Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Purpose of Education

To what end do we educate? 

This really is the fundamental question in all of education. How we answer this question determines everything we teach, and ultimately, what our young people become. 

There are many competing visions of the ends of education. One of the most common today is to produce “responsible citizens.” Most public K-12 schools have a version of this goal of citizenship in their purpose statement. What ends does this type of education serve?  The ultimate end of citizenship is participation in a democracy.  Productive, relatively moral, well-informed voters is the goal here.  This worldview sees the state and the propagation of the democratic process as ultimate.

Another common end of K-12 schools is college.  A swath of “competitive” high schools call themselves “college preparatory.”  This means that the end of secondary education is, well, more education.  This seems like an abundantly silly answer to the ends of education. How can more education be the reason for which we are educating young people now?  This circular reasoning is obvious.

Buried underneath the surface of this answer to the end of education—college—may, however, be the answer of opportunity.  Those who go to college have more choice in future careers than those who do not.  But in this vision of the end of education seems to find its underpinning in the ultimate end of individual choice.  The individual with the most amount of choice—that is, the lack of restriction—has “won,” in a sense.  But how can this really be the end of education?  What happens when you go to college and can choose from a multiplicity of careers?  Which should you choose? And why?  Again, this view leaves us in the fog. Choice is good, but it is not a light in dark places. An arrow pointing everywhere points nowhere.

Perhaps, however, the most common view of the purpose of education is to give students the knowledge and skills they need to get a good job. We should not underestimate the obvious importance of this answer.  Education, especially in the two-thirds world, is a fundamental necessity for people to move out of poverty and into an income-producing job, whether it be agriculture, small business, medicine, or law.  This is surely a temporary good. But it cannot be the ultimate purpose of education. After all, is any job just as good as the next, as long as you make money?  How much money is enough?  Is economic prosperity the goal to which we must naturally be striving? One of my favorite magazines, The Economist, seems to carry under its arms the idea that increased GDP is the reason for which all societies are organized. 

The ends of education must be married to the ends of man.  We must ask, What is the highest possibility of human life?  If one were to live the best possible life, what would it look like?  If we can find an answer to this question, we would have the reason for which we are to educate the young.

Christians around the world celebrated Good Friday and Easter Sunday this past weekend.  They paused to look at a man who answered the question of the best human life.  Jesus claimed not only to declare what the good life looked like, as did the Greeks, but to live it out among first century Jews.

For Jesus, the height of human achievement was not in wealth, power, knowledge, or prestige.  When he reached the climax of his human life, he was lifted up on a cross. Stripped naked, beaten, bruised, and bearing a crown of thorns, he died a substitutionary death on behalf of others.  As the Prophet writes, “Surely he took up our pain, and bore our suffering…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed...For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors,” (Isaiah 53:4-5,12). 

By all human measure, a Jewish rabbi who lives as a teacher for three years, arouses opposition among the ruling authorities, and gets himself killed would be seen as a failure.  He wrote no books, he had no army, built no cities, had no wife or children, and died in utter poverty, with even the clothes on his back being gambled for by Roman guards. 

But this man’s death, the culmination of his life, was to bring peace, healing, purpose, joy, and salvation to millions. And this act of self-giving, core to the person of Christ, was meant as a model for all people.  Peter writes: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps,” (1 Peter 2:21).

So what is the purpose of education?  It must be service.  If “Greater love has no one that this: that a man lay down his life for his friends,” this must be the end to which we teach young people.  From literature and calculus to history and foreign language, the common thread of these disciplines must be the service of others. Contributing to the good of others through Christ must trump visions of education that end in economic prosperity, individual freedom, or the perpetuation of democracy. 

Milton said, “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright.” God is revealed in Christ, and in the Suffering Servant we see the way in which we are to repair the ruins of the Fall: sacrificial love.