The end of education

“The school should always have as its aim that the young man leave it as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist. This in my opinion is true in a certain sense even for technical schools… The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

There are ends, and then there are ends. The one being a fulfillment, the other, a failure. A large part of the crisis in education today is that the end of education, its fulfillment, is so mistaken in schools that they effectively make an end, or a failure, of education.

One major source of error is the misunderstanding that the end of education is utilitarian. The end of education, however, is not servile; it is liberal. That is, education is not for the sake of a career; it is for the sake of a character. The end of education is to bring men to a more perfect knowledge of themselves in the context of the highest realities; and when it deviates from that end, education ends.

Modern schooling strategies tend to apply broad-based benchmarks to arm students with 21st century skills before marching them off like money-making militants to collaborate, innovate, and compete in a 21st century global economy. The prevalent Common Core initiative is especially retrograde and degrading, developing and implementing comprehensive statistics together with assessment systems to measure student performance, to ensure that all students are equally provided with a program of clear expectations designed to meet the requirements of colleges and careers.

But the end of education, of true education, is not to get a degree or a job or a financial portfolio. It is a Marxist principle that man is determined by his technologies, his means of production, and an “education” modeled after commercial culture is not leading out (educere) but digging in. The world sorely needs to go back to school, as in, go back to schooling.

The aim and end of education is to form the whole person according to timeless, intrinsic values, rather than train a whole people to conform to a contemporary set of uniform, economic standards. Thus, education responds to the universal truths of man rather than to the specific particulars of the multitude. When first things are put first, the rest tends to fall into place. The Common Core standards are far too common to address the human core. It shrinks learning into a one-size-fits-all centralized set of informational sessions designed to achieve success by narrowing the focus to basic facts for measurable recall. This requires a reduction of the human person to an empirical calculus in a lowest-common-denominator paradigm—which is so far from the end of education, it only serves to bring an end to education.

Real education lifts the intellects of all students to the highest aspirations of man, encompassing a student’s capacity for imaginative and emotional appreciation of reality, as well as for analytic and scientific habits of mind. It is that cultivation of mind which, as Cardinal John Henry Newman says, “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” For the ancients, the end of action and education was the conformance of the soul to reality for the sake of wisdom. For the moderns, the end of action and education is the conformance of reality by means of technique. Excesses of technique and over-specialization, however, dull the desire to experience through the distance they create from reality and life and thereby dull the ability to learn.

Education pursues its end when it focuses on what all people should know as knowers—the truth. At its best, it assumes a Christian anthropology that includes a treatment of the human person as an image of God in possession of appetites, intellect, imagination, and will and thus cultivates wonder as the root of inquiry and the beginning of wisdom. At its worst, it cuts people off from divine and moral agency and is reduced to a set of objectives and operations geared towards gainful employment; thus, subordinating the higher inclinations of man to the acquisition of functional and workaday techniques. Such an “education” leaves students prepared for a limited life, and not prepared at all to live in the contemplation of truth for its own sake—which is the end of education. This goes beyond mere knowledge, rising above the accumulation of facts to a framework whereby all things might be understood in their proper relation to one another—which vision is not only the end of education, but the end of human life as well.

“The whole point of education,” says G. K. Chesterton, “is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards, by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions.” Education ascends to excellence in cultivating the virtues, leading towards that interior knowledge and exterior knowledge which comprehends the order of reality, both visible and invisible. To know the whole truth of things and to think well for the sake of living well is the excellence education strives for: to gain self-rule and the habit of virtue.

Modern education has, however, descended to considering man’s excellence as consisting in mere means rather than ends. The modern mantra is to work rigorously and vigorously for the sake of living well; which is to say, to gain self-sufficiency and the marks and accoutrements of worldly success. There is far more to living, however, than making a living. The current concept of worldly success is for the sake of economic wealth, while education’s end is for the sake of human excellence. Anything less than the latter educational end is a participation in the end of education.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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