The Purpose of Man in the Purpose of Education

Dear Reader,

I have made the argument repeatedly here that our approach to education inherently says things about our view of man’s nature and purpose. Today I would like to nuance that a little.

I am inspired by a remark made on the Mortification of Spin podcast. In their episode on the Davenant Institute (December 30, 2020), the hosts were interviewing two of the men behind that school, Brad Littlejohn and Colin Redemer. I am not sure which of the two made the remark [1], but the gist of it is that when we make education utilitarian, we make people utilitarian. The speaker emphasized that, while most colleges and universities lure students in with promises that their degrees will lead to jobs and money, they proudly make no such claim but educate for education’s sake with no practical end in view.

There is a circular-ness here. On one hand, our views of man’s purpose will inform our approach to education. On the other, our approach to education will influence how we view ourselves and others. When we say “this school will enable you to get a good job that earns a good salary” we are sending the message that a graduate’s value is in his ability to earn. Even with a slightly different emphasis — if, for instance, a school stresses service or contributing to the greater good — there is still some implied utilitarian purpose. We are telling students that their value is in what they give back. And giving back is good. Serving others is good. But the flip side is that those who cannot contribute — the old, the young, the sick, the disabled — are devalued.

In younger years, the emphasis is not so much on money or productivity, but it still tends toward utilitarianism. More often than not, each age is just seen as preparation for the next. High schoolers are prepared for college, middle schoolers are prepared for high school, and so on down the line till even three and four-year-olds must be prepared for kindergarten. The message that we send to children is that their life and their value are somewhere in the future. It is a good instinct in them to rebel against this.

To avoid this, we must turn the thing on its head and ask first what message we wish to send. Is it that the one who earns most is the most valuable? Is it that your value hinges on what you can contribute? Or is it that each person is inherently valuable? That knowledge for its own sake is good?

In my own philosophy of education, I have argued that what we do in education is to put before children the things of God. Our goal, what we hope for, is the transformation of the mind which, theologically speaking, falls under what we call sanctification, the renewing of man’s fallen nature. I recognize as I say this that there is something utilitarian here. There is still an end goal we are working towards, albeit an intensely personal, internal one. Yet because it is ultimately God who works and not us, we cannot be results-oriented. Our motivation — as teachers and students — must be about love — love of knowledge, truth, goodness, and beauty; and love of God from whom all these flow. If in how we educate students we are communicating to them something about their worth let it be this: your worth is found in Christ in whom you live and move and have your being (Acts 17:28).

Nebby

[1] I find it hard at times when listening to discern who is speaking.

One response to this post.

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