Even today, confusion about the aims of education is not new, in spite of philosophers’ efforts down through the ages to define what is basic to true knowledge and dispel uncertainties associated with it. Even the great Aristotle had to deal with this issue in his day, when he wrote:

“For mankind are by no means agreed about the things to be taught, whether we look to virtue or the best life. Nor is it clear whether education is more concerned with intellectual or with moral virtue. The existing practice is perplexing; no one knows on what principles we should proceed. Should the useful in life, or should virtue, or should the higher knowledge, be the aim of our training; all these opinions have been entertained.”

Now if people were questioning current definitions of education back in ancient Greece, imagine the challenges we face in our 21st-century world. In our age of heavy industry, automation, materialism, and galloping technical complexity and social media, it seems our only certainty is that we can look forward to even more confusion about the aims of education and its consequent impact upon individual and societal morality.

Various postmodern scholars argue that educational institutions merely fill students’ heads with raw data and information, without imparting knowledge in the classical sense — which included mental training and discipline, preparation for practical life, and the raising of intellectual faculties (Estava and Prakash, 1998; Illich, 1998; Prakash, 1993; Gajardo, 1993).

Some contemporary scholars such as Wendell Berry (1992) have explained the intent of education from a postmodern viewpoint. In an interview concerning his response to today’s educational aims and concerns, Berry wisely observed:

“My approach to education would be like my approach to everything else. I’d change the standard. I would make the standard that of community health rather than [the] career of the student. You see, if you make the standard the health of the community that would change everything. Once you begin to ask what would be the best thing for our community, what’s the best thing that we can do here for our community, you can’t rule out any kind of knowledge (Smith, 2000).”

Berry concluded his remarks by saying, “we are teaching as if the purpose of knowledge is to help people have careers or to make them better employees, and that’s a great and tragic mistake (Smith, 2000).”

Islamic perspectives on this issue are similar to those so passionately espoused by Berry. Al-Ghazali, a Muslim scholar who lived during the eleventh century C.E., encouraged students to seek knowledge in order to contribute to the entire community, not just for personal gain (Faris, 1991).

In this light, researchers might reasonably inquire whether today’s educational institutions are more oriented towards preparing students for successful careers or towards fulfilling both the students’ career goals and the interests of the total community’s health. The views of Gionatti (2000) coincide with Al-Ghazali’s, and he in fact mentions Al-Ghazali’s philosophy as one that upholds the ultimate goal of learning and knowledge to be the welfare of one’s community, society, and all of humanity.

This was the original intent of today’s educational institutions, which Gionatti states were “built to educate emerging professionals and leaders” but which have “degenerated into something of an ego factory, encouraging scholars to be more concerned with their publication record, grant applications, and public notoriety than mentoring their students and serving the wider non-academic community” – in other words, serving the world.