The Purpose of a Formal Education

By | October 14, 2018

[October 14, 2018]  This topic may seem at first glance to be a little off the beaten track from typical leadership themes but the more I see what’s happening on college campuses, the more I realize that it shouldn’t be.  The purpose of formal education is to instruct us to be better, more productive citizens.  At least, that is what philosophers have told us.1

I like to think of it in a simpler way.  Formal education teaches us what to think and also how to think.  Because it teaches us what to think through techniques and practices that are specific to some specialized field(s), it takes on rote memory and study.  This is difficult in practice, of course, and explains why technical studies require considerable effort and the rewards for successfully completing a program of study are much greater.

Just as important, and some will argue it’s more important, is that formal education teaches us how to think.  For this reason, teachers and professors have a great responsibility to provide a sound schooling in different methodologies and models of thinking, logic, and judgment.  This responsibility transcends everyday personal tasks and makes those who teach directly accountability to all members of their society.

The ‘how to think’ factor of education means developing both mind and body, spirit, and the social element of the student.  It addresses the spirit of sportsmanship, the development of good habits for the control of passions and appetites, and for the moral and intellectual development of an individual.  How-to-think education also means the study of the logic of inductive and deductive reasoning.

There is no substitute for formal learning; that which we most often see practiced in a classroom (or group) setting.  The attainment of knowledge is thus more than just for the development of the individual.

For a leader, the lesson is that the best way to apply what we learn is in a setting of others where leadership acts as the lubricant.  Its leadership that helps ensure all the parts of society function as effectively together as possible.  This is why we see such a great emphasis on learning leadership skills.


  1. Plato wrote that “The aim of [formal] education is to attain knowledge.” Philosophers have added to his thinking and furthermore claim that education is for the attainment of happiness or goodness in life.  Socrates, for example, believed that human virtue lies in the attainment of happiness and goodness.  Aristotle said that the “creation of a sound mind in a sound body” is the aim of formal education.  Thus formal education is something to be sought through vigorous intensity if we are to be a good people and good citizens.
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

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23 thoughts on “The Purpose of a Formal Education

  1. Greg Heyman

    By the way, how does a college measure success? Is it the number of students enrolled? Is it the number who graduate? I think you will find these are two of the top measures of success and none of these has anything to do with the education of the student. 🙂

  2. Darryl Sitterly

    The whole point of Gen. Satterfield’s article, I believe, is that we have strayed away from the original purpose of education and perhaps we should evaluate how well this is working out. We should be comparing the gains made from our formal education system to the money and effort it takes to run it. We may come away with a surprising result.

  3. Wilson Cox

    ‘The aim of formal education is to attain knowledge.’ True but the idea has been hijacked by ideologues in the education system and used to turn good young people into crazies. Just look at university campuses today with students telling their professors what to teach and what not to teach. The university presidents let them get away with it.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      Universities are more interested in “diversity” than education. Education is taking a back seat to political correctness.

  4. Army Captain

    My military formal education was actually pretty good. My instructors insisted upon the informal interaction among students like me and the instructors in and out of the classroom. It gave the education a richer component.

  5. Mark Evans

    Formal ‘higher’ education is easy. Go to class, study, and take a test. This is not the real world and why so many of us today criticize colleges and universities as being just money-making machines with little real interest in the development of the student.

    1. Kenny Foster

      They bring it upon themselves. Plus they invite additional criticism – and rightly so – by being outwardly political. WE DON’T WANT BIAS purposefully introduced into teaching.

    2. Georgie M.

      Good comments on the idea of the decline of the formal education system. It used to be about the three Rs but today it’s more about diversity, sex ed, memorizing poetry, and protesting conservatives. No surprise that the system is in decline.

      1. Gil Johnson

        Don’t forget “grievance studies” or “diversity studies” in college that are real majors.

  6. Eddie Ray Anderson,

    I skipped most of my classes at college and spent my time with some of the really smart folks there talking about current events and how to solve “the world’s problems.” My friends thought this was BS but I had a better education at the end than they did.

  7. Willie Shrumburger

    Teachers are most often too busy telling us what to think and don’t teach us how to think. That is the problem.

  8. Mr. T.J. Asper

    There is a hidden piece of the formal educational system that some of the really smartest professors will tell you about; usually tell you on the sly. That is why you hear about talks in professors’ homes and in their offices behind closed doors. Formal education in itself is overrated but there are those who know that more can be gained from it if only we take the time to pull back the curtain.

  9. Max Foster

    Like many successful professionals, I’ve too spent a lot of time in the formal educational system (civilian and military). Most of it is a waste of time IF ONLY YOU FOCUS ON WHAT THEY TEACH. It’s what they don’t teach – the networking and how to think – is what really matters and you don’t get this from a lecture.

    1. Roger Yellowmule

      As usual, great comment Max. You’re right, there is more to the classroom than the lecture (and pretty girls).

  10. Doc Blackshear

    Unfortunately, so much of our formal education system is just crap warmed up. Teachers and professors are propaganda arms of the political left and are too smug to notice they’ve been hijacked to act as “useful idiots.”

    1. Jerome Smith

      I laughed when Gen. Satterfield make a similar comment. The ‘useful idiot’ slogan is truly funny.


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