We have had formal schooling in Western civilization for almost 2,400 years.
For almost 2,300 of those years, education’s central focus was on helping young people achieve their highest potential as human beings through the development of the intellect, pursuing truth and becoming virtuous, as well as becoming good citizens for their roles in society.
Preparing for jobs and other economic incentives had little or nothing to do with it.
These ideas are rooted in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, who, though differing on many philosophical points, agreed that education involves the things identified above. It is ultimately about nurturing the mind for its own sake, not for superficial worldly gains.
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Although some of their contemporaries disagreed with them on the purposes of education, history ultimately favored Plato and Aristotle. This was in no small part because of the rise of Christianity. Christianity rejected the pursuit of social and material success in favor of transcendent values such as wisdom, truth and virtue.
The dominant view among the greatest Christian thinkers was that all truth comes from God (who is rational), and we should use all of our selves in the service of him. They took it seriously when they read in Luke 10:27 that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.”
For these Christian thinkers, including St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, the specific purpose of education is to help young people love God with their whole minds.
For all of them, this involved the pursuit of truth and the development of the individual through the study of the humanities — including languages, literature, poetry, theology, philosophy, art and history.
Among the greatest challengers to this intellectual tradition were secular and totalitarian policy makers who rejected the moral, spiritual and intellectual view of life and the idea that citizens should be empowered through an intellectual education.
It is no surprise that the likes of Karl Marx and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev would prefer an education that focused on the material benefits of technical education and ignored the larger intellectual and moral components.
Also, given their totalitarian government, it is little wonder that they did not want students to grow up to be intellectuals capable of independent thought.
If it is no surprise that the far left were among the greatest critics of the intellectual traditions of education in the west, neither is it a surprise that the greatest defenders of those traditions included great conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, C. S. Lewis, and Allan Bloom.
Their philosophies serve both the individual in the nurture of his/her highest human capacities and the society in its preparation of intelligent voters and leaders.
What is a great surprise to me is how recently many policy makers who profess to be both conservatives and Christians reject the historic Judeo-Christian philosophy of education and embrace the secular materialistic one associated with totalitarianism, communism, and their own arch enemies.
Recently, our own governor took a strong stand in favor of vocational training over the intellectual rigors of French literature. I have never studied much French literature, but I have studied quite a bit of Greek and Hebrew literature, and I can tell you that the intellectual discipline, skills, and the cultural context acquired through such studies is extremely valuable, both in analyzing contemporary issues and in the nurturing of one’s own soul.
I should mention that I am a professor and a Christian and, like every other professor I know, I chose to enter academe, not for the love of money or status, but because of things less tangible and more important — a love of learning and a care for young people.
That in itself suggests that we professors, Christian or otherwise, embrace that Judeo-Christian tradition in ways that current policy-makers seem not to understand. I would urge those policy makers to rethink their educational goals in light of their own professed commitments.
Wayne Willis is a professor of education at Morehead State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org