As my twin girls turned 18 years old this week, I found myself feeling grateful for the education that they have both received along the way.
But when we talk of “receiving an education”, I wondered, what do we actually mean? Does it refer to a transaction in exchange for something; a set of academic achievements or competencies that, having been acquired, will now provide access to “further education” or gainful employment of some kind?
Whilst I understand those who will argue this point of view, I have always been convinced that an education refers to something more than the consequences of 15 years of dutiful study.
So allow me to suggest that the education my children have received, as well as the “product” that many of us are selling in our schools, is more accurately described as an experience that can also be called childhood.
To argue this point of view is to suggest that education is less about the destination and more about the path. It moves the value proposition of a “good education” away from the graduation Diploma and accompanying University offer and demands that we start to consider whether these formative, young years were, in the end, time well spent.
In understanding this point of view, I am again drawn to the work of Joe Pine and his seminal work on The Experience Economy.
I have made this point before, but just as Pine argues that we can look back in time and see what he describes as “the progression of economic value” - the evolution from relatively low-value production of goods and the delivery of services to highly valued, deliberately designed, engaging experiences - I want to advocate for the fact that the education that my daughters have received is, ultimately, the gift of that experience and the memory that they will carry with them for years to come.
The prevailing view of childhood, however, is not this. Neither is it the way in which we market our schools. We tend, even today, to be far more influenced by Aristotle’s philosophical view that children are unfinished adults and that childhood can only ever be a “prospective” state; a view that leads us to believe that everything that happens to a young person up until the age of 18 is only regarded (and only valuable) as preparation for the drama of adulthood that lies beyond.
Take, for example, that piece of art that your child brought home and now remains taped onto your refrigerator door. Do you see it as valuable for what it is, or only good in the sense that it represents the artistic talent that your child may have when they finally develop into a “good adult”?
Recent philosophical work on the goods of childhood (and therefore of education) argues that childhood should not be evaluated solely for the way in which it prepares a child for adulthood. Rather, it should be seen as having intrinsic not just instrumental value.
So when we talk of giving our children (or the students in our school) the gift of an education, maybe it is worth us starting with the point of view that childhood is an intrinsically valuable stage of life and that what we are really offering is a chance to experience moments of connection, joy, and transformation that, whilst good for what is still to come, are also intrinsically good for every day in and of themselves.