Education – what is it for?
In “The History Boys” two different approaches to education are presented. Irwin represents the functional approach, his teaching methods are traditional and structured, focused solely on passing the Oxbridge entrance examinations. Hector teaches the life enrichment approach in his General Studies class, his teaching methods are unconventional and spontaneous, Hector is not interested in exams and believes in learning for its own sake. Hector undermines the values of the educational system by refusing to ‘play the game’ and teaches a love of literature and language, which Irwin reduces to gobbets to impress the examiners (Hescott 2013). The functional approach to education is examination based in order to be a useful member of society, by contributing as workers and producers of the country’s wealth.

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It promotes the idea that education maintains society for the common good and creates social unity and solidarity, believing that the interests of society are more important than the individual. The functional approach is one of meritocracy, promoting the idea that individuals within society have equal opportunity to achieve in life, that rewards are available for hard work and role allocation, where the educational process, through exams, selects the right people for the right jobs (Blackledge 1985). The negative aspects of the functional approach to education lay with its belief in meritocracy.

This idea is becoming increasingly philosophically problematic and morally questionable. In an unequal society, genuine equality of educational opportunity is unattainable. Functional meritocracy assumes that hard work delivers rewards by achieving good examination results, resulting in a high status, well paid job. It does not account for social class, a student who has come from a middle class family is more likely to achieve better grades due to the resources available to them, therefore students from lower class families remain the ‘undeserving poor’, which fuels the theory that educational system transfers the ideology of higher social classes (Goldthorpe, Jackson 2013).

The life enrichment approach to education is concerned with lifelong learning, separate from the examination process. The approach promotes the idea that education should create a

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passion for literature, culture and the arts which will complement all aspects of learning. It believes that a more rounded education leads to individuals who are smart, talented, independent thinkers, rather than simply becoming useful members of society. The life enrichment approach acknowledges the need to satisfy natural human enquiry and that the more thought systems that are developed, the more prepared the individual will be to interpret situations and solve problems (Patel 2003).

The negative aspects of the life enrichment process are that it is unrealistic. To be able to succeed in society today, good examination results are required, particularly those students from lower class backgrounds. Knowledge is a privilege of the upper classes, who are able to attend university to read literature, the classics or to study art. It is a reality of the lower classes that most do not have this option due to high and increasing tuition fees.

My personal belief is that regardless of class, everyone should have the opportunity to learn the value of education, separate from the examination process which, in an unequal society is unrealistic. A balance between the two approaches to achieve a more holistic experience of education, could serve as a function to pass the necessary examinations whilst attempting to ignite a passion for learning. I conclude my essay with a quote from American philosopher John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

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