Political ideologies obviously wrap up education around specific policy reforms or even powerful quests to double down on the status quo. Of course, debate over an important issue is not a bad thing. And it is essential to note that the lack of freedom for many individuals and families muddles or severely distorts the purpose of education. But the clamoring and back and forth over things like education spending, federal involvement, or school choice can distract us from asking deeper questions about the the true purpose and intent of learning. I believe this foundational question is something many conservatives, and really all people should ask more within their life.
Now that I have a son, albeit a little over eight months old, I’m revisiting that important question at a deeper level too.
Sometimes we think of education as a tool for making money or assisting in helping to cultivate a comfortable life, and it can aid in some of those things. But it’s obviously much more than securing income or a more esteemed status of employment. I used to think of it as another way to achieve what one might call “worldly” dreams or ambition.
I’ll let a couple of notable conservative voices answer before I very briefly address the question. The first passage comes from the intellectual Russell Kirk and the second from former President Calvin Coolidge. The Imaginative Conservative deserves credit for highlighting the Kirk quote first taken from a book of lectures “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written on the Sky.”
The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all in all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state. In all our talk about serving “national goals” and “citizenship education”—phrases that originated with John Dewey and his disciples—we tend to ignore the fact that schooling was not originated by the modern nation-state. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.
Coolidge’s words are a very short quote he offered in a speech on the topic:
Without the presence of a great directing moral force intelligence either will not be developed or, if it be developed, it will prove self-destructive. Education which is not based on religion and character is not education. It is a contradiction in terms to suppose that there can be any real intelligence which does not recognize the binding force of right, of justice, and of truth.
The importance of education has recently been highlighted quite well by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse in a lecture at the Federalist Society last year where he talked about a “crisis of civic catechesis.” Sasse addressed the civic illiteracy of young Americans and what that means for our Republic. It’s not good of course.
Beyond that, it is vital for all of us to reconnect again in understanding and pursuing the true purposes of educating the mind and soul. When I was in seminary, I started to comprehend at a deeper level that education is really about developing essential character traits and a moral center and fabric that point to higher truths. The great English writer John Milton even noted that “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright,” and out of that knowledge to “imitate” and “be like” our Creator.
When we look to the roots of what education and learning means that will inevitably strengthen the policy debate. It certainly gives conservatives added confidence in their position and more importantly, a clear and firm direction where we are headed as a people.