The Purpose of Education, Part 2

Dear Reader,

We don’t need no education; 
We don’t need no thought control.”

(Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”)

We 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. Today I’d like to look at the “who” — or perhaps I should say the “for whom?” Specifically we are going to ask: Are we educating primarily for the individual or for the larger society?  Of course, the two are not wholly unrelated; societies are composed of individuals and to change one is to change the other. The question before us is not so much who benefits as where our primary focus lies.

In anthropological terms, education transmits — and  in the process creates– a common culture. As Christians, we limit ourselves if we stop there. The definition tells us one aspect of what education does but it does not tell us what education should do.

What I’d like to propose today is this: While acknowledging that education affects both the individual and the society, we as parents and educators need to keep our primary focus on the individual. This is not something I am going to be able to prove per se, but if you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to convince you that this is the best approach.

Last time I made the case for long-term goals. Education, I argued, is not about equipping children to become part of God’s plan; it is about fulfilling that plan, however we may define it.

If this is the case, then we have to look at the divine plan in order to understand the goal of education. Our question today is: Is it for the individual or for the society? [I am using “society” loosely here. Depending on one’s view of education it might be variously defined. In a Christian context, “society” equals Church. For others, the society might be the state, the nation, the world.]

The answer is really both. God is building His church. In many ways the people of God are a unit. We are the bride — not brides — of Christ (Rev. 21:2; 22:17).  We are both a building and a body (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 12:12ff). The gospel is often seen to spread community by community as nations (Matt. 28:19) and households (Acts 16:15) are transformed. And yet our God works in such a way that He never overrides the individual. While Jesus and later Paul and the other apostles often preached to large crowds, they never scorned the individual. God speaks to each one (Acts 2:6). Nor is our religion one that calls us to transcend the individual personality. Van Til goes so far as to argue that the goal of education — and of life — is the development of the individual personality:

“In covenant education we seek not to extract the human begin from his natural milieu as a creature of God, but rather seek to restore the creature with his milieu to God . . . A Christian is a true human being once more.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), p. 143; cf. p. 152]

Personhood is vital to Christianity. There is a corporate goal, yes, but never at the expense of the individual.

In some sense the individual versus corporate tension does not even make sense from a biblical perspective because God orchestrates the small events of one person’s life and the large events of His greater plan in such a way that there is never a conflict or contradiction (Rom. 8:28).

Nonetheless, I am making the case that our goal needs to be primarily individual. The problem is that we are not God. It is much harder for us to balance competing concerns.  If we begin with a societal goal, we end up fitting the individual to that overarching end, cutting or stretching them as need be to suit the greater good. But if we start with the individual, that one person’s good becomes one more brick in the edifice that is the greater good without having to lose its individuality. From God’s perspective, and in His perfect plan, there is no conflict between the individual and the society. But we are not God, and if we set ourselves to shape the society we will tend to run over the individual in the process. If we set ourselves to educate the individual, the benefit to the larger society will naturally follow. As Van Til says:

“It is all summed up in the expression that man must live his life to the glory of God. In seeking the glory of God, man the individual and mankind as a whole will also be enriched.” (Van Til, p. 45)

I am intentionally stopping short of saying what our goal is. Thus far I have argued that:

  • We need a long-term goal that places education within God’s greater plan. Education is not about equipping youth to be able to become part of that plan; they are already bang-splat in the middle of it, as we all are. 
  • On one level, there is no inherent contradiction between the needs of the individual and that of the society because God is able to orchestrate the two perfectly.
  • But we are not perfect, nor do we see the whole picture. Because the tendency if we have societal goals is to override the individual or to try to manipulate him to fit the ends, our goal in education should be primarily focused on the individual.

Nebby

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