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Apodaca: Job of education is to spark fires

June 14, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

"Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." — William Butler Yeats

The end of the school year is upon us. Our brains are fried, we're exhausted from relentless term-ending activities and our kids checked out mentally weeks ago.

When summer beckons, it's not usually the time when we ask ourselves the Big Questions that keep us awake at night. Still, before we flip the switch to full summer mode, it's worth taking a moment to consider the following:

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What is the purpose of education?

It's a big question all right, both philosophically and practically, and yet it's one we don't always deeply ponder. We all agree that education is a bedrock of civilized society, its importance virtually unmeasurable in terms of our collective progress and individual achievement. Yet we diverge in our ideas about what education's endgame should be.

This might seem like an overly esoteric debate, but it's actually at the heart of just about everything transpiring in education today, from the movement to create common standards of learning to teacher accountability, funding issues and the role of technology.

And it takes on added, pointed relevance as we as a nation appear to be moving the dial on what we expect from the vast educational infrastructure we've created.

At the risk of being a bit too simplistic, a purist would hold that education is a worthy pursuit in and of itself, that it is the key to unlocking insight, wisdom, creativity and inventiveness. It's about learning to think and question, and the endless pursuit of greater understanding.

There's a trend afoot, however — has been for some time now, in fact — to view education in a more practical, hard-nosed way. Being educated isn't enough, the thinking goes. We must learn things that can be put to use in a direct, concrete way. Taken to the extreme, if you can't apply what you learn toward landing a good job, it's a waste of energy and resources.

Some of the latter thinking is undoubtedly driven by the economy. As we emerge from a long period of economic stagnation, with jobs scarce and pay levels shrinking, calls have increasingly been raised to align educational goals more closely to the marketplace. It simply makes sense to teach our kids useful knowledge that can ultimately lead to career success.

But take heed: There is some danger in carrying the concept of education as a bankable commodity a step too far.

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