Defining Education: Who benefits from education?

Most discussions that I participate in about education end in one of two ways.  Either everyone involved agrees to disagree, or everyone leaves frustrated with no real solutions to their complex questions.

One of the major sources of frustration I find when talking to fellow educators is our various definitions for common terms.

For example, take the idea of who or what should benefit from education.

When you talk about the benefits of education, what does one mean by benefits?  Who is benefiting? Whose benefits should we foremost be concerned with?

These are fundamental terms that need to be defined in order to understand an argument for reforms, or someone's choice in alternative education.

Historically speaking, educational philosophers have had three major beneficiaries in mind.  Most philosophers have come to look at the idea of education as a benefit to society.  Others have argued that education benefits local communities and families, and some have proposed that education ultimately should benefit the individual.


Those that believe education primarily benefits society often espouse programs that standardize curriculum and cause conformity within schools.  Education, they believe, is the backbone of a nation.  Therefore, experts must hand down what should be taught.  Teachers are to present material, ideas, and values that coincide with the nation's political, intellectual, and ethical pronouncements.

Although not always, most who hold these views also believe in a core knowledge base that must be passed down from generation to generation.  They also agree that ideals and intellectual thinking are more important than job training or everyday skills.

The trouble with this belief come when one starts to look at exactly what as society we should be passing on, and how that should be done.  In a nation as vast and diverse as America, who decides which values to uphold?  When you come to think of it, why does an elite group of so-called “experts” get to mandate how our society educates its young?

Society is not formed by the mass-education of its young.


Some hold to the view that local, organic communities should benefit from education before society as a whole.   What is taught and presented should align with the immediate needs of a community, its majority beliefs, and the work atmosphere.

Programs such as academic tracking (where a student is put on a track, whether for college prep or manual skill) are popular with people who value the benefits of education to the community.  According to this belief, there should be a form of standardization within schools in a community, but not necessarily nationally.

Often the idea that education will increase the competent workforce and produce jobs stems from these ideas.

Again, the problems with valuing community needs in education are many.  How do we perceive future needs in the job market?  Do we know what our students today will need 12 years from now?  How do we determine what is important to a community without individual input?

The Individual

The idea that education should first and foremost benefit the individual learner is a hard view to manage.  Often many people will say they have this view, and yet their policies and actions speak differently.

In recent years, psychologists that study motivation and learning have realized that the human will is much more complicated and complex than we ever thought.  Self-motivation is the most powerful tool for learning and achieving goals in academic and social experiences.

The idea that learning should be child-centered, or at least individualized, has been made popular by certain educators in the progressive, democratic, and unschooling movements.  Curriculum and lessons, if present at all, are all based on the motivation and interest of the student.

This idea is also seen in most homeschooling families, but as a benefit to the family as a whole in relationship to one another rather than individually.

Do these three views need to be mutually exclusive?  I would like to argue that starting from a view that places society or the community above the individual and family when it comes to educational benefits leads to some serious problems.

What is our fear?  Societies from the beginning of time have been composed of individuals and families who were curious, who thought critically about ideas, and who cooperated together to form great communities.

Societies don't form educated people.  Educated people form societies.

If we start with the view that education is for the benefit of the individual, those benefits will spread to the family, community, and eventually society as a whole.

Read Part 2: Models and Methods


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Aadel Bussinger
Aadel has been married to her career Army man for 13 years and they have 2 daughters and a freshly made son. She is a homeschooling mom, volunteer, and online college student. Her hobbies include cooking, organic gardening, sewing, and crocheting.She blogs about their military, unschooling life at These Temporary Tents.
Aadel Bussinger

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5 thoughts on “Defining Education: Who benefits from education?

  1. Hey just wanted to let you know you have “benefactors” where you mean beneficiaries. [Please feel free to delete this comment once you’ve changed it–or just because you want to delete it–I just find this the easiest way to submit typos :)]

    1. Mike- thank you for your thoughts- and yes I agree that ‘experts’ more often muddy the water than clear up what it is that our nation should uphold as the plumb line.

      Many times those that believe society and government should dictate standards accuse those in the individual camp of throwing out absolute or objective truth.  My next article will explore why that is not true, and what the difference is between methods and models.

      Also, thanks for catching that editing error!  I am humble enough to admit when I mince words!

  2. Even though I’m in the “individual” camp, I can agree with almost all of this particular line of thought–except the last sentence:

    “Those that believe education primarily benefits society often espouse programs that standardize curriculum and cause conformity within schools.  Education, they believe, is the backbone of a nation.  Therefore, experts must hand down what should be taught.”

    I would just change that to “Therefore, keep anyone who thinks they are an expert as far away from it as possible–it’s wayyyy too important to trust to anyone abjectly foolish enough to think they are an ‘expert’ in education.”

    Education “experts” typically argue about this question–what should all students be forced to learn, and when, and how should all teachers be forced to teach it?

    It’s exactly like letting the government run the economy.  It’s way, way, way too complex for a central planner to have any hope of doing a good job at it.  It will self organize, just get out of its way.  Education works the same way.

  3. Hi Adel,
    just wondering if you used any resources for this information? And if so, could you tell me the titles?

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