The Goal of Education: Critical Thinking Vs. Rhetoric

What is “the” goal of education? What should education achieve?

This perennial question has sometimes crossed your mind. Yet, strangely enough, it remains mostly none stated! How can that be?

Our everyday activities encumber us with more immediate objectives. We have too many tasks to focus on and we do not have the time or habit to search within ourselves for the larger picture – the Goal that is behind everything we are doing with those children in the classroom and in the schools.

The everyday pressing needs of classes, courses, interactions, duties demand our full attention. We can get lost in the mundane and lose sight of the sublime.  To find the larger meaning of school life we need sometimes to surface from the everyday, take a break, and think: what is our Goal in this education we are providing/receiving?

This question is open ended. There is more than one answer, I myself can think of a few answers right here and now that I can offer after deliberating on the subject for a while. This alone can discourage those who believe that since philosophy cannot supply a definite solution for life’s pressing problems then it has little value. But we should not be discouraged. We need an answer so to be able to inject some sense into our efforts. An answer in necessary so we can direct our activities and allow our gains to accumulate. How can we know if we succeeded if we are not aware to some degree what is it exactly we wish to arrive at?

This obviously is a philosophical inquiry.

We are not trying to gain empirical information what others think should be the goal of education but form an opinion what should be the goal of education. We lay down the tools of the scientists and reach out for the tools of the  philosopher: defining,  analyzing, exposing our  most basic assumptions about good education. We are not interested in the prevalent ideas about the goal of education, we are interested in what is the (true) goal of education.

Yes, I know! Who is to judge who has the correct answer? The fact that others might come to different conclusions is really not relevant. You should have your own goal or you won’t have one! You should have a few goals or you won’t have them!  Have a direction. Or work to achieve one. .

Having a goal means that you can stand as a free agent in your school able to be critical when needed if you see that you goal is not achieved. You can lead to achieve it, sometimes against the inclinations of your peers and of your superiors. Your goal is clear, and that is a start.

So what is the goal of education?

I will address this issue in many discussions on this site – portraying various answers to the question that were suggested throughout educational history and my own thoughts. One of these answers will be portrayed below.

It is that education in a way should create in us something that is against our natural inclination. Our nature – full of desires and impulses – can deceive us. It makes us slaves to our own emotions and easily manipulated by others. Education is about providing us with second nature – a nature that is the product of education and that is possible only for the educated human being. It is providing us from a young age with good habits and at a later age with the power of critical reasoning.

In Plato we can find over and over again this goal: changing young impressionable men into free adults who can be critical of powers surrounding them, think freely their own mind, systematically.

In essence this is one of the messages of Plato’s famous image of “the cave”. The education process is the growing awareness of the prisoner that what he thought to be true/real is not so at all. What he believed was wrong. Adulthood is reached outside the cave. The ability to see things as they are truly.

Critical thinking simply stated is the ability to examine ideas and thoughts before accepting them. In other words, to fight a natural tendency to rely on others, rely on tradition, follow emotion  - instead think the ideas through by yourself, develop criteria with which to evaluate and judge ideas. Then accept the ideas or modify them or perhaps reject those ideas entirely.

Critical thinking is part of a larger project of creating a true free human being, a person who can and does think for himself. This means that reason is a god given gift that can free people from the manipulation of others, freed from the powers of rhetoric and political maneuvering to become your own master. This does not mean that you should abandon your religion, your teachers, and your emotions as guides. It just means that you have reason to help you make the final judgment of what you should truly believe in. Reason is the way to freedom.

We should therefore strive to develop in our children the ability to think, create in them a habit of postponing their judgment until they can judge clearly and reasonably. And we should teach them the skills needed to be free thinkers, and join the ongoing dialogue that exists between adults – about this world we live in and how to live in it.

Part of this is helping our young ones notice how they are surrounded by rhetoric. Help them notice that powers exist out there that try to convince them by bypassing their faculties of reason and thinking. Rhetoric is part of our world. It can be used for good purposes or bad but it is always out there. And the more we are aware of it the more we can free ourselves from it.

A case in point is the following speech of Barak Obama on January 8, 2008 in New Hampshire. This is the famous “yes we can” speech. Watch it - it is a prime example of amazing rhetoric. I must say that I was “speechless” myself after I heard it for the first time.

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Wonderful wonderful  speech. Why is it so good? It is good because it works wonders not only on our reason but on our emotion. In a way it is a religious sermon leading us to believe that something is happening in America that is almost supernatural. That we lived up to now in certain political darkness but light is ahead. That all of American history has been leading toward Barack Obama and now we arrived at the promised land. That Obama means hope that will come true. “Yes we can Yes we can Yes we can”. Sounds like a prayer. It is a prayer! Watch the following video clip to see how emotions (I believe to be religious emotions) are moved into play so to make us pray for Obama to succeed in the elections.

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Obama is not unique in this way. All politicians try to use any method they can to gain support. He happens to be one of the best in doing so – in my humble opinion. An educational goal is not to be pro or against barak Obama. It is to choose your position regarding Obama independently after carful use of your reasoning skills. We need citizens who can protect themselves from rhetoric  - excellent as it be – to make sound judgment based on criteria that was carefully and personally chosen.

To sum up – we need to create in the young ones something that does not come naturally to them. The ability to be free agents. free thinkers, masters of their own mind. We should strive to help them develop as critical thinkers. This can be one answer for the question: what should be the goal of education.

Perhaps we should add also somthing else: the courage to live according to your independent thinking. This is a dangerous goal. We could find ourselves paying a high price for our independent ways, suffering from society surrounding us and perhaps also living a way that we ourselves will regret and believe wrong some years from now. There is certain sense in relying on proven custom, tradition, culture and habits to guide us in the uncertainties of this world. I admit myself of regretting some beliefs I held true just ten years ago that I could have avoided if I listened to others and to sound social norms. Yet – critical thinking is still the only guide that can allow us to live courageously “out of the box” and achieve a truly unique life. We should overcome fears and live our ideas.

What do you think? Should this be the goal of education?


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