What is the Point of Education?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]What is our goal, as teachers? What are we hoping to accomplish? There are different ways to answer this. Tomorrow, perhaps, my goal will be simply to get through the day without major discipline issues. My goal for the trimester might be for students to improve their test scores. My goal for the year might be for students to increase their GPAs. But what are these goals good for? Are test scores good in themselves, or are they steps towards some other good? What is education for? 

Let me propose four possible answers. The first three are, in my view, poor. I will first state them, and then I will critique them. The fourth answer, I hope, is a step in the right direction, and I will try to explain it. 

Here is one line of thinking I encounter fairly often. “I want this student to get good test scores so she can get a good grade, so she can have a good GPA, so she can get into a good college, so she can get a good job.” This implies that getting hired into a “good job” (whatever that might be) is the ultimate end of everything in education, down to the smallest quiz and homework assignment. So if I’m employed, I’m as educated as it’s worth being – even if I never learned to think for myself, or to question, or to listen. Is that right? 

Here’s a second line of thinking. “I want my students to get good grades, and by ‘good grades’ I mean the marks the State has defined as good. I want my students to pass State-issued tests, and to rank well within the State-issued ranking system.” I can certainly sympathize with this perspective, since so many teachers are assessed by these standards. But this has a curious effect of outsourcing the point of education. As a mere standards-enforcer, I don’t have to know what standards are intended for, and it’s probably never explained to me. The point of education is extrinsic and mysterious to educators themselves: whatever the State says. Is that right? 

Here’s a third line of thinking. “I want my students to learn, and by ‘learn’ I mean ‘memorize the things they need to know to pass my tests.” I can sympathize with this as well. But is “remembering” all we really mean by “learning?” If so, then I’m worried about my students, few of whom (I expect) could now pass a science test they passed two years ago. They’ve forgotten most of the information they learned in that science course, and this understanding of education would imply that we’ve failed them. It would also mean most adults – ourselves included – are not well-educated, since we could not pass almost any of the tests we took in college, high school, or even middle school. Is that right? 

None of these answers seem right to me. They are incomplete. Many employed people do not know how to think in an orderly way; many people with high SAT scores have poor work ethics and no ability to wonder; many valedictorians can cram for tests but don’t know how to participate in conversations about moral questions. Many employed, high-scoring former-valedictorians do not know how to examine their own beliefs – or, perhaps, are unwilling to try. You can pass one (or all) of the goals articulated above despite lacking qualities a well-educated person should have. This must mean those goals are insufficient. What, then, is the true goal of education? 

Here I think the Western Tradition, from Homer to Pope Francis, has an answer to offer. Plato, Aristotle, Quintillion, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, William Sanders Scarborough, and many other giants of our inheritance have said that the true purpose of education is to become a good person and to live a good life. Grades and standards – which are quite modern inventions – must be oriented towards this if they are to matter at all. And I think this is spot on. What is the point of an A, if it does not lead to a good life? What is the point of a skill like memory, logical thought, or persuasive ability if it does not lead to a good soul? Without such a purpose in mind, test scores are shallow goods at best. In a world without universities, an SAT score of 2300 would be no more useful than a score of 600. But a great soul is good no matter what world it lives in. Education must aim to produce more than good test scores: education must aim to produce good people. 

But let me clarify what I’m not saying. I’m not saying students shouldn’t care about grades or test scores. After all, for many students, pursuing a good life will include reaching typical American milestones – succeeding in high school, getting into college, finding gainful employment – and good records will help them reach those milestones. But these milestones cannot be the final point: they are, atmost, only part of what it is to be good and to live well. Therefore, education has to aim higher than employment, test scores, and factual knowledge. At St. Monica, we have to aim higher. The point of education here must be to create good humans: great-souled people who can live good lives. 

This partly answers the question, “What is the point of education?” But it is one thing to state an answer and another to understand it. I have said education is for good lives and good souls – but what is a good soul? What does a good life look like? I can only suggest a partial answer here, but perhaps a partial answer will be helpful. 

The Catholic Church defines good lives and souls in at least two modes: Christ as he is revealed in Scripture and Tradition, and Christ as he is encountered in ancient (sometimes pagan) pursuits of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. When we begin to desire to have and to be like Christ – who is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – we begin to inch towards full souls and full lives, and we therefore begin to inch towards the true goal of education. Education should give us (and make us like) Christ. 

This prompts a further question: how do we receive and become like Christ? First, through the primary work of the Church: the sacraments, the scriptures, the liturgy, the community. Second, through the practice and development of righteous habits (which become righteous states of being). In the West, these habits been called “virtues.” There are many virtues. Some are intellectual, like Wisdom, Science, and Understanding. Others are moral, like Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice. Three are theological: Faith, Hope, and Love.1 Having the virtues, we attain the excellence particular to human beings: we become good humans, good at what humans are for. We become well-educated. 

The Church, of course, must attend to both these tasks: both the giving of sacraments and the cultivation of virtues. And the first task is hers alone: teachers cannot administer Confession. But teachers can, and must, participate in the second task. To educate our students properly, we must help them develop the virtues.  

So, the cultivation of virtues should be teachers’ primary goal – not only in students, but also in ourselves. If we are to help others be good, we must become good. Test scores, grades, and behavior alerts are only good insofar as they lead towards this: that is, towards excellence at being human. Indeed, what it means to be a virtuous person is to be a human being fully alive, and as St. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”2 The point of education, then, is not a 4.0, nor a golden sticker, but the glory of God. May God help us achieve it. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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