As a teacher, students frequently ask me, “Why are we learning this?” Sometimes they legitimately want to know how to apply the knowledge they are acquiring to everyday situations. They humbly admit a lack of understanding. More often than not, though, the question reveals grumbling spirits. They don’t want to put in the hard work needed for understanding because they have deemed it unimportant and unnecessary in their lives.
When a student first asked me this question, I was baffled. I walked into the classroom with all of the ideals of any first-year teacher. All I needed, I believed, was a well-written lesson plan and a passion for my subject, and I’d have students who loved literature and grammar and writing. So when my students weren’t inspired by me to begin quoting Shakespeare and learn the etymology of words, I began asking my own questions.
The goal of education
Why should they learn? Why do we send our children to school?
Some curriculum will help them survive. They need to know how to read so they can self-administer medicine correctly and read signs that warn them about danger. They need to be able to use math so they will know if they overpaid for a gallon of milk or how much they’ll pay in interest on a loan. They also learn so they can make wise and informed choices. History, health, and psychology can help them vote well and take care of themselves and relate to others. Some areas of study make them more interesting people. Literature and philosophy and the study of nature can expand their worlds and wonder. And of course, graduation can lead to more job opportunities and a better quality of life.
But is that it? Is there no better purpose to school and education than the utilitarian goal of success in this material world?
The Westminster Catechism says the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. If this is the primary reason for our existence, shouldn’t our aim for education—the way we inform our minds and hearts—be just as high? Good grades, admissions to prestigious colleges, and even successful careers are meaningless in comparison to the high purpose of an education that brings the one true God glory. The former are important for today; the latter is important for eternity.
Education is so much greater, so much higher than acing the final exam every year and finishing with a diploma. Grades and degrees aren’t the goal of education; knowing God is. Accolades and awards aren’t the purpose of time in the classroom; ordering our affections and loving truth is. Our achievements are not the point; bringing glory to God is.
Regardless of the form of schooling—public, private, or home—we should educate our children that they might live out the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We hope all Christian parents would agree in theory, but when there is content that has to be learned, classes to pass, and diplomas to earn, how do we help our children succeed in school while growing in love and affection toward the living God?
1. Emphasize virtue over achievement
Unfortunately, there is an emphasis on test scores and grades in our society. Sometimes good grades are a sign of hard work, but not always. Some children have a natural propensity toward school, and they earn good grades with ease. Others struggle to get average grades and will never win academic awards despite their high level of effort. But if our children are working diligently and faithfully, we can praise their efforts. If they are displaying kindness, goodness, and gentleness, we can acknowledge the work of the Lord in their hearts. If they respond with love, joy, peace, and patience to others, we can thank them for considering others.
2. Teach our children that all work is unto the Lord
Whether they are learning to read or graphing rational functions in Algebra, our children need to know that their work is for the Lord. Even at a young age, they can learn to work in a manner that is pleasing the Lord. They are called to rejoice and told not to grumble or complain.
3. Find ways to connect their learning to service and growth in the faith
As my children grow, there are new ways each of them can serve our neighbors. They can read to our blind friend across the street. They can make a meal to take to others after surgery or the birth of a new baby. As they get older and consider career paths, they should connect that they can use their field to serve others.
Their learning can help them grow in their faith. History reminds us of the sin of man and of God’s faithfulness to his people. Science teaches us about God’s majesty, order, and creativity. The arts point us to the beauty of God. As they learn to think and read critically, they can become more capable students of God’s Word. Their ability to communicate can help them better share the gospel with others.
4. Model humility and repentance
The more we learn, the more we should realize we don’t yet know. Education should produce humility rather than a puffed-up spirit. Our weaknesses and inability should be a reminder that we have an omniscient, omnipotent God. As we are reminded of this truth in our own lives, we can model humility and repentance to our children that they might grow in it too.
The summer is a great time to evaluate how the past year of our children’s education has pointed them to Christ. The blueprint in Deuteronomy 6 for teaching our children the Word of God in every moment of life shows us that education is discipleship. Our children won’t connect how school is helping them love God better if we aren’t constantly pointing them to the Lord. The Creator, who made our beautiful world, designed our intricate bodies, and sustains all things, is the inventor of language, math, science. He is the ultimate artist, the living Word, and the author of history. There is no realm of education that does not belong to him.