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Watch teacher Alom Shaha describe a humanist perspective on the importance of education
The obvious answer to the question of why education is important is that it helps prepare young people for their adult lives. Now pragmatically that means giving giving them the tools and the skills they might need to find employment. However, education is really about preparing children to flourish in society and that involves giving them access to the best of human cultural achievements like art, music, literature and science. And if we educate children properly, and I’m not sure that we always do then those young people can grow up and fulfill their potential as human beings.
Unfortunately, I think there’s a bit of an obsession in this country certainly with exams and education being something that is a stepping stone to a good career or making more money and so forth. And whilst it would be naive to completely deny that this is the case. I think that a good education does far more than teach students how to pass exams or how to become a doctor and so forth. It equips children to think critically and creatively to become independent thinkers really and to be able to access the huge wealth of human culture that is out there.
All of us are members of a greater whole and without education that greater whole would not progress, would not develop, because human progress relies on all of us knowing what has gone before. We can’t come up with new ideas and knowledge from scratch. In fact that would be a senseless way for a society to progress. So education ensures that humanity progresses.
As a humanist, I believe that this life is the only life we have and that things like love, comfort, meaning, and purpose, which some people might find in god, I believe, we can find through our fellow human beings. And so, as a teacher, I’m working with my fellow human beings all the time. I’m contributing to my community and doing something that I think, and society seems to think, is useful. And that gives me a real sense of meaning and purpose to my life. It’s also a tremendous privilege to be surrounded by young people all the time. For me, they’re a constant source of inspiration.
One of the wonderful things about working with young people is that they tend to be far less cynical and have a sense that the future is wide open to them and there’s this kind of, what I would describe as invincibility about them. And working with them helps me keep in touch with that side of myself.
Schools are in a very real sense a microcosm of the wider world and when you see a school that really works, like the one I work in, you can see that it’s a collective effort, it’s not any one individual who makes this school work well. It’s the fact that we’re all working together pulling in the same direction. We all have different skills and we all bring different qualities to the community. And the community works as a result of that. It’s a result of everyone working together for the collective good.
And really, that’s what we want for humanity, for the wider world, that we all contribute from our diverse backgrounds with our varied ideas towards making things better for everyone and that’s what I think a school does. The goal of a school is to make the lives of those who attend it better. Imagine if that’s how society worked.

Alom Shaha is a physics teacher, filmmaker, writer, and science communicator. He is the author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook and Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder.

Question: Does education provide the best solution to most of humanity’s problems?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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