The Purpose of Education, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. Read the intro post here.

In recent weeks I have been throwing a lot of evidence at you, some from the Bible and some from books I have read. I’d like to take a step back today and look at one of our big picture issues: the goal of education.

When we begin to educate children, we are making two assumptions that are so basic we don’t even think of them as such: that we should educate and that we can educate. Today we are going to look at the first of these and ask: Why education? While I hope we can ultimately state the purpose of education, we are going to begin by simply looking at what kind of goal we should have.

Depending on our view of the child, we might be educating for the short term or the long term. Depending on our view of humanity, we might be educating for the individual or for society. These two axes  — short vs. long, individual vs. corporate — define what we do and I’d like to use them as a kind of scaffolding as we begin to define the purpose of education.

Some approaches to education lend themselves more to a short-term goals. The Waldorf method is an extreme example in that it does not even view the child as being the same sort of thing as an adult. Rather, the child evolves into an adult. Education serves a role in this evolutionary process: it helps the child become what he is meant to be. Though the philosophy behind Waldorf may seem ridiculous to us as Christians, it highlights an important point: education is only necessary is we desire change. If the child were both perfect and complete, we would not need to educate him. We educate because we are not at the end of the process, whatever that end might be.

Any approach that sees the child as not fully formed or as lacking certain faculties is going to tend to result in short-term thinking. Modern classical education fits into this category. While it may embody some longer-term goals, it also defines stages along the way. In the early years the child memorizes facts and in the middle years learns to relate subjects and finally to form arguments. Only when these stages are successfully passed through is one fully functioning. While such an approach stops short of actually saying the child is not fully human, it suggests that he is not yet equipped to deal with the world in its fullness and posits shorter-term, intermediate goals.

The more we divide up life into stages, the more short-term our thinking will tend to be. We can see this in our public schools. We prepare high school kids for college and middle schoolers for high school, and so on down the line. The end-game is no further than the next milestone.  To a large degree this mindset is inherent to a system which separates schooling from the rest of society. There is no natural continuum between school and what comes after. We use words like “prepare” and “real world” to suggest that what goes on in our schools is not in itself “real life” but only the stepping-stone to it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Cornelius Van Til (see this post on his book Essays on Christian Education). In his view, the range of education is  no less than that of time itself. Education begins in Creation and is not complete until Christ comes again:

“We mean by that that our constructive program is nothing else but carrying through, as far as we can, in this world of sin the program that God gave man to do in paradise.” [Essays on Christian Education, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974) p. 167]

The ideas behind such a position are worth ferreting out. Perhaps the most obvious is that there is some grand (divine) plan which is being worked out. Education, placed within such a plan, serves a much larger purpose. A purpose as sweeping as Van Til’s is impossible without a belief in something beyond this life. It presupposes both a Divine Being to give meaning to human existence and a spiritual nature which will continue beyond this life.

Because the benefits of education go even beyond this world, it is not limited to the young but becomes a life-long enterprise. The education of children is not fundamentally different than the education of adults. This is not to say that some extra equipping does not go on in childhood, but that childhood itself is not a separate stage (or series of separate stages) one goes through in order to become fully human.

The Scriptures speak of youth as the time for education and training. One’s younger years are the time to get off to a good start and to firmly cement one’s relationship with the Creator. It is the young who most need learning and who are best able to absorb it.

Short-term thinking often comes from wrong ideas about the nature of children. Children are included in God’s covenant people. They are able to have a relationship with their Creator from earliest years, are called to follow His Law, are capable of faith and culpable for sin. In the most fundamental ways, children are no different from adults. (For a fuller explanation of all these principles, with references, see this post on children in the Bible.)

I think often as Christian parents we fall into the trap of thinking that we are preparing our children for what God will call them to, forgetting that He is already at work in their lives. So, while education may be much more of a full-time task for the young, it is not because their (spiritual) life is yet to come.

Nor is education only for the young. While our children may spend much more time on it, learning is not exclusive to children. Sanctification continues and the command to let our minds be transformed is for all of us (Rom. 12:1-2). Our perspective, for young and old, should be a long-term one, with our eyes always on our ultimate goal (Heb. 12:1-2).

The take-away for today is simply this: We need a long-term goal that takes into account God’s providential plan for humanity and our eternal spiritual nature.

Next time we will look at the other axis and ask: Should the goal of education be individual or societal?







6 responses to this post.

  1. […] are narrowing in on the purpose of education. Last time we talked about the “when” and I made the case that education must be for the long term. […]


  2. […] are able to contribute to it, and are already interwoven into God’s plan (see this post, this one, and this […]


  3. […] goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator […]


  4. […] society (while acknowledging that in God’s economy there is no conflict between the two; see this post and this […]


  5. […] or his future one? (p. 100). I love this question. (It is an issue we have touched on before. See this post.) I also like his answer which is that both lives are in view. We are preparing the child for what […]


  6. […] the end of which is His own glory. It brings His general revelation to men.  (JG Vos on Education; The Purpose of Education, Part 1; Common Grace, part […]


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