Monday, February 25, 2008

The Purpose of Education

Education is one of the intrinsic goods of human existence. At the very core of our being is a desire to know, not just a few things, but all things. Evidence of this desire can be seen in the expressions of knowledge from the sciences to the arts--to enter into debate with this precept is to already prove its presence. This quest for truth engages all dimensions of the person: mental, physical, and spiritual. Therefore, education must be oriented towards the holistic formation of the person. Who we are and who we become is affected by what we know.

As a young man St. Augustine seems to have identified a certain benefit of philosophy, at this time he admits that he did not read and learn merely to sharpen his style but to receive substance and content. He viewed this new perspective on the purpose of education as a turning point in his spiritual life by which this emphasis changed his feelings, prayer, values, priorities, and reset his gaze toward the “immortality of wisdom.” Augustine learned to enjoy truth for its own sake rather than for some pragmatic and utilitarian end. Education should primarily be about seeking this “immortality of wisdom.”

Education always instructs the individual how to view the world. This usually occurs informally within the household and more formally within an institution of learning. The type of importance that society places on education has obvious affects on children. People spend countless hours creating methods and styles to teach. A certain seriousness and urgency for education has become a humanitarian cause, but often the fundamental question as to the aim of this instruction is neglected.

The educational task should not be a mere transferring of information, but should directly and indirectly teach individuals in the art of living a good life. Virtues like self control, discipline, seeking the common good, and most important of all, humility, are inherent to the educational process. If they are not in some form present, even in most secular institution, then education is impossible. Every student must stand in a relationship of receiving from without the self from another or they cannot learn. Every instructor must be open to understand who their student is or they cannot effectively teach. Education is much more about interaction within a community, dialogue, and reciprocity than gaining intellectual means to succeed. However, the latter goal is usually overemphasized in modern society. These virtues have roots in the Socratic education which involved knowing the truth about fair, just, and good things in order to help order the society towards the common good and ideal state. The implication is that a person will be rich with happiness because he has a good and prudent life and will be able to impart this knowledge through leadership and example. This, in turn, will help structure society by preventing turmoil and encouraging peace.

The Enlightenment movement of the rise of rationalism has created a problem in the academy whereby people are taught a compendium of knowledge so that they know a little bit of everything, but they should be educated in such a way that they can educate themselves in whatever they will need to function in society. Education has become too enamored with a philosophy of doing rather than a philosophy of being. Curriculum should not exalt technical knowledge over other forms of knowledge. The arts and humanities are possibly more important the sciences. While sciences may help us in understanding physical aspects of the world in which we live and even physical aspects of the self, the arts and humanities help us tap into the mysteries of human nature.

Education must place balanced values on both practical and speculative experiences so that the individual may be well integrated and able to communicate their knowledge. One of the growing difficulties with education today is that we have more fields of knowledge that individuals must develop. To confuse things more, society tends to value only those individuals who can advance in these fields and produce more technical methods than others produce. Those that are incapable of competing in these technological driven fields fall through the cracks all the time. The worth of a person should not be determined by function, yet this theory of utility permeates throughout educational institutions. The end of education is not knowledge of how things work but to enable the person to achieve wisdom about what they should do.

While being wealthy and famous is not inherently wrong, there is a problem when social approval becomes the dictum of the good life and we institutionally stress the importance of education only as useful in procuring wealth and fame. Education should not be primarily viewed as a means of wealth, social superiority, and power over others. Too long education has been used to divide. Education viewed properly can unite by helping build community in as much as it fosters a student’s ability to think, create, and communicate within a spirit of humility. A burden of responsibility always accompanies truth. The truth we know requires us to respond accordingly and education is a gift that better enables us to serve others.


Sarah Metz said...

I greatly appreciate this post, Ryan! It comes at a time in my life when I am evaluating my perspective on education and whether I am seeking wisdom or just studying for a grade. Great job.

Civis said...

Interesting post.

When you say education is one of the "intrinsic goods" of human existence, do you mean something in particular?

"education must be oriented towards the holistic formation of the person."

Amen. As a liberal arts major I was often asked, "what are you going to do with that?" after which I would go into a tirade ending with "If I wanted a trade I would have gone to trade school. I want an education."

Ryan Hallford said...

“When you say education is one of the "intrinsic goods" of human existence, do you mean something in particular?”

First off, thank you for your comment.

And yes, I did mean something in particular. Natural Law as expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas shows that education is one of the “intrinsic goods” of human existence. The First Principle or moral sense, to do good and avoid evil, translates into what Aquinas calls Primary Precepts which are concerned with using practical reason to order this principle in precepts. Since these precepts include those inclinations in common with all substances, it is concerned with preservation of life/ the continuing of existence. More particularly in the preservation of human life, ways of preservation includes reproduction, nourishment, and education of offspring. Then on top of those in common with all substances, humans also those inclinations in accordance to reason that include truth, society, and religion (seeking truth about God).

The need for education is multi-fold because humans desire truth, the proper ordering of society, knowledge of God and themselves, reasonable ways to procure the ends of their other naturally good inclinations, etc. Moreover, the Catholic Church also emphasizes the importance of a properly informed conscience to develop in knowledge about what actions are in conformity with natural law so that they may be good and blessed. Thus, education is one of those intrinsic natural goods that act as a foundation for other goods. I would even argue that a good education is one of the greatest forms of social justice as my post attempts to confirm. On the flip, side a bad education filled with relativistic and materialistic philosophies may be the most detrimental thing you could do to a person. However, there is always hope for God’s grace.

Flumenanimus said...

What makes it an "intrinsic" good?

Ryan Hallford said...

I stated that “education is one of the intrinsic goods of human existence.” And, quite possibly, my words failed to communicate the meaning I had in my mind. I was not trying to say that education is a good as an end in itself, which would denote education as an “intrinsic good” as your question suggest. Rather I was trying to say something more on the line that “education is a good intrinsic to human existence.” Thus, the emphasis would be the qualification that education is good in as much as it aids human existence. Education is a process of formation to help the person access other goods of human existence as I tried to demonstrate in my comment above and the blog post. Furthermore, this process of education begins the moment we are born and the community in which we participate informs our desires (I am thinking in terms that St. Augustine describes in the Confessions). For education should be about the “immortality of wisdom” and better predisposing our mind to receiving this wisdom. In other words, I wasn’t trying to describe education as an end in itself alongside the transcendent qualities of Truth, Good, and Beauty, but as a formation process that should open the mind to receiving these higher ends. I hope this offers clarification on what I believe to be the issue you were raising. If not, please post another comment, and I will try my best to answer. Thanks.

Civis said...

What do you think is a person's duty vis-a-vis improving his mind after his formal education is over?

Ryan Hallford said...

“What do you think is a person's duty vis-a-vis improving his mind after his formal education is over?”

Simply stated, I am not sure what the responsibility would be for individual persons given that different people have different gifts, talents, and callings. Nor do I think a quantitative course of study could even be generally given. I am much more interested in a given spirituality of openness that may translate into intentionally seek better ways to form the mind in conformity to Truth. As I have personal interest and desire to learn about philosophy, theology, and literature, I’m sure I may have more of a responsibility to study these particular fields than others might. With that said, I do have a few notions of what might be the responsibility of individuals. I do think every person has an affinity for truth but sometimes this desire is undermined through relativistic and materialistic philosophies. Existentially I think many people become skeptical of truth and the meaning of life so find it meaningless to search for meaning. Their head becomes decapitated from their heart. Although I dealt with more of the formal aspects of education in the post, I really do not think individuals ever stop learning. I think a person always has a responsibility and the opportunity to seek truth and to live accordingly. I am a big fan of the epistemology of Bernard Lonergan. He speaks a lot of the dynamism of the intellect that constantly drives a person to know. This dynamic desire underlies everything we do whether it is in terms of formal education or trying to figure out the most practical way to do something. I think the person’s duty to improve his mind should be pursued with humility and astonishment. In identifying the problem of with methods of philosophy Chesterton says, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?” I believe all good philosophy leads to mystery, and yet we have a responsibility to seek. Blaise Pascal says there are three types of people: those who are seeking God and have found him (they are wise and happy), those who seek God but don’t find him (they are wise and unhappy), and those who neither seek God nor find him (they are neither wise nor happy). The true seeker never stops their education because they are always interested in discerning the will of God that requires discipline of the mind, body, and soul. Education must always be sought in openness- being open to insights from others including family, neighbor, stranger, and God. If available this may include more formal aspects such ah reading, studying the life of the saints (learn from the happy how to be happy and live the good life), as well as pursuing fields of study that perk your interest.

Civis said...

So there's no duty, or you're undecided?

Ryan Hallford said...

I'm unsure as to the extent each person has a responsibility to seek education. On this I'm undecided. However, I'm pretty confident that people do have some sort of responsibility to seek truth which would involve some kind of learning or education. Furthermore, I believe parents have a responsibility to educate their young. I would say there is a duty but I'm not able to expound upon what exactly that duty should practically or universally consist of.

Civis said...

Living in a country where we supposedly rule ourselves, don't you think we have a duty to know about certain things?

If I am king and I am given responsibility to rule for the common good, I would have a duty to learn what is for the common good wouldn't I?

If we are all rulers here in America, don't we all have a certain duty?

Or do you beleive that there is some golden class of elites that are responsible for the common good in America?

Ryan Hallford said...

You have a point there. Maybe responsibilities to certain types of learning is constituted by the nature of the community in which you live and your role within that community. Thus every person would have a responsibility to the moral well being of a society. More particularly Americans would have more political responsibility because they are given the ability to vote and affect the common good through political process. However, I would imagine everyone has a basic duty to learn what is for the common good within a community or else that person could never be virtuous within that community. Dorthy Day defines the good society as one that makes it easy for its citizens to be good. Every member would then have a responsibility to bring about this good to the best of their responsibility.