Education: What’s the point?
Several years ago, Becca and I were sitting in a restaurant booth with our good friend Bob, talking about education. Back before we had kids, our educational theory (or what we had of one, anyway) was entirely informed by Becca’s experience teaching English in middle and high school. Which is to say, we believed in the importance of public schooling—and we told Bob as much: “Public schools will never get better if good parents take good students somewhere else.”
Then Bob said something that would change our minds entirely. “Your job as parents is not to improve the public school system,” he told us. “Your job is to make sure Jack gets the best education he can.”
Bob is right, and for years that was enough. Being free from the obligation of sending Jack to a struggling public school—and the guilt of actually considering sending him somewhere else—was a welcome relief. But now that kindergarten is creeping over Jack’s horizon, I’m realizing that we can’t talk about giving Jack the best education we can without deciding what exactly makes a good education. In other words, What’s the point of education?
There are plenty of possible answers here: to learn the essential skills (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic) that will form the basis of the rest of Jack’s schooling (and, to some degree, his life), to form his character, to let him socialize with other children, to expose him to diversity and the world around us, to place him under authority figures other than his parents, to prepare him for gainful employment, to allow opportunities for extracurricular activities.
All of these are good things, no doubt, but which of them is primary? What is an education supposed to do?
I found a delightful answer in the pages of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and it’s an answer that’s growing on me.
“Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like or dislike what he ought,” Lewis writes. “Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting and hateful.”
James Matthew Wilson expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote that “the one true mission of education [is] the initiation of young persons into the contemplation of unity, truth, goodness, and beauty, that they may name and know God.”
According to this point of view, the purpose of education is to train Jack to recognize and properly respond to that which is good and bad in the world around him, so when he is grown he is able to do the same on his own. It follows that the place where Jack can get the best education is that place which can do this best. It doesn’t matter if he’s a nuclear physicist or a garbage collector. Rich or poor, these are lessons that will give Jack the ability to properly respond to and deal with whatever life throws at him.
Walter Russell Mead wrote, regarding the recent economic and moral failure of the players on Wall Street: “We never told them that the virtuous life was both necessary and hard, that character was something that had to be built step by step from youth, that moral weakness was both contemptible and natural: and we are shocked, shocked! when, placed in proximity to large sums of loose cash, they grab all they can.” These were well educated people, to be sure, but all of the test scores and reading levels and school standards in the world only failed in the end.
Of course, not everyone agrees that the things in this world can objectively merit a particular response.† And there are even more people who wonder what the big deal is—because, after all, shouldn’t they just teach kids how to read and write?—never knowing that, as Lewis puts it, “ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake,” even in something as simple as a grammar book.
In short, I think I’ve landed on character formation as the most important part of education. It’s something that begins at home, for sure, but should be supplemented and reinforced in his schooling. I’d rather he learn how to be a good man than memorize his multiplication tables. Ideally he’ll learn at a place that teaches both.
† Lewis spends significant time on this topic in The Abolition of Man. If you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the short book. In the meantime, though, here are two quotes on the topic:
“Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt… The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.”
“[T]o call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not… And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).”