In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote that anyone who wants to succeed in an endeavor must “begin with the end in mind.” What then should be the ultimate end, or goal, of education? Today, the answer to this question is far from self-evident, but it is as consequential as ever.
Theologian R.C. Sproul has told the story of what he calls his “personal baptism in to the public education crisis.” It was the 1960s, and his daughter was entering first grade at an acclaimed “progressive” school near Boston. Excited for his daughter and eager to understand her new school’s approach to education, Dr. Sproul attended a parents’ night at which the principal explained the ins and outs of the school. Sproul writes,
The principal reviewed a typical daily schedule. He was both winsome and articulate. “If your children come home and tell you that they do jigsaw puzzles in class, don’t be alarmed,” he said. “They are not just ‘playing.’ From 9:00 to 9:17 A.M., they assemble these puzzles, which have been designed by pediatric neurosurgeons to develop the motor muscles of the fingers on the left hand.” Then he went through each segment of the school day, demonstrating that every moment was spent in purposeful activity. This tour de force overwhelmed the audience with its detailed and erudite explanation of every element in the curriculum.
When finished he asked, “Are there any questions?” Spontaneous laughter erupted. Only a fool would raise a question after the principal had so masterfully covered all the bases.
I risked everyone’s disdain by raising my hand. When the principal called on me, I said, “Sir, I am profoundly impressed by your careful analysis. You have made it clear that you do everything for a purpose. But there are only so many minutes in a day, and therefore you must be selective in choosing what specific purposes you want to achieve. My question is, Why did you select the particular purposes you have chosen? What is the ultimate purpose you use to decide what particular purposes you select? In other words, what kind of child are you trying to produce and why?”
The principal’s face turned ashen, then beet-red. Without rancor and with humility, he replied, “I don’t know. Nobody has ever asked me that question.”
“Sir,” I responded, “I deeply appreciate your candor and your spirit, but frankly, your answer terrifies me.” (R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas)
How many of us grew up attending school unaware of the kind of person into whom it was shaping us? How many parents send their children to school without ever pausing to reflect on this question? While every school, secular or religious, may teach similar subjects, these same schools often differ widely in their underlying philosophies. Sometimes a school’s educational goals are explicitly articulated, and sometimes they are merely implied. But they are always there, and they always matter.
When I attended public high school, I don’t recall ever reading the school’s mission statement. (I confess, at the time I wasn’t exactly the kind of student who would have noticed if it had had one.) By my senior year, however, I had definitely picked up the underlying attitude toward school which, though usually left unspoken, nonetheless flooded the hallways and classrooms: You are here to work hard so you can get into a good college. By attending a good college, you will be able to get a good job. Then you can have a good life, achieving status and making good money. So study hard for that Shakespeare exam, because articulating the major themes of Macbeth will enable you to achieve what we all know really matters in this world: material success.
I’m not the only one who picked up this kind of pragmatic and materialistic message, nor was my school the only one to perpetuate it. However, it would be unfair to leave my schooling experience at that. My better teachers certainly didn’t promote such a shallow message. These teachers loved their subjects and knew that reading Shakespeare is valuable beyond getting into a good medical school, becoming an orthodontist, and buying a large house (no offense to any orthodontists with large houses who may be reading). “March to the beat of a different drummer,” my eleventh grade literature teacher quoted to us when we studied Thoreau. These teachers taught us that education is primarily about attaining personal and intellectual freedom which would enable each of us to develop into unique individuals.
A Christian Alternative
So I (and many others) experienced a tension in my schooling between materialistic success and personal freedom as competing aims of education. What is a Christian to make of this? What light does the Bible shine on this matter? As I’ve thought about these questions over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that while neither of these aims can be a sufficient goal in itself, both actually are in fact dim (if distorted) reflections of a genuinely Christian education. Here’s what I mean.
The materialistic view of education gets it partly right because it affirms the value of hard work. “In all toil there is profit,” Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs (14:23). “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame” (10:4-5; see also 12:14). Hard work is a virtue, whether performed by an employee for a boss or by a student for a teacher, and hard work does indeed often lead to success. There is nothing wrong (and much right) with that. Ask any teacher whether he’d like to see more or less hard work going on in his classroom, and he won’t have to think long to give you an answer.
But genuine success is more than materialistic, isn’t it? Jesus cautioned his followers not to be like the foolish rich man whose earthly ambition eclipsed the pursuit of higher things in his life, only to discover in the end that none of his accumulations mattered any longer (Luke 12:13-21). On another occasion Jesus asked, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). In Paul’s writings, we find that work is good, and hard work is a Christian virtue, but it must be performed from the right perspective: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). The key to valuing work while not turning it into an idol is putting it into its right context. In all our work, whether an adult is earning a paycheck or a student is striving for high marks, we absolutely must remember that we do it within the context of serving the One who has given us the hands and feet and minds to do it. Any educational endeavor that stresses the value of hard work and success without reference to God risks allowing important things to swallow up the most important things.
Likewise, when we view education primarily as a means of personal growth and self-actualization, we are making the same mistake. Teaching students to think for themselves has its merits. So does instilling a hearty appreciation for literature and and telling students tocarpe diem (i.e. Ephesians 5:16). Transcending the shallowness of our broader culture in order to pursue intellectual growth and develop a sense of wonder and creativity are certainly Christian goals (i.e. Romans 12:2).
But what if we were to ask where all of this is supposed to lead? In my quest to be my own person, just what type of person am I trying to become? In questioning the values of my culture, what values will I end up pursuing instead? Herein lies the deficiency in this approach to education, because marching to the beat of a different drummer is so often lauded as an end in itself; one asserts his individuality for its own sake. Education is about me and my interests and my goals and my personal development. However, the more effort I put into looking inward and discovering myself, the less interested I may become in the people around me. As thinking for myself becomes my standard for all things, I can easily forget the simple truth that there is already an Ultimate Standard out there—and I’m not Him.
There is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness, and it is love. Not fleeting sentimentality, but the kind of sacrificial love embodied in Jesus Christ. It is this love—not whatever whims may be dancing in my head at any given moment—that ought to beat the drum that makes Christians unique. Personal and intellectual growth must occur within the context of the two greatest commandments: loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. This objective reality, not a subjective kind of one’s own determination, provides the right perspective for students as they grow into the kind of men and women who demonstrate what it means to be created in God’s image.
Growing up as a Christian attending a public high school, I knew that education had to be about more than materialistic success. The pursuit of individual freedom seemed a viable alternative, but without a clear end in mind this too devolved into an exercise in chasing after wind. The truth is that, just as “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), so it may also be said that the glory of God and the love of one’s neighbor provide the only context that can give education ultimate meaning.
Our mission at Cary Christian School is to provide an excellent classical education founded upon a biblical worldview. This involves a clear vision of the kind of person we want our students to become. According to our school’s vision statement,
We aim to graduate young men and women, who think clearly and listen carefully with discernment and understanding; who reason persuasively and articulate precisely; who are capable of evaluating their entire range of experience in the light of the Scriptures; and who do so with eagerness in joyful submission to God.
We desire them to recognize cultural influences as distinct from biblical and to be unswayed toward evil by the former.
We aim to find them well-prepared in all situations, possessing both information and the knowledge of how to use it.
We desire they be socially graceful and spiritually gracious; equipped with and understanding the tools of learning; desiring to grow in understanding, yet fully realizing the limitations and foolishness of the wisdom of this world.
We desire they have a heart for the lost and the courage to seek to dissuade those who are stumbling toward destruction; that they distinguish real religion from religion in form only; and that they possess the former, knowing and loving the Lord Jesus Christ.
And all these we desire them to possess with humility and gratitude to God.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else” (Mere Christianity). I would simply add that the whole purpose of schooling is also nothing else, and pray that, in a world that values education so much but is not always sure why, God would see fit to use classical Christian schools to this end.