Reflections from Harvard’s RLP (1): The Purpose of Education


A few months ago, I applied for the 2019 Religious Literacy Summer Institute for Educators offered by Harvard Divinity School. This is a week-long workshop aimed for teachers at the K-12 and Community College levels. At that time, I was already teaching World Religions at a Community College, so I went ahead and applied. Surprisingly, I got accepted into the program, along with 26 other educators! Thanks to a generous gift from the Once Here Foundation, the cost of travel and lodging for participants was covered by the program, which was a big plus for me.

The program, hosted by the Religious Literacy Project (RLP) at Harvard Divinity School, would consist of workshops, group activities, lesson planning, and other events where participants could learn from experienced RLP faculty, prior participants (called Religious Education Fellows), as well as each other. The goal of the institute is, in their own words, to introduce educators to a powerful set of specific methods and frameworks that will enable them to teach about religion in pedagogically rich and constitutionally sound ways. Seeing as I teach World Religions, it was a no-brainer to apply to this program. Over the summer, I also accepted a job teaching middle school, so it made this event even more relevant to my work.

So, the day came and all 27 of us met at the Barker Center for the start of the workshop. Every person I talked to that day was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with others, both within the program and outside of it. I don’t really plan on summarizing everything that happened but I at least wanted to highlight my thoughts on at least one of the activities and talks.

Reflection: What is the purpose of education?

One of the first things we were asked was to write down and discuss what the purpose of public education (or just education) was. I decided to focus on plain education (regardless of whether or not it is public) for reasons I can explain in a future post. From my point of view, the purpose of education is twofold:

  • To prepare the student to be contributing members of a society, for the benefit of the society, and
  • To prepare the student to be contributing members of a society, for the benefit of the student

Notice how I kind of cheated there by repeating the same purpose twice, but I do really think that while the objective of education is to prepare the student to be a contributing member of a society, that it strives to do so for the benefit of both the society and the student. While in olden times, the society was based on a local context (a town, a city, a nation), now, with globalization, that society can extend to global proportions. Because of the expansion of what constitutes “society”, the scope of education has had to expand with it as well. Whereas the olden “society” could be a monolithic one, today’s “society” is most likely to be diverse, and so, the purpose of education, being to prepare the student to become a contributing member of said diverse society, should adapt to said diversity.

Many interesting responses were given during the activity. I can’t really recall all, but some notes from the keynote speaker (Dr. Diane L. Moore) were that: education is the most important vocation; its purpose is to give students the belief that individual agency matters (i.e. that our individual choices affect our communities, which in turn affect our society), and that the vocation of humanity is to “humanize” (she explained this with the phrase “we can do better”). Some common ground in our answers is found in the emphasis on the impact on a society that education must prepare the student for.

Though that reflection was only the first 15 minutes or so of the whole day’s activities, the question stuck with me throughout the rest of the summer institute. By the end of the program, my answer to the question was still the same.

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