Thoughts on the purpose of education
Twelve weeks into this grand experiment and we have come to our second break. I’m looking forward to it but not in the same way I was for the first one. I’m looking forward to relaxing, to playing with my sons, to working on photography. Basically, I’m looking forward to doing things other than school. To refreshing and getting ready to go for our next stretch, which is very different than our first break, which was spent obsessing over all of the decisions I had made during the first six weeks.
I have been doing a lot of reading about education and it has me questioning what it is for. Is education intended to make us better people or do we wish merely to produce better skilled, smoothly cut cogs in the elaborate machine we now call the “global economy”? Do we educate to instill ideals such as virtue and wisdom or is it simply vocational training for the world’s daily drudgery?
I was at a party recently, photographing it actually, when I overheard a conversation that gave me pause. A recent college grad was talking about having just finished his degree and already acquired a “job with a good firm”. It sounded like just the type of thing that would make a parent proud, that society would laud. Frankly, it sounded awful.
Now I don’t mean to judge. I do not really know the person that was speaking and I don’t want to diminish the accomplishment or the work that went into it. But I had seen a video earlier in the day lamenting the fact that we are no longer a society of producers. Instead, we consume. And since we are no longer a society of producers, we compare ourselves to each other based on what we consume. Money is so important to us, is what we live our lives in pursuit of, because it is how we attain status. No longer are we judged by the quality of the furniture we make or the produce we grow, too few in society undertake those pursuits for them to be the measuring stick. Money, we think, is the great equalizer, and thus the perfect standard. Surely, we think, if those things are of quality they can bring the producers wealth. So we are judged on the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the neighborhood we live in. If only this brought happiness.
Our society seems to be rife with depression and angst. Joy is a byproduct of what we can buy; that decadent meal, that expensive toy, that sublime experience. It comes externally instead of from some deeper place inside. In the back of our minds, when we inevitably slow down, we know it feels wrong. But it is all most know. I don’t want that for my children. I no longer want that for myself.
What does this have to do with education? Education is the tabula rasa on which we inscribe all our social desires and expectations. Our schools have become the entrance to the rat race, the place where our consumerism is instilled, where the road map of social supposition is first presented. The fact that I pulled my son from public school meant that I had a chance to show him a different path, to set before him a different set of beliefs. Had I been taking advantage of that opportunity?
The more I study Common Core the more I can see society favoring vocation over virtue in education. We strive, historian Jacques Barzun writes, “to make ideal citizens, supertolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars.” Unfortunately, we have found that getting and spending don’t deliver the fulfilling life we see on our screens. But it is all we’ve been taught to aim for, and society continues to narrow the focus of education to just that. So what do we do?
The more I found myself reading the more I found myself praying, and my attitudes began to change. I had told myself I took my son out of school, made the decision to homeschool, to give him a better education; to put him on a better path. But I found myself fretting that I wasn’t doing enough. Am I teaching him the right things in the correct amounts? I was looking to the required year end standardized tests with a wary eye, wanting to make sure he will score high. I was looking to them for validation. Why?
If I reject the system and the definition of education it aspires to, why would I look to the system’s ruler as the measure of success? When I first started this journey I formulated a philosophy of education, a set of goals, my own definition for what my children’s education should be; but I hadn’t hewn to it when making decisions about how to institute it. I needed to let the world’s ideals go.
Everett Dean Martin, social philosopher and author of The Meaning of a Liberal Education, declared that the best education is “the organization of knowledge into human excellence.” An education, he said, is not “the mere possession of knowledge, but the ability to reflect upon it and grow in wisdom.” That is the kind of education I want for my children and it is not the kind of thing that can be measured by standardized tests.
Instead of being afraid I was not doing enough I actually started to consider the possibility I was trying to do too much. My goal is not to simply stuff my children’s heads with facts, or even instill in them rational methods, but to lead them to wisdom, a quality of knowledge tempered by experience and imbued with understanding. As Martin contended, “education is a revaluation of human life. Its task is to reorient the individual, to enable him to take a rich and more significant view of his experiences.” That will not come through simply memorizing lists of historical events, grammatical rules, mathematical formulae, or the periodic table. The more I dwell on these thoughts, the less I worry.
My goal is to cultivate my children as human beings; mind, soul, and spirit. This, too, cannot be assessed by a standardized test. I stopped worrying about having the perfect curricula. I stopped pouring over homeschool forums and blogs in search of the perfect methods and resources. I stopped obsessing. And I trusted. God put us on this path and I started to trust Him to guide us.
Actually, I went to my son and apologized. I told him I had high hopes for his education but they are not based on any testable criteria the world deems important. I told him my goal was for learning to become a lifelong endeavor for him and I did not want my neurosis about how we measure up to discourage him, to make learning something he grows to dread. I hope I never have to have a similar conversation with my six month old.
I firmly believe God placed in my head the philosophy of education that our family is to be guided by. It has taken me the past five months to understand what it means. While I wish it had not taken that long, I am thankful it did not take longer. I am thankful for the release it has granted me and the direction it gives. And I am especially thankful that it is no longer just in my head, but that He has placed it in my heart.
“I want my children’s education to produce in them beautiful minds that continually thirst for knowledge, and the analytic skills to evaluate the knowledge they acquire according to God’s standards.”