Philosophical Perspectives on the Purpose of School

Before formalized research, state constitutions, or legislative requirements, philosophers had already given a great deal of thought to the different purposes of education and schooling.

Philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Plato, John Locke, Rousseau, Mo Tzu, and Confucius wrote extensively on the purpose and role of education and schooling in their respective societies (Noddings, 1995; Reed & Johnson, 1996). These early thinkers shared many common ideas about what it is that schools should exist to do, but each of them also had their own unique perspectives on the role of schooling within a given culture and civilization.

In more modern times, American educational philosophers such as John Dewey, George Counts, and Mortimer Adler have each proposed systematic and detailed arguments regarding the purpose of schooling in American society. In 1938, Dewey argued that the primary purpose of education and schooling is not so much to prepare students to live a useful life, but to teach them how to live pragmatically and immediately in their current environment. By contrast, Counts, a leading progressive educator in the 1930s, critiqued Dewey’s philosophy stating, “the weakness of progressive education thus lies in the fact that it has elaborated no theory of social welfare, unless it be that of anarchy or extreme individualism” (1978, p. 5). To Counts, the purpose of school was less about preparing individuals to live independently and more about preparing individuals to live as members of a society. In other words, Counts felt the role of schooling was to equip individuals with the skills necessary to participate in the social life of their community and to change the nature of the social order as needed or desired.

In the 1980s, the noted educator and philosopher Mortimore Adler put forth the Paideia Proposal (Adler, 1982) which integrated the ideas of Dewey and Counts, as well as his own. Specifically, Adler suggested that there are three objectives of children’s schooling:

  • the development of citizenship,

  • personal growth or self-improvement, and

  • occupational preparation.

Historian of education David Tyack has argued that from an historical perspective, the purpose of schooling has been tied to social and economic needs (Tyack, 1988). More recently, some sociologists have argued that schools exist primarily to serve a practical credentialing function in society (Labaree, 1997). Expanding on the pragmatic purpose of school, deMarrais and LeCompte (1995) outlined four major purposes of schooling that include:

  • intellectual purposes such as the development of mathematical and reading skills;

  • political purposes such as the assimilation of immigrants;

  • economic purposes such as job preparation; and

  • social purposes such as the development of social and moral responsibility.


Adler, M. J. (1982). The Paidea proposal: An educational manifesto. New York: Collier Macmillan.

Counts, G. S. (1978). Dare the schools build a new social order? Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

deMarrais, K. B., & LeCompte, M. D. (1995). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Labaree, D. F. (1997). How to succeed in school without really learning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Noddings, N. (1995). Philosophy of education. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Reed, R. F., & Johnson, T. W. (Eds.). (1996). Philosophical documents in education. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers, Inc.

Tyack, D. B. (1988). Ways of seeing: An essay on the history of compulsory schooling. In R. M. Jaeger (Ed.), Complementary methods for research in education (pp. 24-59). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.