I’ve been spending significant time lately considering the purpose of education and how we as Christians should be pursuing its proper goal (telos). I’ve given a couple presentations on the topic, and I plan to continue thinking and researching in this direction in the coming months. For example, each of the bold headings below represent an area that I want to expand upon in the future. For now, I’ve included some musings below on each topic that will hopefully make sense as a short essay and also begin to foster some helpful conversation.
The Problem of Educational Pragmatism
The typical view of education is one of pragmatism. We have been trained for decades to think of education as necessary for future success, and we have been told that education is about grasping the major concepts of subjects like mathematics, science, history, English, and more. If we complete these courses with good grades, then we will get into a good college. If we complete this good college, then we will get a good job. If we begin with a good job, we will go on to lead successful lives. Let’s leave aside for now the reality that this narrative rarely works out this way. What I want to focus on is the reality that this narrative is one of pragmatism and material success, not one of Christianity. Success for Christians does not (or should not) look like success for the world, and success for the Christian, then, will require alternative goals in education.
Education as Discipleship
When we look to the Scriptures, education is regularly related to the parents’ responsibility to instruct their children in the way of the Lord. Deuteronomy 6:4-9, known as the Shema, is a passage about education in the context of family “discipleship.” Similarly, much of the book of Proverbs, which speaks routinely of instruction and teaching, is presented as a father speaking to a son. The book of Proverbs as a whole, in fact, brings together instruction with discipleship and wisdom. In the introduction in Proverbs 1:1-7, Solomon writes: “To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (ESV). The link between instruction, wisdom, and the fear of the Lord suggests that education looks considerably like the type of discipleship espoused in Deuteronomy 6.
Education for Wisdom, Eloquence, and Virtue
Classical Christian education has typically embraced this role of discipleship, as well as Proverbs’ emphasis on wisdom, as a primary goal in education. In their book Wisdom and Eloquence, Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans write: “The Christian educational life, characterized as ‘discipleship,’ is a life of faith-filled learning to be Christ-like[…]So, the purpose of Christian education is always twofold. We want our students to grow spiritually, intellectually, and socially, and we want them to foster similar growth in society.” As the title suggests, this educational goal is summarized as an education in wisdom and eloquence. Moreover, as both classical and Christian schools, classical Christian education puts a significant emphasis on virtue—both the four cardinal virtues of classical thought [prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice] and the three theological virtues [faith, hope, and love/charity].
The Seven Liberal Arts: The Grammar of Contemplation
The way in which classical Christian schools have attempted to meet these goals of wisdom, eloquence, and virtue are through the seven liberal arts, which themselves teach skills, content, and more. The seven liberal arts, according to Caldecott, are a way of being, thinking, and speaking. Moreover, as the foundation of learning, I think the seven liberal arts actually serve as a “grammar” of a higher form of learning and being—contemplation. In his excellent work Happiness & Contemplation Josef Piper says contemplation is 1) silent perception of reality; 2) a form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing, intuition; a type of knowing which does not merely move toward its object, but already rests in it; 3) knowing accompanied by amazement. In his book Leisure, The Basis of Culture, Pieper says to contemplate “means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them.” Pieper, then, adds that “contemplation is the form in which we partake of the uttermost degree of happiness which this physical, historical existence of ours is capable of holding.”  Or more concisely, “man’s ultimate happiness consists in contemplation.” Contemplation, ultimately, is knowledge of, wonder at, and relationship with the one True God.
An Education of Re-Humanization
In his book Beauty in the Word, Stratford Caldecott argues that “Education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of the word)[…]Too often we have not been educating our humanity. We have been educating ourselves for doing rather than for being.”
Caldecott expresses well another reason to think about our education beyond mere pragmatism: “You cannot communicate a truth that has not changed you. You cannot build a community on a truth that has not been incorporated into you, making you the kind of person you are. The person is, to some extent, the message.” How, then, do we become deeper and more human persons? According to Hugh of St Victor in his medieval era classic The Didascalicon, we become deeper and more human persons, we restore the divine likeness in man, through the contemplation of truth and the practice of virtue. “This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature. The more we are conformed to the divine nature, the more do we possess Wisdom, for then there begins to shine forth again in us what has forever existed in the divine Idea or Pattern coming and going in us but standing changeless in God.” These words express a vision for education that I can embrace. I only hope our students embrace it, too.
Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 18.
Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundation of Education (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2012), 15.
Josef Pieper, Happiness & Contemplation, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1979), 73-75.
Josef Pieper, Leisure, The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 26.
Pieper, Happiness & Contemplation, 78.
Caldecott, Beauty in the Word, 11.
Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 61.