Social Question

liminal's avatar

What Are Schools For?

Asked by liminal (7766points) May 12th, 2010
56 responses
“Great Question” (7points)

I am exploring my children’s education choices. As I research various school modalities I am finding this question progressively compelling.

While it seems like a particularly important thing to know, I am not sure I do.

Observing members: 0
Composing members: 0


Blackberry's avatar

I’m confused, what do you mean exactly? We all know what schools are for, so I don’t think you would ask such an obvious question, so are you asking something else?

Jeruba's avatar

Cynical answer: to turn out good citizens and maintain a supply of workers to commerce and industry.

Idealistic answer: to equip people to take care of themselves, to think, and to contribute to society.

Realistic answer (I think): to transmit accumulated knowledge so that every new generation doesn’t have to start from scratch and rediscover everything.

perspicacious's avatar

At the very minimum, K-12 is the institution in which our children are taught a basic body of information to prepare them to navigate our society and become a productive member of it.

Jeremycw1's avatar

To prepare children for the future (or so they say) or to make kids deal with all of the stress school brings.

Draconess25's avatar

Education, obviously. And social interaction. Though, from what I’ve seen, the “perks” of gazing at your boyfriend from across the classroom seem to distract from the educational process.

InspecterJones's avatar

To develop kids socially, everything else is a farce.

talljasperman's avatar

unfortunately it seems to be for babysitting

liminal's avatar

@Blackberry I am progressively starting to think the answer is not obvious. edit: I am finding myself re-visiting the question and doubting what I once would have said. I am hoping people’s insights will help my thinking.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

They should be institutions that instill a love for learning and provide skills and approaches to situations that kids can utilize outside the classroom. As it stands now, however, most schools teach to regurgitate and to conform.

Draconess25's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Ummm…......regurgitate what exactly?

Blackberry's avatar

@liminal Well, there’s the ideal answer of what they are supposed to be for, of course the purposes of school don’t always work. What type of answer were you looking for? Like Jeruba’s answer, there are different ways to interpret what a school accomplishes, and then there are different types of schools etc.

Blackberry's avatar

@Draconess25 Information they cram.

Draconess25's avatar

@Blackberry Oh….okay! I thought it meant literal vomiting!

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Blackberry Facts, formulas, timelines, etc. More of the what instead of the how.or why.

YARNLADY's avatar

Schools were originally invented because parents did not have the skills or time to teach their children the so-called higher levels of education, such as reading, writing and math. However, they became so institutionalized that main purpose became to warehouse children and take the parents place.

I am a proponent of home schooling.

Sarcasm's avatar

To teach social skills. The rest of the learning is forgettable.

Draconess25's avatar

@YARNLADY One of my girlfriends was homeschooled when she was little. She was too young to start kindergarten, so her parents taught her. She got to skip kindergarten & 1st grade. When we started high school, she was the youngest in the building out of 2000.

liminal's avatar

@Blackberry I am not looking for a ‘right’ answer. I am pondering and gathering information. I appreciate what is being said so far. It seems that how a learning environment defines what a school is for determines the ”...different ways to interpret what a school accomplishes, and… types of schools etc..”.

I am realizing that what my family settles on believing will drastically impact the educational environment we pick.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@liminal At least our families are asking this question. Others don’t think twice and do what’s expected.

DominicX's avatar


I think it completely depends upon your experience.

Sure, I don’t remember everything I learned in school, but what I learned regarding what I am most interested in I haven’t forgotten. I took three years of Latin in high school; I feel like I haven’t forgotten anything and that’s essentially true. Same goes for other areas of interest, such as European history and human biology. There are so many different attitudes people have toward school and so many different ways people benefit from it, that one blanket statement cannot speak for all students.

And of course, one can’t deny the importance of social skills.


School is designed to give a general education in as many subject areas as possible, to prepare people for higher education, for the most part. When I was in high school, the attitude there was that everyone was going to college. Of course that’s not necessarily the best option for everyone. It also, as @Sarcasm said, “teaches” social skills. Ideally, in my opinion, it should also prepare people for more aspects of the real world than just a preparation for higher education, it should teach, promote, and encourage thinking, and it should focus more on hands-on projects, which I felt I didn’t do enough of, especially in high school.

Credentials: I went to public school for kindergarten through high school. Nothing private, alternative, college prep, none of that. Just regular old public school. The schools I went to were highly ranked for public schools, though, and I felt my overall experience was positive. I’m now a freshman at Stanford University.

liminal's avatar

I am reading and thinking about everything. It is stirring more questions for me, but I think I will sleep on them. @Simone_De_Beauvoir it feels good to have some company! I am learning we are not very alone.

Draconess25's avatar

@DominicX At our high school, there’s a class required by all freshman called “Career Pathways”.

filmfann's avatar

Cause my Social Security depends on their earning a good living.

One day, I hope to actually be able to draw SS

Corey_D's avatar

To give children the knowledge and skills needed for success in adulthood.

aprilsimnel's avatar

To have somewhere to teach little ones how to be good worker bees until the labour market can absorb them in.

SeventhSense's avatar

For the basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and social preparation for society they serve a vital purpose. They seem to be the best course for educating the mass of society. Not that some parents couldn’t do it as well but for the vast majority of parents and children it’s the best solution. If we didn’t have them, the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” would be even more profound.

gailcalled's avatar

Because I married a Headmaster in the world of Independent Education, my two kids (and his three) ended up attending a school run by The Society of Friends. It was an extraordinary experience for all of us.

The school had an underlying moral foundation that infused everything; additionally it had extraordinary teachers who were knowledgable, patient, creative and endlessly inventive.

The Quaker beliefs in simplicity, non-violent solutions and a tolerance and openness to new ideas or revisiting old ones had a profound effect on my kids and me.

I consider and considered myself and my kids Jewish. That did not conflict with the Quaker ethos. I went through a really good public school system growing up in a NYC suburb. It did not compare. My kids and two of my three step-sons remember their experiences and friendships formed at Germantown Friends School with a great deal more enthusiasm than that at Brown, Wesleyan, Harvard and U. PA. (Third step-son was dyslexic and stumbled into cocaine and had a very different experience.)

There is a tuition because Friends Schools are not part of the public school system; but there is an unusually generous financial aid package. Our school was in Phila., where there are other Quaker schools. They are scattered around the country also.

Here’s a search site.

jeanmay's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I strongly disagree that most people don’t think twice and do what’s expected. I do not know a parent, student or peer who has not at some point questioned their education, or the education of their children. Just because most people conform to the status quo, it does not mean they agree with it. By questioning and challenging the system in a positive way we can seek to understand and improve it.

@liminal I often talk with my peers and parents about the nature of my education and whether we made the right choices. I went to a free, local school, and although I hated it at the time I feel that in many ways it provided me with the tools to live in and cope with the real world. In schools, as in the workplace, we are forced to work with and for people we don’t like on a personal and sometimes professional level. Exposure to both inspiring and wrath-inspiring teachers has helped form thinking and establish my own position on social, political and educational issues. By meeting other children, like-minded and otherwise, I learned more about myself and my place in the world. By the time I got to university I did start to feel a bit like an economic commodity being churned through the system, but I was still able to get the things I wanted from my degree: education and personal development for its own sake.

Living here in South Korea I have seen the effects of an education system shaped largely for the good of economic growth. Each stage of school here, from elementary to high school, is geared towards preparing students for university entrance exams. Students of every age are tested and expected to perform well in tests, regurgitating facts in the way that @Simone_De_Beauvoir refers to. Resourceful and creative thinking are actively discouraged, and the emphasis is on science and engineering in order to produce a nation of workers that can continue to sustain the economic growth of the last decades. I do not believe we have reached this stage in schools in the US or UK, despite the heavy emphasis on test results and school league tables.

Schools, whether private or public, provide an institute where students have access to educational and personal development, and the development of social and critical thinking.

@gailcalled My grandfather was the headmaster at a Quaker School in Britain. At his funeral, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of community amongst his former students and colleagues. I continue to be amazed and inspired by his work and that of my grandmother, who taught in the school.

lillycoyote's avatar

Basically, the are an relatively efficient way to educate and train a large number of people as opposed to trying to educate or train each person individually, one a time, like home schooling or apprenticeships. That’s kind of my “bottom line” answer. In terms of the philosophy of schooling and schools, the pedagogy of it, if that’s what you’re getting at, I will have to ponder it more to give you a more thoughtful answer.

MissA's avatar

In different countries and cultures, schooling means different things. Reading INTO your question…what exactly are you searching for in an answer…what are you going to DO with an answer you feel befitting your situation?

You’re on the internet…go to some other countries’ sites, Japan for instance, and see what and how schools teach there. The Suzuki method of training brings amazing results.

Could you be asking about public versus private schools? Are you considering home schooling? Please describe exactly what you need to know. I feel your question is vague.

Seek's avatar

Public school: To fulfill the minimum legislated educational requirements in order to continue receiving public funding and receive a paycheck.

Private school: To do what is necessary to make the sponsors, contributing alumni, and tuition-paying parents happy in order to continue receiving funding and receive a paycheck.

Religious homeschool: To propagate the morals and values of the religion, without outside influence.

Secular homeschool: To expose children to what parents feel is necessary learning material, avoiding the lack of individual attention of public school, and the high tuition of secular private school.

gailcalled's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr: So, what are you going to do about your childrens’ (If you have them) education?

Cute quip about private schools; Non-profits (ie,; Friends’ Schools) have no sponsors. The alumni are overwhelmingly generous not only of purse but of time and energy; the tuition includes a huge fund for financial aid.

Home schooling is no longer catch-as-catch-can; at least in NYS. The State has strict guidelines; the administer of the homeschool community has to submit paperwork to the state. Within the guidelines, there is, of course, flexibilty. They get foundation grants for original and creative projects.

PS. I forgot to add that Friends’ schools have a hugely diverse student, faculty and administrative body. They also treated men and women equally from the get-go.

Seek's avatar

The school is a business. The money always comes from somewhere, and to keep that money coming in, they have to concede to the desires of the contributers, whomever they may be. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that is the way it is.

I, personally, hope to homeschool my son for as long as I can, because I cannot afford private school – even if there were a non-religious private school in my area. When he is old enough, I hope to allow him to take advantage of private tutors, private group classes, and community college courses, at his desire.

I’m happy to hear NYS has such requirements for homeschooling. Florida does not. All they need is a paper signed by the parents on file with the state. I know some serious religious-homeschool horror stories – 25 year olds that don’t know how to write a complete sentence, or find the US on a map of the world.

gailcalled's avatar

I had a teen-ager who was home-schooled work for me for several years. Since he had no official teachers, I wrote the only academic recommendation. He got almost perfect scores on his testing (if that really matters) and got accepted to Williams College ED.

Presently I have another boy who was part of the same home-schooling group. He is attending community college and studying ASL, nutrition and the courses needed to be a physical trainer or HS sports coach.

Homeschooling in FL. does sound both naive and primitive. I commend you for doing the best possible for your son.

In PA. there are strict laws and regulations for running a non-profit school. “One source.”:

There is even a PA. Association of Nonprofit Schools:

Again, I speak only from personal experience; the alumni were thrilled with their education and always gave more than was asked for. Ditto for parents. Even the faculty threw something into the annual giving pot. The school has an enormous endowment now that spews off a lot of income each year.

When or if parents and donors had concerns, they were addressed as an entirely different issue than the school’s finances.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@jeanmay Almost all the parents at my sons preschool care only about the prestige of the elementary school their 5 year old will go to and how to prepare them for the tests better in order to get in – they’re not asking ‘what is school for?’

prolificus's avatar

Whenever I’m struggling to find purpose in a modern-day institution, I find it helpful to look into the past and study the institution’s evolution. PBS has this resource SCHOOL: The Story of American Public Education. The resource offers a parent guide.

For a brief history of education, here are some more resources:

History of Education (wiki)
Public Education (wiki)
Education in the U.S. (wiki)
American Public Schools: History and Pedagogics (online book)
History of American Education Web Project
American Educational History: A Hypertext Timeline
The Underground History of American Education (online book)

To answer the original question:

Schools are designed to meet the ever-changing needs of society. Methods and models change in order to accomplish political agendas, not to meet the needs of individual students. Almost every major change in American public education resulted from laws or lawsuits. Private schools are the result of different segments of society, whether on the basis of philosophical or religious differences, rejecting the public school agenda. Schools are for political power – to raise the intellectual capital of a society in order to rival other political powers and to build economic resources. Case in point: The No Child Left Behind Act signed by former Pres. G.W. Bush. This law has little to do with the needs of the individual student, or to empower teachers to flex their creative teaching skills, but everything to do with raising the intellectual capital of society in order to decrease the need for social welfare down the road. It is purely an economical decision, and not a pedagogical one. Public schools that do not abide by No Child Left Behind (NCLB)regulations lose government funding. This means, only public schools in wealthy neighborhoods and private schools have the financial resources to act autonomously and to focus their attention on student-centered education as opposed to regulation-centered education.

If one does not agree with NCLB, and desires to have their child(ren) receive student-centered education, the best thing to do is explore every possible option. Every method and model has advantages and disadvantages, there is no perfect school. The perfect situation, however, is when parents and members of the community invest in local schools (see School, Family, and Community Partnerships and related resources).

zephyr826's avatar

I don’t have kids of my own, so for those of you who are struggling with this decision, I greatly sympathize, and I cannot imagine the difficulty in making these choices for a child’s life. However, as a public school teacher, I feel the need to defend public education. In my experience, the majority of teachers and administrators that I have worked with are in education to create better citizens, and I don’t mean mindless automatons. I do my best to encourage my students to look outside themselves, to search for the answers to their questions in a variety of places (not just the textbook or wikipedia), and to accept things with a grain of salt. I try to remind them that they have a responsibility to participate in their society, through political and service-related action. I want them to reach their full potential and find their gifts, even if they’re not in my subject. Most of the people that I’ve worked with share these views, and we do our best with limited resources. Not that public schools are the best choice for most students, but they get a bad rap that is not always deserved.

ok, I’m done ranting.

prolificus's avatar

@zephyr826 – to whom are you ranting (within the context of this thread)?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@zephyr826 There are a lot of good teachers out there – that’s for sure. My issues is more with the institution and its direction rather than any individual teacher – believe me I have great respect for good teachers, you’re underpaid and overworked and you work under many restrictions.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Jeruba‘s answer is awesome except, i consider her “cynical answer” to be an enormously optimistic answer. :)

Anyway, I’d say: School is where the unlearned go to learn what others know.

zephyr826's avatar

@prolificus no one in particular. It’s just been a rough week at work, full of people expecting the impossible and teenagers who have checked out mentally. I don’t mean to shout at anyone in particular.

@Simone_De_Bouvoir – Thanks for the vote of support.

prolificus's avatar

@zephyr826 – hmmm. The impossible is expected out of teachers. I don’t think there is any other job out there in the U.S. that requires so much out of one person. Sorry to hear you’re having a rough week.

Berserker's avatar

I pick @Jeruba ‘s cynical answer.

liminal's avatar

I appreciate the thoughtful answers here. @prolificus, thank you for the resources. I am surprised you don’t have educator written into your profile description. You know your stuff! I keep going over how you said “schools are designed to meet the ever-changing needs of society.” My career has been rooted in the social services field and teaching adults. I also worked for a University where my responsibilities involved teaching prisoners Life Skills and Personal Development within the Illinois Department of Corrections. I have seen the impact of deficient schooling. My own relationship with education suffered from such deficiencies. I have also seen the offer of hope that education brings. I deeply admire educators and do not view public school as a lost cause (which I don’t hear you saying either). While it is does require certain sacrifices I still realize that it is a privilege to be able to choose how my children are educated. @zephyr826 I was hoping a teacher actively and currently immersed in the life of a school would post. I thank you for the hard work you do. The constraints that today’s teacher faces makes your job all the more difficult and I admire those of you who figure a way through.

I’ve been a student of the philosophy of education for a long time. I have yet to come across a modality that hasn’t spent time answering the question of what schools are for. Personally, I have looked to schools to answer this by preparing children for adulthood. Which I am biased to think means passing on knowledge, fostering intellectual development, and nurturing personal and interpersonal development. I find scholastic modalities that focus on testing and data management to the detriment of holistic training to be prevalent in US culture. I resist such approaches, find little value in them, and often find myself thinking cynically about the government’s role in making such things status quo. (I do adore you educators who know how to help children thrive despite such environments!)

Part of my revisiting this question involves my answering the next logical question: Which goal trumps another and how do schools best bring these goals to fruition?

Another part of my revisiting is I am asking myself who should decide what students learn, how they should learn, and when they choose to learn it? How much charge does a student have over their life and how responsible are they for their own education? When do these expectations kick in? How can education facilitate this? (I am asking these questions rhetorically right now, but if you have a burning response, please, do share. Regardless, you can probably expect that I have a few more questions heading fluther’s way.)

Again, I appreciate you all taking time here on this thread. It is helping me think things through.

gailcalled's avatar

Once upon a time, when I was young, Harvard did a horizontal survey of a lot of successful men. Don’t ask me for attribution or links because it was a long time ago.

The question was: “What do you remember as being most important, valueable, and enduring during your years in college?”

The majority said;

1) Being in a small college (fewer than 2000 undergrads).

2) Being on a campus that had a clear moral philosophy (like Haverford, Earlham and Swarthmore…Quaker colleges).

3) Having a faculty mentor.

SeventhSense's avatar

valueable? I’m sure you mean valuable.
You see you drop the “e” before adding the derivational suffix “able”.
It was an honest mistake I’m sure~

gailcalled's avatar

@SeventhSense: Shame on me. Good catch. Can I blame it on Milo?

SeventhSense's avatar


mattbrowne's avatar

In short: to save and advance our civilization.

Compulsory education has the following perceived benefits.

* Before compulsory free education existed, many children have no access to basic education because their parents cannot afford the tuition or need the children to work instead of going to school. As a result of compulsory education, illiteracy is greatly reduced and knowledge of mathematics and other basic subjects are increased.
* Before compulsory free education existed, most children were unprepared to train for most vocations and the professions. As a result of compulsory free education, access to a range of better paying vocations and professions is made possible.
* It discourages child labor.
* It encourages economic development.

flo's avatar

Home schooling is not a bad thing, if they get enough socializing from friends and relatives, etc.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (2points)
flo's avatar

I hope it didn’t sound like I was changing the subject. I was trying to say, if you are trying to avoid the peer pressure related things…

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
Aesthetic_Mess's avatar

Schools are for educating children, and letting them be social.

Gamrz360's avatar

To teach them the knowledge that they need to know in the future. And also prepare them in the future.


I think the intent of the public school system is to teach kids how to get along, interact with each other, socialize, etc., so that when they grow up and enter the workforce, they are properly equipped with social skills to work productively. I think that’s the main intended purpose of school——to fit kids into the workforce. The teaching of the 4 R’s is really secondary.

flo's avatar

If you look at Rutgers University, there is no point in going to school. The students recently invited Snooki from Jersey Shore, paid her $32,000, and the university is too busy pointing it’s finger at the students.

flo (13313points)“Great Answer” (1points)
Response moderated (Spam)

Answer this question




to answer.

Mobile | Desktop

Send Feedback