If you were to ask the next five people you see what the purpose of education is, you’re likely to get a similar answer from each of them. Education has been largely reduced to the process by which one is positioned to make a good living. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it fails to maximize the true potential of the educational process.
Despite the instinctive “good education equals success” response to the above question, most would agree that life is about more than having nice stuff. If it’s true that the ultimate purpose of education can be reduced to materialism, then there remains little reason for us to evaluate schools on anything other than career placement. In reality, we want far more out of the educational process than just marketability and this should prompt us to reconsider our most basic assumptions about what constitutes a good education. Specifically, our understanding of success is informed by our current time and place in history. By all measures, we have been exposed to more messaging on what constitutes “the good life” than any other generation and they all carry with them the same general sentiment: Get ______ and be happy! Even in its most overt form (advertising), we scoff at the commercial while simultaneously answering its call. Whether it’s a new home, longer vacation, or some other thing, we are quick to measure the success of our efforts by their ability to provide access to leisure.
Education is not immune to this! We send our kids to school in the hopes that they will get good jobs and one day be able to retire with a bank account that is the envy of their peers, but for what purpose? While this may be a perfectly acceptable effect of a good education, it’s not a sufficient purpose for education. If education doesn’t lead us to agree with what God has said about His creation then it doesn’t matter how much it’s valued in the eyes of the world. This doesn’t mean that secular institutions are off-limits to the Christian, but it does mean that we enter them with our eyes wide open. As GK Chesterton rightly pointed out, “without a gentle contempt for education, no man’s education is complete.”
Although the controlling aim for most schools can be boiled down to materialism, this should be something of an “away game” for us. For the Christian on any campus, the goal of their education should be to know God more as a result of their studies. How does Biology reveal God’s order and design? What does literature tell me about God’s moral standards? Would math work apart from the One who holds all things together? These are questions that ought to inform and direct our foundational desires for education. When we understand education as a tool that equips us to know God better, we begin the hard work of reclaiming it for its intended purpose. John Calvin helpfully reminds us that “there is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.” This is true, but there is also no knowing that should not end without knowing God.