What’s the Point?

I’m reading the book “Consider This” with a friend right now in preparation for our trip to Ambleside, England, this spring. Its author, Karen Glass, explores the connection between Charlotte Mason’s educational principles and the classical tradition.

It’s reminding me that every educational system is rooted in some sort of view of what it means to be human. What is a person? How we answer that question dictates how we educate the next generation. But I’m not sure it’s a question that many educators today take the time to consciously explore. Regardless, their methods are still springing from some definition of what it means to be a person. Is a person a computer, a machine, waiting for the right logarithms to make life operate smoothly? Is a person just a more highly evolved form of animal life? Is a person a living soul created in the image of God? I’ll leave it to your imagination to envision the methods that might flow from these vastly different starting points.

One thing is obvious. Our definition of a person is inextricably linked to the purpose of life. Wow! I know…deep ponderings for a Saturday morning. But, really, if we don’t have a view of why we are here, how can we know what it will take to prepare our kids for life? When we don’t take the time to think about these things, we can too easily fall into the trap of assuming that education is just a necessary hurdle on the road to getting a good job in order to earn a good pay cheque so that we have the resources to satisfy our desires and make us happy. But is that really what will make us “happy”? Or is there more than this self-centred, utilitarian view of life?!

The ancients considered virtue (not knowledge) to be the purpose of education. The acquisition of knowledge served to train people to act upon what they knew to be good and true. Character development was paramount, and intellectual development naturally followed. I like the idea of placing character development and virtue front and centre. When we ignore these things in educating our children and just focus on imparting knowledge, there is a huge disconnect. What are they supposed to do with that knowledge? What’s the point? It’s just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It’s empty and self-centred. The information is studied in order to get good grades, but it’s not really ingested or integrated into their lives. It doesn’t percolate deep into the soil of their hearts and make a difference in shaping who they are becoming.

Karen says, the “…idea, that education is more about doing what is right rather than merely knowing information, is founded on a long tradition. When our knowledge is transformed into action, it becomes virtue, and virtue was the goal of the classical educators.” As I read those words yesterday, my heart was nodding vigorously in agreement. But I had to laugh, because, just moments later, I caught myself thinking, ‘YES! Virtue is the goal of all subjects of study — grammar, mathematics, whatever. After all, with a good grasp of language or business you can be all that much more useful to God and His good purposes in the world.’

It’s funny how much I am a product of the utilitarian mindset! I love the idea of virtue and good character playing the central role, being the “horse” to pull the “cart” of education…and yet I find myself musing about what role they play, what purpose they fulfill, how they are useful in my own life, useful to society, even useful to God and His kingdom. But it’s not BECAUSE living a good life helps families and society to function best that I pursue righteousness! That might be a natural outflow, but it’s not the motivation.

So, what is the motivation? Why should virtue (and not knowledge acquisition) be our goal? Karen says, “If we answer the question ‘what is man?’ with ‘man is a living soul created in the image of God,’ our educational task will…seek to discover all the potential in each child so that he can become everything that God meant him to be.” It “works” because it agrees with the truth of who we are as persons created in the image of God, created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” as the Westminster Catechism puts it.

I am discovering I need to shift my insidious, subconscious utilitarian mindset. Whether it stems from my own educational experience or my personality, I need to set my personal pursuit of knowledge (or my teaching of it) within the context of pursuing wisdom and a virtuous, God-glorifying life. That is a high calling as an educator, as a parent, as a person. God, help me!

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