A charge against the medieval scholastics was that they were concerned with useless topics like “How many angels can dance on the head of the pin?” (even if this was never a real topic of study). The charge made by their opponents was that this was an arcane and useless topic of study, evidence of a wrong understanding of the purpose of learning and education. While wrong about the arcane nature of Scholastic inquiry, both the Scholastics and their critics understood something that modern audiences often forget: education is not value neutral. It is molding you into a particular type of person with a particular type of character.
In most people’s expectation, education is purely mercenary and utilitarian. I go to school to get good grades to get into a good college where I learn a skill that is easily transferrable to a job with a paycheck. Education serves the end of ensuring that I have food on the table and a roof over my head. This “job in a degree” approach works quite well for nurses, teachers, engineers, and others. But even education programs built around the liberal arts and humanities are structured to provide employment at the end. Given the rise of college debt, and rising cost of everything, this desire to support oneself and justify the investment of all those tuition dollars is a good and understandable goal.
At the same time, the perspective that sees education only as skills training or only as the transmission of facts and figures ignores the reality that we are not just a brain receiving information. We are a soul that needs cultivation as well. Good education helps us to consider not only what we are learning, but what we are becoming.
The purpose of education for Christians
Now, if you’re reading this, you may expect me to make the pitch that everyone should suddenly become an English or Philosophy major (As someone who majored in both, I would absolutely recommend this to all of you). But simply studying a set of texts or asking a set of questions is not enough. And our need for growth does not end with college. Further, some of the best time I had for reflection on what kind of person my education could turn me into was in my introductory course on civil engineering. The professor asked us to think through the ethics of what we were doing, noting that engineers tend to be strict rule followers. They don’t often rise to the higher consideration of questions of beauty and flourishing. He encouraged us repeatedly to do this and to consider how our education might turn us just into rule followers, concerned only with numbers, procedures, and the fine print. So this process of reflection is not confined to the humanities, even if those subjects are traditionally thought of as the place where it can happen most easily.
Education—whether formal in a school or just through personal curiosity—is oriented toward a particular end. The process of sitting down each day to do your math homework trains your brain to think in a particular way. In my own study as an English major, I often lamented that after my coursework I had to “unlearn” some of the ways that I had been taught to read fiction. My classes had taught me to dissect the book, rather than experience it. The process of education is always oriented toward a specific end, and we ignore that at our peril.
As Christians, that end ought to be to grow in love of God and neighbor. And it should make us the kind of people who are moved to worship and service. At its heart, education is not just the transmission of facts, but a process of discipleship.
When properly channeled and guided, the pursuit of knowledge can lead to new advances in technology, art that is beautiful, and treatises that plumb the human soul. Education need not be immediately utilitarian, but it should not be useless. If it causes us to twist inward, it only serves to amplify the worst parts of us. Rather, education that conforms to standards of goodness and beauty and truth, is an act of worship of God and stewardship of the mind given to us (Mark 12:30).
One of the most haunting descriptions in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is not a massive battle or a fire demon haunting the mines of Moria, but when Gandalf tells Frodo what happened to the creature who became Gollum. Gollum was originally “the most inquisitive and curious-minded” kind of person, interested in “roots and beginnings.” However, it was this burrowing that drove him deeper underground, even before he took the ring, to the point that “he ceased to look up at the hilltops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.” He was more interested in the dark and decaying world of the dirt and rot, than the beauty and fresh air around him. His curiosity and pursuit of knowledge, unstructured and devoid of a moral compass, ultimately twisted his soul inward on itself, to the point he could murder his friend. Under the influence of the magic ring which amplified those dark desires, he became twisted in both body and soul.
Christians should be as concerned with who they are becoming in their education as what they are studying. We are not collectors of facts, like so many curiosities for our cabinet of wonders. We ought to remember that pursuit of knowledge divorced from moral principles can cause us to treat others as mere tools to an end, much like the scientists of the Tuskegee Experiment. Rather, we should devote ourselves to those subjects that reflect and further goodness, beauty, and truth. A failure to do so could lead to a worse end than living alone in a cave, contemplating murder, and spinning riddles in the dark: We may actually come to believe that is a good place to be.