A History of Education: The Purpose of Education

[Editor’s Note: This is the 2nd in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Education is a means of shaping an individual’s life, whether in the classroom or outside of it. It imparts historical, societal, and cultural knowledge, as well as critical thinking skills, and, often, an improved ability to approach unfamiliar situations and subjects rationally and with an open mind.

Throughout history, scholars and philosophers have debated the purpose of education; the conclusions usually supported the nature of the society in which these scholars lived. Some, such as the ancient Greeks and Romans, argued that education was necessary for an engaged citizenry. Some, such as those in precolonial America and many industrialized Western countries, believed its purpose was to promote obedience and indoctrinate youth to dominant cultural ideas. And some, such as those in the ancient Indian and Chinese cultures, believed the pursuit of knowledge itself was a virtuous or even spiritual goal.

Today, our conversations tend to center around child development and the economy — how education can help children grow into healthy, intelligent adults able to support themselves financially and contribute to society as a whole. Some experts caution, though, that an excessive focus on the pragmatic and economic benefits of education deprives modern children of enjoyment of the process of learning. Since humans are natural learners, they argue, learning may be most valuable when it’s pursued for its own sake.

Education can be broken down into formal and informal processes. Formal education, that imparted in a classroom, is believed to facilitate social learning, build executive functioning skills, and provide children with an opportunity to explore subjects they might not be exposed to otherwise. Informal education, that obtained outside of a structured environment, allows children to develop their own interests and learn self-direction, an important life skill in most societies.

In the modern world, most policymakers and educational psychologists agree that some form of formal education is necessary for a child to learn to function effectively. However, experts disagree about the nature of that education. Some argue that the hyperfocus on grades, testing, and following a rigid curriculum can be counterproductive, interfering with the natural learning process, especially child inquisitiveness, that more informal approaches often provide. In addition, some experts believe that excessively rigid schooling may contribute to heightened anxiety among children, especially non-normative students and those who struggle with skills acquisition and mastery.

Ideally, our modern educational system education will address the concerns of our modern society without losing the lessons learned through earlier civilizations’ approaches. It should teach both the technical skills needed for future success and develop the critical thinking abilities that allow humans to approach problems with innovation, engage new perspectives, and keep up with an ever-changing world. Whether there is a “right” approach or not, or whether there’s some combination of approaches that better address a learning child’s needs, will be discussed in great detail throughout this series.


Next week: Prehistory to pre-industrial


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.



Psychology Today Staff. (2022). “Education.” Psychologytoday.com. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/education.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.