What is education for?

The words of the wise men are like goads

At the conclusion of one of the most extensive sociological research studies in history Solomon writes the following final observations.

“In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.   The Preacher sought to find delightful words, and to write words of truth correctly.

The words of the wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.  But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is:
Fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.  For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12: 9-13

The role of a teacher:  Teach the truth

In reality, that pretty accurately summaries the role of a teacher:  Teach the truth.  Teach it well.  Push beyond mere information to life application.  Begin and end the conversation with this reality: Fear God and keep His commandments.  And by all means avoid what the Apostle Paul calls, “foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing they produce quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:23)

This isn’t a call to ignorance but rather a reminder that ultimate truth can only be found in the great Shepherd.  That is why both Solomon and David repeatedly remind us that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, of knowledge, of understanding.”

However, in a world where “facts” abound but Truth no longer exists the task of teaching in the light of a God, Who is there and Who has spoken, becomes increasingly and infinitely more difficult.  Especially when the vast majority of parents, including parents who attend our evangelical churches, see education primarily as what Steven Garber calls the “passport to privilege.”  If the purpose of education is reduced to the mere pursuit of vocation and the good life it seems we are destined to ignore the warnings of Solomon and thus experience the consequences he describes throughout both the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

What is education for?

The question, “What is education for?”  is, therefore,  one we must constantly consider and seek to answer.  If our purpose as a resident of planet earth is primarily about good citizenship and productivity in the marketplace then education most certainly should serve those ends.  If, however, there is more to life than participation in the political process, generating a generous paycheck, and making some periodic contribution to the public good, then the answer to that question will look very different.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K.A. Smith seeks to thoughtfully answer the question: What is education for?  More specifically he asks, “what is at stake in a distinctively Christian education?”  After asking the question he observes, “It is usually understood that education is about ideas and information, although it is also too often routinely reduced to credentialing for a career and viewed as a ticket to a job. . . . But what if this line of thinking gets off on the wrong foot?  What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires?

What if we began by appreciating how education not only gets into our head but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut – what the New Testament refers to as kardia, ‘the heart’?  What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions – our visions of ‘the good life” – and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking?  What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect?  What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?”  What if?

Those are pretty provocative questions; ones we should ponder and to which we must reply.  Sadly we don’t.  Indeed we seem committed to avoiding any conversation around those questions for fear of offending or alienating our friends, neighbors, and fellow church members.  And thus we continue to do schooling as we have done for long years and yet wonder why our efforts produce such ragged results and why fewer and fewer of our young people seem willing to fully embrace the title, “bond-servant of Christ Jesus.” (see Romans 1:1 and Philippians 2:1-5)

In my role as president of The Barnabas Group I not only want to help schools do a better job, but also to think deeply about the question: What is education for?  if all we do is learn to build a better budget or to deliver information more effectively we will fail at our primary job of making disciples because as Steven Garber reminds us, “True education is always about learning to connect knowing with doing, belief with behavior.”