The purpose of schooling

I think the purpose of schooling is to prepare kids for making good decisions about their adult lives, including what their work will be and what they should spend their time and attention on.

Childhood is 18 years. Adulthood is 60 more, at least. Preparing for adulthood is really really difficult, even if your parents would do anything for you, including homeschooling you. Because they can’t do everything. Adult life is difficult and lonely, moreso without lots of preparation.

15 replies
  1. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I half agree with you, in that teaching children not to royally screw up their lives is a major part of their education.

    I disagree with you, though, because what’s a good decision? I’m in my 20s, I’m not sure about what I want to do with my life, so I’m trying out different careers for size. You say that’s a good decision. My family and friends think it’s stupid – they think I should take the first good job I get and stick with it. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. I won’t know for a few years.

    So maybe the point of schooling isn’t to teach kids how to make good decisions. Maybe it’s about teaching them how to be happy with their lives regardless of the decisions they make. I don’t know.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. Good point. I am not really sure what the purpose of adult life is anyway, so how can we know how to prepare for it?

      Some moments I say that the purpose of adult life is to be a nice person. Since we don’t know what else matters. I sort of like the idea of education being there to teach someone to be nice. But I don’t think you need math fro that. So there’s a gap in my reasoning.

      I like your idea, Sarah, that happiness is involved somehow. We are teaching kids to be happy in adult life. Of course, on my other blog I’ve been railing against happiness for three years. So it would be ironic, if after three years of research on why happiness is vacuous, I would start homeschooling to teach my kids to be happy.



      • Claire
        Claire says:

        Mark’s statement about the purpose of schooling is awesome: “The purpose of schooling (the process of being formally educated at a school) is to make learning fun and interesting so kids will want to learn for the rest of their lives.” I’m not sure you can find this kind of environment at all public schools, especially with the focus going toward testing and the emphasis on college/career readiness.

        Penelope, on the idea of education being there to teach someone to be nice, I prefer compassion. Can schools teach it? I’m not sure but John Hunter’s World Peace Game ( is worth mentioning.

  2. Paul
    Paul says:

    IMO this post should be re-titled “The Purpose of Education”. I heartily disagree with the premise that schooling and education are anything more than remotely related. The purpose of schooling is to:

    1. Create good little robots
    2. Create a place to collect all of the children and adolescents who would be roaming the streets while both of their parents work.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Paul, you bring up such a good point. Yes, education is what I mean.

      I am finding, as I dive into this blog, that so much of learning to think about a topic is learning the language for that topic. I really struggled with the title of this post. I knew school wasn’t right but schooling didn’t seem right either. Now I know why.

      I think the thing I’m really learning here is how effective a blog community is as a decision making tool.

      The input people give here is so wide ranging (you, with the word choice) and thought provoking.


  3. Heather
    Heather says:

    I think people’s ideas of what “schooling” is meant for will differ by family. Sarah’s point is a good example of that: HER family doesn’t define what she’s doing as a “good decision” where other families would applaud her success.

    And the bigger point is that the word “schooling” is used here where I feel that what you’re describing is “education”. For me, “schooling” identifies with a more structured, classroom-type situation (which can be done in a traditional school, but can also be done at home). That kind of structure certainly can teach some things; but what you describe as the purpose of “schooling” is not what I can see being achieved through those things. They are things that are learned at a much higher level outside of the classroom with a lot of parent engagement and modeling. It’s sad to see people so overscheduled with work and activities that they barely have the time to do these things with children that are in a school setting while they’re at work. Can’t homeschool? Okay… then at least scale back the “stuff” and focus on engaging with your kids. Is it really that difficult to be sure you all sit down to dinner TOGETHER every night and fill your evenings with non-TV activities?

    I think “education” is way bigger than “schooling”.

  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    i assumed “schooling” meant “schooling”, not education.

    if the true purpose of schooling was “to prepare kids for making good decisions about their adult lives”, then kids would graduate high school knowing more about the basics — personal finance, for example. if i read one more story about some poor kid who took out $100,000 in college loans and graduated unemployable with a degree in religious studies…

    • Kath
      Kath says:

      I just want to react to the statement that someone with a degree in Religious Studies is “unemployable.” Actually, there is a lot one can do with that type of degree, if one has thought creatively about it. If you get a degree like that, at the very minimum you can read and interpret dense texts and write in complete sentences (which seems to be increasingly rare.) Especially if coupled with other outside activities, you could pretty much fit in anywhere, *if given the chance*. I love hiring Liberal Arts grads! If the economy didn’t suck, I wish I was in the position to hire more of them . . . which is the problem. Employers aren’t willing to think creatively with the few slots they may have . . .

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The purpose of schooling (the process of being formally educated at a school) is to make learning fun and interesting so kids will want to learn for the rest of their lives. They will need to learn for the rest of their lives and schooling will hopefully provide them with the skill sets necessary to make that happen. Skill sets include discipline, confidence, problem solving (logic), tenacity, asking good questions, and so on. I consider myself so lucky to have a thirst for learning that will never be quenched because everyday I learn a little bit more and realize how much I don’t know.

  6. Paul
    Paul says:

    After mulling this for a few days, I keep coming back to the idea of education as an enabler of freedom. Part of that, as the first poster mentioned, is about learning how to NOT screw up, how to NOT accidentally or unknowingly enslave themselves as they get older. Another part, though, is learning the things that will allow them to be maximally self reliant and under a minimal number of thumbs outside of the ones that they intentionally choose.

    I kinda quarrel a little bit with the idea of a “good decision”. I love Thomas Sowell’s line, “There are no solutions, only tradeoffs.” A decision is only really good or bad to the extent that it is or is not made with a real understanding of the tradeoffs involved. Education gives a person a toolset to allow an understanding of what those tradeoffs are.

    Ultimately, a person can’t be free if they never understand what they’re really getting or giving up when they make a decision. Once they DO understand that, outcomes become a function of intention rather than accident. And that’s really what I want for my children – for the paths of their lives to be a result of what they knowingly decide rather than what just simply happens to them.

    • Latha
      Latha says:


      Your message is brilliant! It is about the freedom to make mistakes and developing faith in oneself so one can take oneself lightly.

  7. Latha
    Latha says:

    My family motto is “Be kind and have a curious mind”. My son and I debated a lot about the various elements that we would like in our life and came up with these two as key things for us. These are the two rules that guide our lives. To be truly kind, one also needs to be empathetic. This requires imagination to put oneself in another shoes and that requires a curious mind. This has meant that as a product of an atheist family, my son has had to learn to appreciate and respect other people’s tremendous faith and their choices thereof.

    I agree that formal schooling should not be confused with education. In fact, my sister is constantly astounded by unethical or rude or unkind behavior by the so called highly educated. I always have to remind her that most of the education that comes out of formal schooling is aimed at skill building, providing legitimacy, and credentialing than engaging and enlarging one’s moral imagination.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like that motto a lot. It’s just that I see people like that all the time — and they are usually unemployed. Because you need something else in there to drive you to want to do something that is not the coolest thing on earth in order to earn money. How do you prepare a kid for that?

      The decisions we make about work rarely have anything to do with being kind and curious. They are more practical decisions about the tradeoffs of life. It seems unfair to prepare kids for a perfect world and then throw them into a world where they have to earn money.


  8. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    Looking back, the result of unschooling has been that my child has learned to observe, learn, reason, be self-reliant, problem-solve, communicate with and respect people of all ages. She seems prodigious, and maybe she is, but she believes most children are born with the capacity for excellence, but its expression is interfered with by the process of schooling.

    Unschooling meant no television or computer games, lots of outdoor exploration, pet-raising, horse care & riding and lots of peer activities. There is 4H, Girl Scouts, field trips, art & music & dance, sleep-overs. Living in the community and meeting people in activities is what it’s about, and that’s what we do as adults, however different the ways we do so may be.

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