What is the Purpose of Education?
Modern-day education serves it's purpose. That's exactly the problem.
Current education worldwide can be described as preparing students “for life”, to make a living for themselves through learned skills and knowledge and perhaps even character traits.
If we consider the purpose of education to teach specific skills such as math, reading, and science, then modern-day schools fulfill that goal, although barely. They will teach children the standards to keep them on route to a specific degree and skill, some schools and teachers do it better, others worst. Parents increasingly agree that schools should stick to teaching skills related to specific knowledge like the core subjects mentioned prior, and while I do agree with that premise, I wholeheartedly disagree that the purpose of education should reside solely in core subjects.
When we envision how to better prepare our sons and daughters for adulthood, do we first ponder on what academic skills they can achieve or what age they will be when their first decent paycheck comes in, is that our main concern about their future? Do we stay awake at night wondering what will happen if our son doesn’t excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)?
The ancient Greeks and the classics did not. For them, education’s main goal was never an assembly line of math geniuses, nor was it to fill students’ brains with purely practical knowledge and unrelated random facts. Education was approached as a whole, in which all parts were intertwined and connected to serve an ultimate purpose.
In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks writes:
The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.
The Greeks and Romans knew this. Education should be oriented toward the goal of teaching what is right and such education is not accomplished by merely absorbing information devoid of moral context.
Aristotle also knew this. Knowledge was to be linked with action, and therefore any knowledge taught to children should be in the interest of learning to live rightly and to love all that is true, good, and beautiful so that their choices would mirror a virtue-filled life.
Character development and virtue-seeking become, as such, core pillars of education, along with math, science, and reading. The problem is that they cannot be found in any public school, but why would we even expect this to be the domain of schools? As I mentioned prior, I do not think schools are capable of this feat because there is no common moral thread binding them to honor any of these goals, and most teachers would probably disagree heavily with the premise of acting rightly or even defining it.
Acting rightly and being righteous is defined as grounding one’s choices in virtue and morality, which up until recently was transversely understood by most of western society regardless of someone being religious or not. Nowadays, many will say that what is moral for some may not be for others, and as such, they are left floating in a sea of endless subjectivity and relativism which is anathema to a life lived rightly and virtuously.
Our vision of how schools should educate children, solely teaching math or science, is rooted in an impossible outcome - no child can learn solely math and language at school while reserving all moral and character development for the parent’s domain. All knowledge is presented in a specific social and historical context, whether schools admit this reality or not - there is no such thing as a neutral education, much less in public schools.
Aristotle, Plato, and many of the classic schools saw no need to isolate math or science from character and virtue development, all areas of education were to serve the goal of teaching, acting, and choosing rightly.
Learning to live a righteous life was the purpose of education and such was implicit in all areas and subjects of education. The laws of science and mathematics were to be used in the pursuit of goodness and in service of God and they were not meant to be learned separately for their own sake.
Latin was often a hurdle since students were required to learn it not for the mere adventure of learning a new quite difficult language, or acquiring knowledge for knowledge's sake, but because all the great books were written in that language. So Latin was a means to a goal, but it was not the end destination itself, it was a bridge to all the goodness and beauty that came from reading the great literary masters of the time. Through this lens, we can see how detrimentally pragmatic our postmodern education system has become in its fragmented approach to childhood and education.
There is no common principle or message guiding a child's educational journey from beginning to end, but instead a disjointed set of practical skills that fall prey to whatever the latest social trend is.
Some would refute my previous claims by asserting that the presence of SEL (social and emotional learning) programs in school are the modern-day tool to develop good character in students and to equip them to make wise decisions. These programs, however, are diametrically opposed to the true goal of a well-rounded education, they are rooted in relativism, in subjective and fleeting emotional assessment, and by no means are designed or capable of grounding a child in an everlasting pursuit of truth or goodness. These programs also emphasize a pursuit of the self, which in a society highly infatuated with itself already, seems counterintuitive.
A well-rounded educational pursuit must especially cultivate the virtue of humility, which again, is absent from much of our mainstream educational philosophy. When a teacher encourages and promotes humility in students, he is as a consequence squashing narcissism and as such, guiding students to recognize and hopefully reject ideas that go along with it.
My purpose here is not to present a one size fits all solution for the educational malaise of the western world, but to shed some light on the root of the problem. Education was never meant to be devoid of spiritual and religious life, it was meant to be enriched by it, and when we fragment it we take away the igniting fire which should fuel children to pursue goodness and truth in all areas of learning and life.
The irony of deferring to Aristotle in matters of education is not lost on me - he would have been an avid opponent of homeschooling since he advocated for standardized public schooling for all. In his defense, I would gladly support his vision of schooling which advocated for an education that taught students to choose and love what is true, good, and beautiful.
The following quote is attributed to him:
“Since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private – not as at present, when every one looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all. Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole.”
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