What is the Purpose of Education

As a former student in the conventional education system of Syria I know I have asked myself this question a million times: what is the purpose of education? I couldn’t see the point of memorising text books, or reading the notes the professor dictated us during class. How could this information be used to learn about the world outside the school walls, and where is our role in this process? I couldn’t relate what we learned in class to my reality, I kept wondering am I the only one asking these questions. The pictures in this article are from schools in Syria.

syria school 5

Education is a very powerful tool, knowledge can help nations develop, grow and create better living conditions for everyone. People seek knowledge through the education system and its institutions as in schools, specialized institutes and universities. The world has witnessed increasingly more people graduating from this system of education for decades, and that should be a positive sign that we are heading towards better life conditions. But if we consciously look at the world around us we see that the development we have achieved has deteriorated the eco-systems on which the sustainability of our living conditions depends. We are inhaling polluted air, and in many countries drinking polluted water, we are eating unhealthy food and leading a lifestyle that is making us unsocial unhealthy and depressed. At the same time the majority of the population is living poverty, hunger and putting up with the worst working conditions to keep the machine of modernism working. The world is fully aware of these problems; they are the headlines of our daily news and nevertheless, the tragedy is getting worse. A great number of people living in so called powerful countries have received basic to high education; shouldn’t they know better?

syria school 2

The problem is not the lack of schools it is more of the quality and design of the education system itself (Sterling, 2003). We have developed a system to serve economic growth; it programmes people to become skilled workers and it has managed to disconnect us from who we are. It starts at home with the family, then the second family at school and continues throughout the years of university to arrive at a professional career. A great many of us are living in a bubble isolated from the natural world; locked in the comfort of our offices or homes where we rely on a technology that we created to serve us. With a simple click on the menu we order our lunch, beautifully packaged and delivered. Yet the true cost and impacts of these deliveries on the eco and social systems that sustain us remain mostly hidden from consumers. These commodities are made by us to fit our (new) lifestyle, which is keeping us hostage in this vicious circle. We are losing our connection with nature; with real food and real relationships. We were taught to compete in order to be considered successful in this system, resources are scarce and that opportunities come only once. We are trapped in a game of survival and competition’ which leads to conflicts, wars and tragedies. It is evident now that the current conventional educational system is not working for us, and it is not helping us see the problems and its causes.

It is high time to step back and have a better look at this system. Where we have come is a result of our greed, Mahatma Gandhi said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. Our increasing needs to consume more had led us to think of methods to produce more. The modernity “development” we have achieved, came to offer man a lot of benefits and to make life easier and products from food to clothes more accessible, but if we all want more who pays the price of modernity? According to John Huckle although modernity, supported by modern education, brought a lot of benefits there was a problem in the distribution of these benefits. It has predominantly supported capitalism and industrialism, which is seen largely in the developed countries, as Huckle says. Having said this, we should also consider the developing countries, for example, the ecological footprint of countries like China, Brazil and India has notably increased. It is not about North vs South anymore; rather it is about the economic models and systems that countries are choosing for their development purposes. Developing countries have also joined in the fight over resources and their emissions too have increased while the conditions of life for their people have deteriorated; creating a bigger social gap, deteriorating health and inequality.

The problem is in the core of the education system which in its structure resembles a factory, where in the school students are divided according to their age criteria and they are enrolled in a list of classes that aims at developing their skills to operate the machinery of modernism. In this system there is little to no room for art, or creativity. In many countries local indigenous knowledge has been neglected in the education system or it reoriented by curriculum designers to follow thesyria canal

interests of the economic system. Having grown up in Syria a country in the Middle East, where part of its economy depends on agriculture, I can say that I thought dams and barrages had nothing but positive impacts and prosperity. Syria’s education system backed up the county’s governmental plans to depend on agricultural industry to advance its economic development. We learned in schools that creating big dams and barrages is the solution to achieve food self-sufficiency, so we were brought up to believe they had no negative impacts on the eco system of the zone. This was disregarding the local knowledge that knew better. The locals know their ecosystem and know the importance of biodiversity. The dam erased the traditions related to the natural cycle of the river, and it brought new practices such as planting cotton, which ruined the soil after years of over-irrigation. This brought increased desertification to the area at a rapid rate and caused a lot of disasters. Yet our official records stated the contrary; desertification was supposed to only result from over-grazing and lack of rain. In school exams right answer often do not come from what students know from their living experience, as for example living in the area of the dam. Stories of my grandfather would also not have counted. Instead only the information that was assigned in school books counted. What matter at the end of the scholastic year are the results of the standardized exams, only this would decide who the winners and the losers are.

We are living in a world of poverty, environmental hazards, deteriorating health both physical and mental, so we are living what Huckle called “a mounting crisis of sustainability”. We can’t afford to keep neglecting what we know and keep to business as usual’. Sustainability has now become top priority issue, which needs to be considered in every aspect; from politics, to education etc. Change for sustainability requires also a redesign of our educational systems.

From this necessity the concept of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) also known as Education for sustainability (EFS) emerged. EFS aims at transforming our current education systems to achieve the change in behaviours required for more sustainable ways of living and developing. By changing our lifestyle to adopt sustainability practices we learn how to secure quality of life in a way that does not deplete this possibility for others. This may also restore our connections with the world around us to save our environment for both our generation and the future generations. Since the Earth Summit many countries have taken steps towards achieving sustainability; yet more work is required with a bottom up approach. This involves all of us; consumers, producers, teachers and mentors of the next generations. In order to change the system we need the participation of the system users and the system makers[1]

Education for sustainability is a tool to change the education system we have today; to develop learning communities for sustainability involving teachers, students and their families (formally and informally). It supports the development of new healthy habits, which sometimes requires that we go back to the roots of our culture and traditions when we used to eat what we produced locally through a community approach. Mother Earth is capable of healing and regenerating if we help her; if we stop abusing her and learn to respect her. Challenging our current lifestyle by making different choices to slowly reverse the damage and give nature the chance to heal and keep providing for us. We have to learn how to live with a world that is facing climate change. The new generation needs to be able to catch up with the rapidly changing world, where they would have to deal with a growing lack of resources, pollution and new diseases, and social and mental problems due to the current life style we are living. The education system in its conventional form won’t help the next generation thrive and flourish. Finding a way to connect and collaborate so we can learn from each other and learn bow to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor is imperative in Education for Sustainability. It is time we learn to see each other with new eyes, reflect on our actions and develop a sense of global citizenship.

In a system where students learn together in and from the nature around them, EFS encourages creativity, problem solving and enlightenment. By showing students how to change their behaviours to achieve a better future, by linking science classes with the geography classes and by giving the students the chance to measure the impact of their daily life activities at school and at home using mathematical formals, they will shift the formula. The Education for Sustainability programme provides good examples.

It won’t be a small group of people demanding sustainable polices; we can all involve ourselves in the policy making process as global citizens by writing to local and national politicians demanding for sustainable solutions. We can also support other nations in their fights against hunger, poverty etc. Click here to see some examples of best practices from different parts of the world where we can see how schools will set an example of a better way of living. It is my dream and hope that one day nobody needs to wonder; what is the purpose of going to school?


[1] UNEP, Education, lifestyles and Youth

Written by Manar Shibly in 2014.

Manar Shibly was an Erasmus Mundus student, where she completed her Masters degree in Sustainable Territorial Development. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature and is fluent in Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Italian. She is Syrian and has worked in development projects in her country until 2012. She followed an internship in 2014 with Anneloes Smitsman, Founder of EARTHwise, as part of her research on EFS and its evaluation methods.

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