“You regard William as of subtler vein and acuter genius because omitting grammar and literature he has hastened to the cunning of logic, where he learns dialectic not in books as is customary but in schedules and notebooks…For what good does it do them to spend their days on these things which are of no advantage to anyone at home or in the camp or in the forum or in the cloister or at court or in the church, but only in the schools?”
-p. 16 University Records and Life in the Middle Ages compiled by Lynn Thorndike
I was shocked as I read this letter from Peter of Blois, written in the 1150s! As background, he was tutoring two young boys; both of whom were quite different in their approaches to learning. The older boy pursued knowledge from the world of work, leaving behind the study of formal grammar and literature. The younger boy gravitated more towards the traditional learning of that day. Their tutor after working with them for two days (How often do we make outreach to parents as quickly as that?) wrote a letter walking the delicate balance between preparing them both for the real world and ensuring both young men had the foundational skills for success.
It is hard for me to fathom that this question, what is the purpose of school, has been nagging educators for almost a millennium! We should be humbled that our pursuit for that answer is not one solely for our age, but has been a timeless source of debate.
Yet, we should be cautioned that the abrupt changing of the winds we see today does little benefit for our students, parents, teachers, and administrators. In education policy they refer to this as the swing of the pendulum. In some years the pendulum heavily emphasizes foundational content skills to only shift rapidly to more abstract career-based skills.
The impatience of not seeing results quickly is the force driving much of the rapid pendulum swinging shifts. Peter describes eloquently in his letter that we would be better with content seeped in an understanding of its benefits and translation to the real-world. How do we ensure the content we teach draws relevance to the world beyond the confines of our four-walled classroom?
What can be agreed is that there exists no one answer to the question, what is the purpose of school? Yet, by answering that question of relevance for our students we will hopefully better serve their needs irregardless of what policymakers label the purpose of schools. Keep those connections rolling for students, opening their minds to the vastness of our world and we will have served greatly our part in this mission of education!