The Threat of Focussing on Utilitarian Education

27 MAY 2014
Written by Malcolm McInerney, compiling editor of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Australian Curriculum

With today’s global competition, there is increasing concern about the nature and quality of education– should it be primarily practical and utilitarian and equipping students to be competitive in the workforce or should it rather a liberal education with broad ideas and values to prepare a well-rounded student with the capacity to be fully functional democratic citizens, prepared for life in contemporary society? For students to be successful in today’s global economy, it should be seen that utilitarian and liberal education need to be tightly coupled, and that students’ academic, developmental, interpersonal and experiential lives are entwined. Schools should move towards developing transformational learning for students and not just focus on providing knowledge and understandings based on employability. Such questioning of the utilitarian trend in education around the world is critical when we consider the decrease in curriculum time for humanities in schools and the significant drop off in the number of students studying geography in particular in the senior school in Australia and around the world.

In the present economic and educational environment the humanities in the senior school are being devalued and squeezed out of the curriculum in face of utilitarian demands. In Australia the humanities is declining in schools in terms of numbers, prestige and general influence. Many young people now leave school with a scant knowledge of history, geography and our society in general (law, government etc). The impact is particularly serious in the senior secondary year that provides a sophisticated understanding of the humanities for young people. The utilitarian demands on a young person when choosing subjects has resulted in significant reduction of the perceived ‘non employment direct’ subjects such as history, geography etc (in fact these subjects do have significant and much needed career pathways but often not seen as direct and thus not promoted as getting a student a job).

Australians hold what appear to be conflicting aspirational and practical notions of the purposes and value of a schooling. Economists and corporate leaders refer to this function of education as the development of human capital.


“…education is more than preparing for a job; it should be for acquiring the knowledge, skills, competencies, values, dispositions and capacities for many life roles in a world of inevitable change and that this is ultimately the more “practical” preparation for life.”


Anecdotally the trend away from the liberal humanities in school education, towards the demands of a utilitarian education, in particular in senior secondary, is common throughout the western world and similar OECD countries to Australia. There is a need to get quantitative and substantiated data on the trend away from the humanities and to research what other countries are doing to arrest the trend away from the humanities as highly respected (in number and prestige) subjects in schools. Those involved in humanities education consider that the trend away from the humanities towards utilitarian education in our schools (and universities) is undermining and threatening the development of a ‘well-rounded, thinking, socially analytical young citizen ready for the demands of the 21st Century globalised world.

The irony is that geography and the associated spatial technology tools it uses are seen as a non-vocational area of study and just a nice subject to do for those interested. Geography is a great humanities subject for young people to do as citizens now and in the future but it also is a subject with increasing vocational opportunities in the branches of geography (climatology, economic analysis, planning, environmental management, disaster mitigation etc etc) and the related areas of the spatial industry which continues to say that they have a human resources shortage. Geography is also a subject which goes somewhere in the world of employment. There is a lot of work to be done with subject counselors, vocational consultants, parents and the community to get the message across that geography and all the knowledge, skills and capacities it develops in young people is and should be promoted as a learning area with great (and increasing) vocational opportunity.


Humanities and Social Sciences for the Australian Curriculum series >>

Order an inspection copy >>

View sample pages >>


Name *
Email *
Comment *
Captcha Code

Click the image to see another captcha.

Be the first to leave a comment