Education: What's the Point?

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by Stephen Bertucci by Stephen Bertucci

There is a lot of talk about the importance of education. This is not something new. The ancient Greek reformer, Lycurgus, was of the opinion that the education of children was the most important duty of a lawgiver. Some people disagree. They think education is not at all the business of government. But they still think education is vitally important. So, if it is so important, it raises an obvious question, "Why?"

Considering the appalling amount of money spent both publicly and privately in our country in an effort to educate the young, it is safe to conclude that people in the United States consider education to be a great work. How many of them, do you think, could tell you what they believe the end, or goal, of that work is? I speak to groups about education and often ask the question, "Why are you going to all this effort, and expense? What is the point of it?" It seems few people have thought much about this except in a rather vague manner. Yet, according to another ancient Greek, Plato, "The beginning is the most important part of the work." What is the beginning of the work of education? I suggest that it consists in determining what is the goal of education. As the saying goes, if you don't know where you are going you won't know how to get there. I would add that, at least in regard to education, even if you know where you want to go you may still not know how to get there. But "how" is a secondary question. It comes after determining where we ought to go.

What are the answers that I receive to my question? They generally fall along these lines: The end of education is to produce good citizens. To produce productive people. To learn to efficiently find information. To get a good job. To achieve full potential. To read and write well. To learn to think.

Apart from precisely what each of those phrases might mean, do they answer the question? I don't think so. They simply lead to a further question, "Why do you want your children to be able to do or achieve those things?" This is where many people are stumped, at least for a while. The ones who are stumped the longest are often professional educators. During all of their training this question has seldom, if ever, been addressed. It probably appears to be a dumb question. After all, isn't it obvious why we should want our children to be able to read, to have a good job, to be good citizens? I know from my experience with students that the questions that seem to have the most obvious answers are often the best questions to talk about. It is because the answers seem so obvious that we tend to have spent little or no time thinking about them.

When my students, as a result of the beastly prodding of their teacher, are made to think about apparently obvious answers they often make great discoveries. One of which is that they really haven't understand the questions, though they were quite sure they had. This presumed understanding of the questions is why, when we are 16, we tend to think we know so many of the answers to life's questions.

" I know what I'm doing. You old people just don't get it. The world is different now."

"How is it different?"

"Dude, it's obvious, isn't it?"

Well, it used to be obvious. For folks like me it takes about half a century to begin to get a handle on the notion that what has been obvious is not necessarily true. Plato and Aristotle thought that it takes about 50 years before someone could be a decent philosopher. It often takes that long to realize you don't know what you thought you knew. Once you realize it you can make some progress. So it is better to find it out earlier. That way you can get started sooner. But it is hard work. It's tough to get out of your own way. We really aren't often willing to make the effort — and it does require effort – to stand in the other guy's shoes and see things as he sees them because, "Dude, it's just obvious he's wrong."

Much of education, of growing up, is about acquiring a better understanding of the questions. Does the question "What is love?" mean the same thing to you now that it did when you were a teenager? How about "What is home?"

The question about the goal of education cannot be answered without first answering the question, "What is the goal, or end, of a human being?" After all, shouldn't the goal of education be to help us achieve whatever is the goal of human life? Is there a goal that is universal, common to all people? Aristotle says that it is happiness. Everybody wants it. We want other things as a means to obtaining it. Ultimately, that further end is happiness. We want happiness for itself.

Of course, that leads to a big question — who is the happy man? Socrates [another ancient Greek!] says the happy man is the one who is good and noble. How do we become good? By learning to love what is true, and good, and beautiful we will learn to be virtuous and, as Aristotle says, it is a life of virtue that gives us the best chance for a good life, a happy life. [What kind of life would your children have if they loved what is false, evil, and ugly? Do you see examples in our culture of the results of loving those things?]

The work of education begins by identifying the end of the work. If the end of a human being is to be happy, and if education should help a person achieve that end, then, following the line of thought of these ancient Greeks, the end of education is to help us to learn to love what is true and good and beautiful. I think that is exactly right. I wish all educators agreed.

Notice, the end is not knowing. Rather, it is loving. This is not to minimize the importance of knowing. Knowing is necessary as a means to loving. And that is precisely the point. It is a means, and an indispensable one, but it is not the end. Simply knowing what is true may satisfy the mind of a man, but it does not satisfy his heart. The evil man knows what is true. But he doesn't love it. And he is not satisfied.

This suggests that education is not simply an intellectual pursuit but, rather, involves the whole person. We are men and women. To live fully, to be happy, should we not love with all of the powers that we possess?

So, how do we get to the end? What do we need to know? What skills do we need to acquire? How do we obtain the knowledge and the skills? Those are good questions, they are the "how do we get there" questions, and they are now in their proper place — after determining where we ought to go.

Steve Bertucci [send him mail] is director of Great Books Discussions. He also serves on the boards of The Angelicum Academy and The Great Books Academy. He works with students from grade 3 to adult in online live-audio classrooms.

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