Regaining Education's Purpose
Family North Carolina MagazineNov/Dec 2006
Despite the considerable social and political attention our nation’s education system has received in recent years, little real progress has been made toward gaining broad democratic consensus about the purpose of education.
Failing such consensus, what assurances do consumers of education have that the product acquired is suitable to the desired ends? Further, what assurances does a future America have that a generation of culture shapers and leaders will have been readied for the task before them?
The lack of consensus about education doesn’t end with the question of purpose. It extends, it would seem, to the very definition of education. While we may best leave the strict definition of education to Webster, we can at least better our understanding of education by drawing a distinction between education and training. Training prepares a person to pursue or employ a particular skill, craft, vocation or profession. Obviously, training is necessary for certain industries, but it is not sufficient for the success of the individual in a day and age when the average adult changes vocations as many as 5 times over the course of a professional lifetime. Upon changing professions, the training a person previously received is immediately rendered obsolete. New training, specific to the new profession, is required. True education, on the other hand, should provide the learner with skills and knowledge that are readily transferable from one circumstance to another to, yet, another. An education that “does its job” prepares the learner, not just for a single vocation but, for life.
However, no consensus exists for a third critical area of schooling, largely because it simply escapes the parental and political radar. It turns out that the primary influence upon students in schools is neither education nor training, however we define them. The greatest effect of the time students spend in school is enculturation. Simply stated, enculturation is a passive process that ultimately shapes a person’s thoughts, beliefs and values. It comprises the influences of parents, teachers, pastors, peers, television, music, and video games, to name a few. But the school’s role in enculturation is easily the greatest of these. Some have estimated that by the time children are 12 years of age, they have spent more waking hours in school than they have spent with their families and religious communities combined. By the time a student graduates high school, the school’s influence upon a young person’s worldview and upon his or her process of values formation is profound, especially in light of the comparatively little face time students actually have with parents.
The Values Question
Despite our legitimate frustration over our nation’s inability to decide what knowledge and skills our students should gain, it can be frightening to realize that the most significant contribution that the educational establishment has made in the lives of our children has been to instill in them values and notions about our culture and society that are often not our own. However, of the three (knowledge, skills and values), confusion over values may be the most understandable. After all, in school systems serving a pluralistic society, whose values (if anyone’s) should be woven into the fabric of the curriculum? For patriotic Americans, it is a bit of a conundrum that our democratic political structure dictates that the values of the majority (or an activist minority) will most likely be represented. Despite our commitment to democratic principles, we are at risk if the quality or content of our children’s education is determined democratically or, worse still, bureaucratically. This, of course, is why we have seen the steady exodus of all things religious from our nation’s schools, leaving educators with no reliable mooring to which to anchor values.
Further, because of legal restrictions imposed upon them, even teachers who share our views and values are helpless to do anything substantive about it. Even if they could, it would take too long for any given child within the conventional education system to realize the benefit from it. The sad truth is that when it comes to rescuing children while there is still time, even the most aggressive program of educational reform is too slow. By the time the cavalry of educational reform has arrived, the enculturation battle will have been lost.
Historical Roots of Liberal Education
Where then can we turn to identify the nature and purpose of education suitable to present and future needs? And where is consensus to be found for a suitable foundation to undergird the enculturating influences of our children’s schools? Significantly, prior to 1930, world-wide consensus regarding clear and meaningful purpose for education and a corresponding methodology had been evolving for more than two millennia. From ancient times, educators held that it was each generation’s responsibility to pass along to the next the skills, knowledge, and virtues necessary to intelligently engage and, more importantly, to perpetuate their culture and to be positive contributors to and leaders in society. In stark contrast to our current post-modern, post-Christian American perspectives, education through the ages and throughout the world has always had a religious emphasis and a religious purpose, and much of education outside of America (and some within) still does.
From the ancient Egyptians, to the Hebrews, to the Greeks, to Rome, to medieval Europe to early 20th Century America, every culture throughout history has sought answers to life’s deepest questions through education. The medieval scholar’s interest was theology. The classical Greek’s was philosophy and what we call mythology. But, both were ultimately concerned with cosmic questions of origins and meaning. Further, since the time of Christ, nothing has answered these cosmic questions more succinctly and nothing has shaped human thought and culture more thoroughly than Christianity and the Bible. Needless to say, however, it is no longer possible to draw upon either this ancient cultural heritage or this all important religious heritage in educating America’s children through our public school system. This, of course, leaves us but one alternative in answering the critical questions about educational purpose and methodology that we have posed in the foregoing paragraphs namely private education.
Private education offers instant access to all of the vast wisdom that our rich cultural heritage has to offer us and not just that sliver of wisdomthat lowest common denominatorthat can be embraced by every American, regardless of disparate social, political and religious persuasions. In short, through private education we are empowered to identify a purpose and approach to education that genuinely meet the long-term needs of both our children and our culture.
What then, according to our rich, inherited tradition, are the essential qualities that our graduates must possess in order to make the kinds of culturally relevant contributions that we desire? They are essentially the very same as those indicated by St. Augustine of Hippo nearly 1,600 years agonamely wisdom and eloquence. Our graduates need wisdom to navigate the murky waters of the current cultural, political, and economic milieu as well as those of an uncertain future. They require more than training for the here and now. They require an education that imbues them with the ability to recognize and understand current trends, the creative flexibility to respond effectively to ever-changing circumstances, and the sound judgment to perceive and champion the highest good for society.
But an education for wisdom is only half the formula. Without the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively, wisdom’s benefit is singular to its possessor. Our graduates also require eloquence, especially in a post-Christian, postmodern age when, for many, authority comes not from the Scriptures or from reason but from within. Our wise servant must also be imbued with understanding of and compassion for his fellow humans and must be ready to put his wisdom into action by helping “the many” to embrace the greater good that wisdom offers.
Liberal Arts and the Western Cannon
Augustine expressed this most eloquently when he spoke of two cities or kingdomsthe earthly and the heavenly. We must be about the work of both cities at once, looking forward to the heavenly while living in the earthly and bringing to it as many of the characteristics of the heavenly as we possibly can. Such work requires both wisdom and eloquence. So, our historically-enlightened purpose of education should always be twofold. Our students ought to grow spiritually, intellectually, and socially, and we want them to foster similar growth in society. Or as St. Augustine would have put it, we seek to lead the citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven, while instilling in them the desire to introduce the values of the heavenly kingdom into the kingdom they presently inhabit. In short, we aim to shape individuals who are both heavenly minded and capable of doing great earthly good.
But how will we accomplish such noble educational goals in our students? In his letter to the Romans, Paul urged that his readers not be conformed to this world (the earthly), but that they should be transformed by the renewing of their minds. From the whole of Paul’s writing it is clear that he was not advocating abandonment of the earthly city, but a reversal of roles as to who influences whom. Through renewing their minds, Paul’s readers could be transformed and simultaneously become transforming influencers in their world . . . very effective education indeed.
Augustine suggested that this is best accomplished through a serious study of the Scriptures and the study of essentially “everything else.” Granted, “everything else” constituted a much smaller canon of knowledge in the fifth century A.D., but Augustine was himself pivotal in “Christianizing” the developing liberal arts which, indeed, frame the method by which “everything else” is learned and by which wisdom and eloquence are imparted.
The words “liberal arts,” doubtless, conjure images of college days, studying Western Civilization and British Literature. But the classical liberal arts have always been intended for education from the earliest ages (i.e. k-12) and delaying their implementation until college effectively robs the young learner of much that education has to offer. To be clear, the liberal arts were first identified as such in medieval times and numbered seven: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music (note the inclusion of math and science among the “arts”). However, they had their origin in classical antiquity as a system of educating those who would be political and cultural leaders in society. The expression “liberal” derives from the Latin liber meaning “free.” This nomenclature historically applied to an education intended for men who were neither slaves nor laborers, each of whom benefited from their own unique systems of vocational training.
A very legitimate modern application of the nomenclature is that an education in the liberal arts and sciences “frees” the learner to succeed in a wide array of vocational and avocational endeavors in stark contrast to the “binding” effects of vocational training as previously discussed. From ancient times, the liberal arts were preparatory to higher learning and were intended to produce individuals who were skilled, lifelong, independent learners having no further need of tutelage and who, through their continued self-directed learning, would become wise and eloquent contributors to their societies.
It is worth mentioning that while the liberal arts tradition has its roots in Western civilization, it has its counterparts in Eastern cultures also. Further, this form of education has spread, with Christianity itself, to many nations and cultures throughout the world and has found success in educating peoples of all languages and ethnic backgrounds. Hence, the liberal arts are neither intellectually elitist nor culturally exclusive. Instead, they constitute is an education designed for every person, and private schools that extend their promise to a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse student body through the generous administration of needs-based financial assistance will see the greatest benefits of their power.
It is hoped that the benefits of the classical liberal arts and sciences as an approach to learning speak for themselves. They do not work because they represent a long-standing tradition. Rather, the tradition is long-standing because, as a system of education, it works. It could be argued that the benefits are sufficiently great that they warrant the sacrifices parents must make to support their children through 13 years of private education before college. Whether communities, states and the federal government should support the attendance of resident children through vouchers or tax credits is a topic for another discussion, but readers are encouraged to consider the long-term benefits of the necessary financial commitment and to explore what financial assistance is available at area private schools. The difference in educational purpose and methodology, not to mention the enculturating effects are certainly worth the consideration.
Robert Littlejohn is Head of School at Trinity Academy of Raleigh and co-author of "Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning." Excerpts from this work are used by permission.
Copyright © 2006. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.