I had a conversation over Thanksgiving break with my teenage niece about college and careers. Though she still has plenty of time to decide on the rest of her life, she’s already being bombarded by well-meaning (we hope) adults who insist she must think about what kind of job she will get and how much money it will make and how quickly she can zip through her 4 year undergraduate studies if she takes enough AP courses. I realize all of those are very rational and important concerns, but it brought to my mind something that’s bothered me for a few months now about our general approach to education.
I’m a big proponent of the benefits of a liberal arts education. In other words, I’m opposed to the idea of education being solely or even primarily a means to an end. I realize this is basically how we justify all of education. You go to school so you can get a job when you graduate high school or college. You go to grad school so you can make more money in your field or be more valuable when your boss is going through a round of layoffs, etc. As understandable as those arguments are, it makes me quite sad that we’ve reduced education down to a checklist, a stop along the way to where we actually want to be going. What happened to the idea of education for its own sake?
It may behoove us to remember that universities began not as a means of forcing teenagers to figure out what to do with their lives but to give teenagers a broad curiosity and interest in the world, out of which they might find gifts and talents they’d like to continue using throughout their lives. Certainly, this was during a time when only the aristocracy sent their children to university, and those children didn’t really need to think about things like annual salaries or health care benefits. I realize the argument could be made that this kind of education is a luxury some cannot afford. But I fear we’ve swung too far in the other direction, and it would do us well to head back to the middle.
Learning for learning’s sake is rarely if ever touted these days. We’ve created a nation of students who cram facts in their heads and perform on tests and write essays and entrance exams without actually being engaged in the study of the thing itself. The beauty of math, the magic of science, the rhythm of language and literature. I wonder if we’ve taught our children so well to perform that we’ve forgotten to teach them to enjoy.
What on earth does this have to do with faith? Well, it seems to me that if we want to cultivate a generation of people who are thoughtfully engaged in the world, who see the world with eyes of interest and wonder, it’s high time we give some space to the idea that learning about the world is worthwhile in and of itself. Not for a grade, not for your transcript, not for the honor roll, not for state funding. Just because. This is a really handy thing for those of us who think it’s a good idea to get together once a week to enjoy God together in purposeful ways and read a book about a whole bunch of people we don’t know. Worship isn’t utilitarian or efficient- at least it shouldn’t be. Worship is something you do not only to help yourself become more like the Christ you worship but also for its own sake. This is why we can say that even if you didn’t “get something out” of church on a given Sunday it was still good that you went. Worship for its own sake (slowly) cultivates us into a certain kind of people. And I’d argue it’s the same kind that can mull over a painting’s details just for the beauty of it or read a book entirely for pleasure. We become people who can say, like our Creator, “It is good.”
So maybe we should stop telling kids and teenagers that education is only or even mostly something you do to get something else, and instead say it’s a way we find joy in this amazing and lovely world in which we live, a world which God loves and calls us to love. And maybe, if we do that, we’ll see a generation find its way back to a broader sense of vocation and calling, where their “greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need,” as Frederick Buechner so beautifully said.