What is the point of school, anyway? I mean, what’s the purpose of it all?
This is a common question, sometimes asked in jest, but often serious. Most adults are quick to give overly simplistic answers to the question. And many students walk around with incomplete or downright mistaken notions of what the purpose of school is. So let’s take a deep look at this question and try to sort out just what is the point of school.
First, Some Wrong Answers
The point of school is to get a diploma, so you can get a job.
Getting a job is certainly important, and getting a diploma generally helps. And if you ask some people, this really is the primary purpose of school.
However, this answer implies that school provides nothing of value outside of a piece of paper with your name on it. But if that were true, why would all the people doing the hiring care whether or not you had that piece of paper?
No, there must be some actual value in what it takes to acquire that diploma. It must somehow prepare you for the jobs that require it. Indeed, the United States Department of Education notes in its mission statement that a core goal of education is “preparation for global competitiveness.” School must be doing something that makes graduates better at competing economically, not just locally, but globally.
The point of school is to show off how smart you are.
This answer implies that school is all about competition – that it’s about differentiating the top performers from everyone else.
Students who believe this show up to school thinking their job is to impress their teachers by either knowing everything already or being able to learn it with great ease. They focus on grades and test scores at the expense of everything else in their lives. Or they feel ashamed for just being “average.”
This is decidedly not the purpose of school, but the fact that kids wind up thinking this way speaks to large problems we have with our educational system and in the culture of our schools.
The Many Purposes of School
The truth is, there isn’t just one purpose behind school; there are many. So here are many different answers to the question. All of them are accurate in some way, but all are incomplete. The true answer is all of them.
The point of school is to figure out what you’re good at.
This is one of my least favorite answers to the question, but it does contain a kernel of truth.
There are variations in natural talent, and school does provide a chance to discover what your strengths are. But your abilities aren’t fixed, and the work you do to improve will, in the long run, matter far more than your innate talent.
A better version of this answer might be that the point of school is to help you grow your strengths. Or a similarly better answer is that the point of school is to discover what you’re interested in – to discover which skills you’d like to develop and what subjects you’d like to learn deeply.
The point of school is to teach you things you need to know.
This is my second least-favorite answer to the question, but again, it is partially true. Learning academic content that you will need for college or for a future career is important, but it’s just one of the many purposes of school.
Unfortunately, this is often the only notion that students have about the purpose of school. As a result, whenever they’re asked to learn something they don’t foresee using in a future career, like Shakespeare or the quadratic formula, they resist, complaining, “But I’m never going to need this!”
One counterargument is that the student in question cannot be certain what their future career will be, so we ask them to learn all kinds of things in order to keep their options open. While this may be true, it’s a weak rebuttal. Several far better counterarguments appear in the answers that follow.
The point of school is to make better citizens.
One reason we teach everyone science, history, and literature, regardless of what they plan to do for a career, is because it should make them better citizens and more informed voters. Our society is made better when everyone is math-literate. For example, people make better decisions about things ranging from public health to retirement savings when they understand exponential growth. Our culture is enriched when everyone has had a chance to learn art and music. There is value in all of the subjects.
The point of school is learning how to learn.
When I was a senior in high school, our calculus teacher gave us a lesson on some extremely esoteric math concept that was totally disconnected from everything else we’d learned that year. As far as we could tell, the concept had no practical applications, so someone asked, “Hey, when are we going to use this?” And the teacher’s reply was so wonderfully honest, I’ll never forget it.
“Never. You’re just learning how to learn.”
Learning is a skill – or rather, a collection of skills. These skills include paying attention, taking notes, problem-solving, active studying, and self-testing, among many others. The skills of learning must themselves be learned and then practiced, and this is one of the core purposes of school.
We have no idea what the future holds. We don’t know what today’s kids will need to know when they’re adults. But can be sure they’ll need to know how to learn because the world is changing quickly, and that’s likely to accelerate. Already, most adults change jobs or even careers several times between college and retirement.1 Knowing how to learn makes you more adaptable.
In his excellent book about the future of humanity, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari makes it clear how essential this skill will soon be:
“Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are forty. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.”2
The point of school is learning how to work.
This is often given as the cynical answer to the question of what’s the purpose of school. Schools are designed to create good workers – people who show up on time and do what they’re told. And while learning how to be punctual and follow instructions is genuinely valuable, this notion tends to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
But there’s a brighter way to view this idea. Learning how to work is about building up the mental calluses necessary to do what needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not. It’s about practicing executive function skills. It’s about learning to create your own motivation to overcome procrastination. It’s about cultivating grit and willpower. In this sense, knowing how to work is a valuable, lifelong skill that empowers you to do whatever you set your mind to.
The point of school is brain training.
Because of its ability to grow and change, the brain is like a bunch of muscles. And school is like a cross-fit gym for the mind: It provides a wide variety of challenges that force your brain’s muscles to get stronger. Students often complain when things at school are difficult, but being difficult is partly the point of school. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, your brain wouldn’t grow.
“It turns out, the skills we need to use in life (and in school) aren’t subject specific. But we use those subjects to teach the skills we actually end up using.” –Seth Godin3
There is not one kind of intelligence, but many. And none of these kinds of intelligence is fixed. School provides opportunities to practice all sorts of mental skills: verbal skills, numerical skills, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, multi-step problem solving, analytical thinking, creativity, and much more. Even the ability to focus is like a muscle. Students often complain about learning content they don’t care about or have any use for, but as long as what they’re learning is challenging, it’s good cross-training for the brain.
The point of school is socialization.
Of course, one of the biggest things kids get out of school is socialization. School is a chance to make friends, practice communication, engage in collaboration, and interact with grownups who aren’t your parents. Indeed, many schools now deliberately include “social and emotional learning” in their curricula.4
The other meaning of the word ‘socialization’ is learning the norms and values of our society. School is a place to learn which kinds of behaviors are acceptable and which are not. It’s a place to practice minding your manners. It’s a place where you get to see yourself as part of a larger whole. Of course, teenagers often rebel against those norms and values, but this is also an important part of growing up.
The point of school is to learn character.
Many thinkers over the centuries have argued that the primary purpose of school is to teach “character.” The definition of character varies greatly depending on who you ask. Some emphasize morality – whatever particular conception of morality they hold, of course. Others emphasize resilience, determination, and grit. Still others emphasize social skills, emotional regulation, and self-control.5 School certainly plays a role in cultivating all of these aspects of a person’s character.
Obviously, parents have an important role to play here as well. Schools aren’t a substitute for all the socialization and character-building that occurs within families. But, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, and school is part of that village.
Purposeful is not the same as effective.
However, the fact that schools serve many important purposes does not mean that schools are serving these purposes particularly well. Many aspects of our educational system are outdated or ineffective.
We can and should reform our school systems for the better, and understanding what the point of school actually is – or rather, what the many points are – will help guide those improvements.
And the purposes of school described here are not actually exclusive to school. They can be fulfilled by other means. Or they can be fulfilled by schools that look radically different from those we have today. As the world changes, schools will need to change too.
Getting What You Expect
Lastly, your answer to the question, “What’s the point of school?” might be exactly what you get out of it.
If you think school is just about getting good grades and a diploma, then you’ll do the bare minimum to earn those things and miss out on all the other things school has to offer. If you think the purpose of school is just to learn the content that will be useful for your future career, then you’ll feel unfairly burdened by all the classes that don’t align with that goal. Defining the point of school too narrowly can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing you to get far less from school than you could.
On the other hand, if you understand that school has many important purposes, you will be more likely to proactively make sure you get all the benefits it has to offer. School isn’t a purely top-down institution, where students receive whatever’s given – although can seem that way. School is really a dynamic interaction between the students and the institution, and the more students participate, the better it works.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Indeed Editorial Team. “How Often Do People Change Careers?” Indeed. February 26, 2021
2 Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper Perennial, 2017.
3 Godin, Seth. “Pivoting the educational matrix.” Seth’s Blog. July 29, 2019.
4 Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E., & Gullotta, T. P. (Eds.). (2015). Social and emotional learning: Past, present, and future. In J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (pp. 3–19). The Guilford Press.
5 Easton, Mark. “What’s the point of school?” BBC News. February, 11 2014.