22 October
2010

What is the Purpose of Education?

View of Clare College and King's Chapel, University of Cambridge

Based upon an introductory presentation given at the first session of the Thomas More Institute’s reading group entitled ‘University: Training for the “Rat Race” or Forming Virtuous People?’.

Recent years have witnessed the increasing popularity of a new subject amongst the smorgasbord offered at colleges of further education in the UK. ‘Critical thinking’ is of course an excellent skill in itself (although one wonders why it needs to be taught as a separate subject rather than simply being inculcated through good academic practice), provided we remember that the critical faculty, when isolated from any solid philosophical foundations, is not actually able to teach us anything. William Graham Sumner, who coined the term ‘sociology’, wrote back in 1906 that:

‘Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty . . . A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded . . .They are slow to believe. . .Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.’

Yet we might ask, what are these men thus educated actually learning, apart from being able to offer witty dissections of other people’s arguments? Are men thus educated likely to become men with a profound grasp of anything at all, or simply intellectually arrogant airheads without any good ideas of their own? This is not to say that the critical faculty is not incredibly important, but we can only make judgements if we have a standard to judge things by. Men have a natural desire to attain to knowledge of the truth, something they expect to be able to achieve through education. If the purpose of education is not to help us to discover the truth, but simply to help us look clever in a relativistic world, then why bother spending so much money on it? Many readers I hope will be nodding their heads in agreement at such an expression of common sense, but the stumbling block for many comes when we consider the question of whether education needs to teach us anything beyond true facts.

Thomas Aquinas observed that when men have a passion in relation to something, it tends to drag them to excess or defect in their judgment about that thing. To give a rather specious example, many people today have all kinds of phobias. A surgeon who has ‘Ergasiophobia’ – defined as ‘a fear of work of any kind’, is likely to be severely hampered in his judgment regarding whether a chronically ill patient requires an operation, and may come up with foolish reasons (which seem reasonable to him) why the patient doesn‘t need an operation at all.

A silly example, but it illustrates the point that intellectually, we are all damaged goods. We might conclude that the solution is to adopt the kind of detached approach advocated by the ‘critical thinkers’, but this is not the classical approach to education advocated by the great thinkers of the western tradition, although rigorous analysis of others arguments is certainly part of that tradition. The classical tradition argues that we ought to have passions in relation to certain things, and that a good education consists just as much in teaching us to have the right passions in relation to the right things, as it does in teaching us knowledge. We do not call a man who does not love his own mother enlightened, but heartless. We intuit that, unless he has had an exceptionally horrifying upbringing, he is lacking something, both in his intellectual judgment and his moral fibre. C. S. Lewis sums up this second function of education in his seminal work The Abolition of Man when he argues that ‘[the] little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful’. A good education is not just an education which teaches us true facts about the world, but should also help us to develop the virtues necessary to live in accordance with the truth we come to know.

(Photograph © Christian Richardt, 24 October, 2004. No endorsement implied.)

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