The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Saturday, March 2, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

The purpose of an education

We attend university because we believe there is something good about education. We choose to attend a good university because we hope to be well-educated. By pursuing a university education, then, each of us aims at a purpose which we all consider to be good.

Today, I’m going to ask a question to which there seems to be many answers — so many answers that one often loses sight of the original question: What is the purpose of education?

Many people respond to this question from a social perspective. They identify the purpose of education as contributing certain goods to society.

Let’s consider a few such contributions and society’s metric for their success:

A skilled, knowledgeable labor force. Society’s metric for the value of labor is wages. By the wage standard, education is successful if the marginal increase in a graduate’s lifetime earnings exceeds the opportunity cost of investing one’s tuition and entering the work force four years earlier.

Community service. Society’s metric for the impact of community service is reduction in rates of poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, unemployment and so forth. By the civic service standard, education is successful if graduates alleviate social problems in their respective communities more effectively than would the direct introduction of the economic, social and intellectual capital invested in their education.

Enlightened democracy. Society’s metric for civic enlightenment is “voter awareness.” By the civic enlightenment standard, education is successful if graduates develop a deeper, more thorough understanding of political parties and platforms, the Constitution, major Supreme Court decisions, significant legislation, local issues, etc., than they would by traveling abroad, entering the work force or living on their parents’ couch.

Let us not forget a fourth substantial social contribution of education — the training of future educators. Without this proviso, the above contributions would die out with the first generation of educators. By the continuity standard, education is successful if a sufficient number of each generation of graduates is qualified and willing to return to academia to educate a new generation.

Each of these contributions (and others, which I do not have space to discuss here) is a legitimate social purpose for education. Each derives its purpose from the perspective of society, as we said at the outset. This is reassuring, validating, perhaps even inspiring to the student who wishes to be a force for good in society. Yet it does not answer the personal dimension inherent in the original question: What is it we aim at in educating ourselves? What is the purpose of education for each of us?

There are also many answers to this side of the question, some of them quite subjective. Though this is ultimately a question for each of us to answer for ourselves, I urge you to consider it a question to answer for all of us — that is, for the University.

I hope you are not too disappointed that my question has only led to more questions. As consolation, perhaps provocation, and what I hope may be some guidance, I will end with perhaps the most unsocial of all education’s purposes: “To make a man fit company for himself.”

Emmett Gilles is a guest columnist and junior classics and comparative literature major from Hartford, Conn. Contact him at

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.