Purpose of Education

Purpose of Education

Purpose of Education

“Education is the movement from darkness to light.”

                                                                                                                      Allan Bloom (1930-1992)

                                                                                                                      The Closing of the American Mind, 1987


With ten grandchildren, the two oldest of whom will be off to college in the fall of 2019 and the youngest only eight years behind, the state of higher education has been on my mind. Much has been written about the need for greater emphasis on STEM classes – that China and India outstrip us in graduates each year in those fields. We read of cryptocurrencies and cyber theft and recognize the need to understand the former and thwart the second. There are students talented in these fields, and they should be encouraged. Less, however, has been written and said about the decline in humanities and the concomitant attenuation of morals, values and character that are their progeny. When a student at Morehouse College in 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote for the college newspaper: “The function of education is to think intensively and critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

No country in the world has colleges and universities so well endowed, and so highly regarded as does the United States. Yet, too often, university administrators see their job as letting students design faddish majors that reflect a cultural-relevancy, advocating diversity in all ways, excepting ideas and preparing students for what is their view of a multi-cultural and globally-competitive world. There have been consequences.

One is the politically-correct model they follow. Students are deprived of needed contrary and, at times, uncomfortable, speech and opinions. Thus, there is no open and free debate. Insularity in a world of seven billion people, awash with myriad philosophies and political system, does little to encourage curiosity, increase understanding, reduce arrogance and hone rhetoric. Another consequence is an emphasis on STEM that supersedes humanities. Certainly, we need students to use their creative talents to invent new products and services, but we also must consider the consequences, the “whats” and “whys” of their creations. Why is it needed and what might be its longer-term effects? Much of life is learning to balance and temper the proven versus the unproven, dreams from reality. Humanities help. History teaches perspective. Literature provides insights. Philosophy allows for nuances. Religion makes us think beyond ourselves. Students need to consider all sides of an argument, even to question the wisdom and motives of their instructors and professors. When 90% of the teaching and administrative staff is of one political mind-set, prejudice sets in. And, as Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote in National Review, “…bias is a force multiplier of ignorance.” Why, for example, should trigger warnings and safe rooms be necessary if the cloistered student is to become an unsheltered working woman or man? Do such actions prepare them for the world, or do they only offer cocoon-like protection for the duration of their time at university?

There is a fundamental purpose (and need) for education that stretches beyond math and science, which are subjects more germane for graduate and trade schools. Students should first read and learn classics that have stood the test of time. They are the threads that bind generations. Students should study philosophy and learn economics. They must read history to understand how governments have evolved, to learn from other’s mistakes and successes. They should read poetry to appreciate the beauty of words. They must think independently and communicate effectively. The world is in constant flux, but basic principles of morals, ethics and character do not change. Even vivid imaginations cannot predict the positives and negatives of artificial intelligence: which jobs will be created and which replaced. In a recent issue of National Review, Justin Dyer and Ryan Streeter recently wrote, “As artificial intelligence increasingly performs STEM-specific tasks, greater expectations should be placed on the liberal arts to cultivate the creativity and curiosity that robots cannot do.” Minds must be prepared for an unknowable future.

As well, a good education allows people to live rich and rewarding lives – not only in the material sense – but ones in which literature, art and music can be appreciated; to understand other cultures and people; to know one’s heritage and to recognize there are religions whose values do not match ours; and that a moral sense, while not universal, does exist. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” Theodore Roosevelt went further: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, David Books referred to a metaphor I have used – that the purpose of life is the journey, not the destination. While agreeably reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” Mr. Brooks raises the question that such attitudes lead to narcissism and away from social connections. Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institute wrote an article, “The Origins of Our Second Civil War,” in which he laments the role of higher education that has fostered debt, radicalism and intolerance, and an absence of shared knowledge, of works like the Bible, Shakespeare, writers during the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers. He concludes that religious and spiritual reawakening are crucial to reforming the university. He suggests that we confuse technological advancement with improvements in the human condition. “…technology,” he writes, “is simply the delivery pump…That water can be delivered ever more rapidly does not mean it ever changes its essence.”

Albert Einstein allegedly once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”  A liberal education should cultivate curiosity. It is the fuel that fires the brain. A good education should make one less certain they have all the answers and more eager to question, to debate and to learn. My father, sitting at the dining room table, would talk to my brother and me. There were times when we would find his ambivalence unsettling: “on the one hand, on the other.” However, we were being taught to question our conclusions. Aristotle allegedly said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” You hold a thought or an opinion in your mind, weigh it, view it from different angles, challenge it and either accept or reject it. The university should urge its students to question assumptions, and debate assertions, no matter their ubiquity, popularity and province. The university should encourage and sate curiosity. Doing so, the student will satisfy Socrates’ admonition to know thyself. Shakespeare has Polonius say something similar to Laertes in Hamlet: “This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst then be false to any man.”

The papers are filled with myriad examples of graduates of our best universities confusing fiction with fact, praising their elite education, while making outrageous and erroneous statements. Should not colleges, before graduation, require students pass an exam, demonstrating proficiency in history, literature, geography and government, showing to the world and future employers they will be valued citizens and workers, and to their parents that four years on campus was worth the $200,000 to $300,000 expended?

In his book, 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes of the struggle between order and chaos. We require rules, values and standards, but “Order can become excessive, {while] chaos can swamp us.” It is the search for balance, for the dividing line between the two, that should be the goal. A sound education helps. This is what I want for my grandchildren: An education that provides the tools for considered decisions, to take responsibility for their own lives, to live without bias, to understand that justice is blind, to be unafraid of contrary opinions, to appreciate beauty, to find meaning and to be content with who they are. That pathway blossoms with education, whose roots feed on the humanities. And that, in my opinion, is the purpose of education.



This article was first published on Thought of the Day.

Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams
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