 2009

[2Education at Glance (2013) or Trends Shaping Education (2013)

[3Education and Training 2020

[4There is one another argument with very similar background that is going hand in hand with the so called needs of “knowledge economy”. According to Oladi (2013) attempts to depoliticize public education promotes a very similar instrumental approach that should result in the marketization of education. Consequently “the leeway offered to economic providers may not automatically translate into a privatized production or provision of public education, but the purpose of education tends to move toward individual private ends.” (Oladi 2013, 3)

[5Quinn 2013, 7

[6Per example in Quinn, 2013

[7An obvious example of this is Education and Training 2020

[8Quinn 2013, 7

[9Rumberger 2001, 6

[10Bridgeland, DiIulio, Morison 2006

[11It is appropriate to interpret disinterest and lack of motivation for learning as something different from academic and learning capabilities. It is not necessary that poor motivation and interest in educational content is caused by poor academic and learning ability.

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