Rethinking the Purpose of Education

We live in a culture that seems to want to tell its children one of two things. The first is that they can be “whatever they want to be” when they grow up. The second is that they can be whatever they want to be as long as what they want to be is practical and financially beneficial. On the one hand, I know that telling your kids that they can do anything might be a little bit unrealistic, though I think there is some truth in it. I wanted to be a dinosaur when I was three, but did my mom say to me “of course you can be a dinosaur!” No. At least not in the literal sense. I might actually have been a bit concerned if she encouraged that much past the age of six or seven. This might be an exaggerated example, but I think it’s important that we recognize the difference between distorting reality and providing constructive encouragement (I’ll get to what I mean by that in a minute).

After I stopped wanting to be a dinosaur I started telling people I wanted to be a writer. Do you know what the response usually was? “Why don’t you do something else that will be a little more practical?” And by practical they meant “attached to a steady paycheck.” So instead of majoring in English, I started my college career as a double major in Journalism and Political Science. I still shudder when I think about it.

After one year of pain and misery, something strange happened: A couple of very wise professors told me that there is more to college than getting a piece of paper that says “Give me a job, please.” Yes, they said that. No, they were not joking. I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.

Did it sink? No? No worries, it took me a while to understand this foreign concept, too. I mean, isn’t that what college is for? To get a job? Well, partially. But there is so much more to it. Yes, I want to have a good job at the end of this finance-sucking wormhole of textbooks and essays. Partially because I need to pay off loans. But there has to be more to it than that, even more than having a job that you like.

College is supposed to be the place that helps form you as an entire person, not just a floating head that can spit back vocabulary terms. I’m reading The Idea of a Christian College by Arthur F. Holmes right now, and I think the following quote from the beginning of his book speaks to this issue our culture is facing:

For the question a teacher must ask about his teaching is not “What can they do with it?” but rather “What will it do to them? What sort of men and women will they become by wrestling with the material in the way I present it? And what sort of materials and methods could I develop to help them become more fully the people they are capable of being?” (24)

Until we move away from the notion that college can only serve as a place to make acceptable employees, we are going to be deprived of the possibilities that a college education can and should be. Let’s stop focusing on regurgitation and start teaching our students how to think critically, and I mean really think critically. Let’s stop telling our students that they have to take this math class and that biology class “just because” and help them see the real value of understanding why these disciplines are key parts of our world. Let’s stop preaching the need to be practical and encourage our students to be something that matters to them. College should not be a place that you have to “suffer through” just to work in a job that you only kind of like (or worse, a job that you hate). Instead it should be like this:

It should be a liberating experience that enlarges horizons, deepens insight, sharpens the mind, exposes new areas of inquiry, and sensitizes our ability to appreciate the good and the beautiful as well as the true. (Holmes 19)

Now before you start skipping off to be a dinosaur, I want to be clear about something. Yes, we should be encouraging our children and students to do something they care about. But that does not mean we should paint a false picture of reality that lets them assume that the world will be handed to them wrapped in cotton candy and kittens. Encourage them, but do it constructively. Let’s raise our kids to dream big, encourage our students to do what they love, but only if they are willing to work for it. You have to want it. There is no instant gratification in life and success.

Now I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that if we start thinking of college as a place that produces whole persons rather than state-certified employees, then maybe we will have a new type of college student and a new kind of employee. The type that actually wants to learn. The type that asks questions. The type that isn’t afraid to work for something even when the world tells them they’re wasting their time. The type that is passionate and excited about life, ideas, and people. The type that sees the world in terms more complex and beautiful than pieces of paper and paychecks. The question, then, is how do we start?

Side note: if you are feeling a little bit discouraged about doing what you love, watch this short documentary. I promise it will make you smile.

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