What’s the point of education?

I’m seeing more and more attention focused on the question, “What is education for?”

And that’s a great thing.

We all agree in the West that education is important – indeed, it’s often treated with the reverence that Patriotism received a generation ago – but few people ask the question of why it’s important.

To get a job, dummy is the most obvious answer.

But is that all that learning should be about? If we follow that to its end, it turns education into a competitive enterprise – where it’s a commodity which I hope to have a better version of than the next guy – and it renders all learning that doesn’t lead directly to hireability unimportant. This model actually feeds selfishness and defines human flourishing according to our work: either as a status symbol, for the money it gains, or whatever.

Of all people, the medievals helped me see this question in a fresh light. As with reason, the medievals were all about education: they built the West’s oldest universities. They loved learning; the average student memorized more classical learning than we have “Seinfeld” quotes.

But – as the Sertillanges book I’m reading emphasizes as well – they undertook education with a motivation that we’ve largely lost in the West. If the medieval motto of epistemology was fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding – the medieval motto for the goal of learning might be scientia quaerens laudationem – knowledge seeking praise. Here’s Sertillanges:

“Intelligence only plays its part fully when it fulfills a religious function, that is, when it worships the supreme Truth in its minor and scattered appearances.” (30)

And hear him wax poetic:

“Every truth is a reflection; behind the reflection, and giving it value, is the light. Every being is a witness; every fact is a divine secret; beyond them is the object of the revelation, the hero witnessed to. Everything true stands out against the Infinite as against its background; is related to it; belongs to it.” (30)

For medieval Christians – and Sertillanges is practically a medieval thinker – learning led directly to worship. Learning was the process of uncovering a little more about the world God created, which – because the creation bears the thumbprints of the Creator – was learning more about God Himself. The ideal student is like the new husband: eager to plumb the depths of his new wife, to learn everything there is about her that he might enjoy her more fully.

If we are to make the most of learning, we must see it as more than the pursuit of professional credentials; we must see how it can lead us to worship the God who is Truth and the author of Truth. He is hiding, as it were, inside the yellow roar of a dandelion; he sings a high, pure chord in an elegant mathematical law.

The second way the medievals have enriched my understanding of learning is that learning should prepare us to love others better. Most current models of education have a basically self-centered foundation: learning is for my self-empowerment, or is to give me a competitive edge. But for these thinkers, learning was meant to equip the learned for a life of love as well as worship.

I touched on this in an earlier piece, but a distinctively Christian approach to learning will ask of all study, How can this be of help to others? That doesn’t mean I should only learn a trade like medicine; but it does mean that my education – in professional skills, in critical thinking skills, in the humanities – should always bend toward helping me become a wiser, better citizen of my world and a better servant of my neighbors.

These are the purposes of education in the Christian world. Education, in uncovering truth, directs us to worship the ultimate Truth. And education empowers me to think and reason and act; it ought to lead me to think and reason and act for the benefit of others.

As always, there’s so much more I’d like to say. Another time!


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