Among readers of this blog, I’m confident that there is a consensus on what education is not for: namely, it is not exclusively for job preparation. While working is part of life and education has to contribute to that, I doubt that anyone here is willing to say that education should be geared solely toward work.
That said, then, what is it actually for? I’m not sure that we really have an answer to that other than something like “personal enrichment” — which someone in a cynical mood could translate into economic terms by saying that we’re insisting that education contribute to leisure time as well as work time. If that’s the narrative, then I think we’re doomed to lose the argument, because then the non-work-oriented education becomes a bona fide luxury that is not going to be “worth the investment” for most people. Who’s going to be willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for the promise of having more nuanced political opinions and reading books after school and watching different movies and TV shows than most people?
As I’ve been teaching Plato and Aristotle, I’m struck by how impoverished our best other answer — “responsible citizenship” — is than the classical ideal. For us, it seems that we’re thinking that people won’t be easily hoodwinked by politicians and will vote more “correctly” (presumably for Democrats). For them, education for citizenship meant being able to step in and govern, and that necessarily meant having a broad enough range of interest that governing wasn’t considered an end in itself (something I was reminded of by tweets from @FuckTheory yesterday).
If you think about what a legislator actually has to do (at least ideally), it seems that the kind of education we associate with the “liberal arts” is really crucial. You need to be able to assimilate new bodies of knowledge quickly, think creatively about problems, have a strong “bullshit detector,” etc. Even in running for city council in a small town, you’d have to suddenly be able to make responsible decisions about land use, water distribution, and a wide range of other problems that most people in their everyday life do not and should not have to think about. Aside from the “content,” you’d also have to be good at reading people and mediating conflicts.
When we compare this ideal legislator with the depressing reality of our political and economic elites, who are completely unimaginative, driven by empty slogans rather than anything resembling reality, etc., I think we can see what education in this sense could do for society — and on the other side, how education that enables people to be efficient cogs in the machine might actively destroy the possibility of good and responsible government. We tend to fetishize “informed voting” to a degree that is disproportionate to the reality that there are only two options which are pretty well known quantities at this point (I don’t need to scour campaign websites and know each individual candidate’s “stand on the issues” to know that Republicans are never going to be a good fit for me). But I wonder how different things might be if people educated in the “liberal arts” took it for granted that they would participate in government in some way during the course of their life, even if only something like the school board?