Why not aim for happiness, if that’s our goal?
By pursuing happiness as its goal, a liberal arts education provides a mode of travel through the journey of life properly suited to the nature of humanity.
How can we get there, if we don’t know where we’re going?
This seems like a simple and obvious question. However, there’s a disconnect between the destination and the journey when it comes to education in our modern world. Forty-five states have adopted the Common Core Standards for public schools. Common Core lists three goals they hope students attain from journeying through their program: 1) college preparation, 2) career preparation, and 3) communication of real-world expectations. Many Catholic schools, whether they’ve adopted Common Core or not, aim for these destinations, too. While they are worthy objectives, are they all we should expect from 12 years of education?
Ultimately, I think parents just want their kids to be happy. I would even venture to guess that the designers of Common Core agree that this is the real goal. So why is “happiness” not our stated and primary goal?
I suggest that there are two reasons public and most private schools do not overtly address “happiness” as the goal of education: (1) The inherent limitations in modern education are not suited to promoting “happiness,” and (2) the underlying philosophy of most schools is actually about something else.
From a Christian worldview, happiness is synonymous with “happiness in God.” That is, as Boethius recalls with the help of Lady Philosophy, true happiness is found in God. Made in His image and likeness, our souls are meant to reflect His divine order. The soul, oriented to God, in love with God, and subject to His will, is happy. Now, how in the world would Common Core Standards teach and test for that?
When most professional educators can’t agree on “God” at all, how can they be expected to agree on what it means to be “happy in God”? What can’t be measured can’t be taught using the methods of modern education, steeped as they are in data and metrics.
Further, there is another prohibiting factor: Readiness for college, career, and the real world, is actually the goal of the ideology behind modern education. Based on a utilitarian philosophy, a successful education is one in which the school prepares the student to be “useful” to society, irrespective of the student’s “happiness.” Not so in the classical mode of education.
A liberal arts education is a means of teaching the student to be happy by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. God is the Origin of all goodness, truth, and beauty—and that means loving Him and ordering one’s life accordingly. Based on an Idealist-Realist Philosophy, the classical model recognizes “happiness in God” as something real, identifiable, and truly worthy of pursuit.
This doesn’t mean classically-educated students aren’t prepared for college or career or that they don’t comprehend real-world expectations. On the contrary, students of the liberal arts are often more prepared and understand the real world better than their modern counterparts. They are better able to understand the fullness of reality. Their college and career preparations are made within a framework of loving God and—this is a critical distinction—of knowing themselves. At the heart of a liberal arts education lies the student’s engagement in the “great conversation” with the most penetrating minds of western civilization, and with personal experience of truth, goodness, and beauty in countless ways: music, poetry, dance, drama, and sports, to name a few. On a daily basis, these encounters shape their affections, order their souls, and encourage self-reflection.
As a result, the students receiving a liberal arts education are more likely to accurately assess their own strengths and weaknesses and to make wise choices about the next step. Students recognize college and career as a means to happiness, not as ends in themselves.
By pursuing happiness as its goal, a liberal arts education provides a mode of travel through the journey of life properly suited to the nature of humanity. God made us in His image so we may love Him and enjoy the wonder of creation, not to be machines who are merely “useful” to society.
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