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Thinking Out Loud

What is the Purpose of Education (part 1)

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 12, 2017

Purpose of Education part 1Trick question: "What's the purpose of education?"

According to generations of our ancestors, at least since Socrates queried his way through the streets of Athens or St. Augustine sat in northern Africa writing more books than anyone could possibly read, the purpose of education has been to make us knowledgeable and wise.

Education might also make us more humble, teach us to reflect analytically, cure us of the disease of dogmatic certainty, and make us conscious of the fact that the more we know, the more questions we will have. But first and foremost, a good education has been seen as equipping us with knowledge and wisdom.

No longer, I am often told these days, is this the purpose of education.

Politicians regularly get elected these days on the platform that the purpose of education is to get us a good job. And even some educational leaders today draw thunderous applause by parroting this message.

They are wrong.

Now, let me be clear about this: I believe that it is a good thing to have a good job, and most good jobs benefit from educated people doing them. Not only do I believe it is a VERY good thing to have a good job, I believe that it is among the most sacred joys of life to work; it is a joy and a blessing to employ the gifts God has given us to earn our daily bread, to support our families, to stand on our own, and to care for those who are less fortunate. I believe that work bestows upon a person a sense of purpose and human dignity and personal maturity that few other things in this life can equal. I believe, conversely, that a person without work is like a puzzle with some vital pieces missing. A person without work often longs for a sense of purpose and worth. Work is good.

The purpose of education, however, is not to get a job, not even a good one, not even a job to which we believe God has called us. This is especially true today, because no matter how well-educated and well-trained we might be for a particular job, it is entirely possible that this job won't exist in ten or fifteen years. And, even if the job for which we trained is still around, our own vocational aspirations might alter in a decade. Many of us these days will have a half-dozen different jobs before we retire, each requiring its own specialized skills and technical knowledge which will require additional vocational training and continuing professional development.

Something more is needed from education than job training, however. Something more has always been needed from an education. And this goes double for a theological education.

One needs the capacity to think well and to think deeply in a disciplined manner and to develop the capacity and skills to keep learning throughout one's whole life.

One needs the ability to know how to accumulate accurate knowledge and worthwhile information, certainly, and also the ability to rethink what has previously been learned in light of new information.

One needs a lively appreciation for this very wide world that belongs (every bit of it) to the God who loves it and everyone in it, and one needs opportunities to allow this appreciation to expand previous horizons so that the world becomes even larger.

One needs the confidence to adapt to changing environments, but also the wisdom and discernment to distinguish between fads and trends, potentially good ideas and potentially bad ones, to "hold fast to what is good," the received wisdom of the ages, not with tight greedy little paws, but loosely with generous and grateful hands.

And one needs the character necessary to delay gratification (what our grandmothers meant when they expected us to eat our vegetables before having our dessert) and to stay with something to which we've committed ourselves however onerous that task becomes (what Sir Winston Churchill expressed when he said, "When you're going through hell, keep going!").

These are all the good fruits of a good education. This is why, no matter what happens to job markets, a genuinely well-educated person has the capacity to adapt to changes, maybe even to stay ahead of changes, and maybe to be the author of important changes.

Cliché Alert: Change is one of the few constants you can count on in life.

But, cliché or not, it is true.

There are many cautionary stories, but I will tell you only one.

The venerable Eastman Kodak Company, which dominated the photography industry for generations, disappeared virtually overnight, and corporate analysts shook their heads in wonder. How was it possible for people who knew their industry so well to misread so badly the moment in which they lived?

The answer: This company was shackled to one technology (film) as another technology (digital) took over, without ever realizing that they were perfectly positioned to dominate the emerging industry by doing something they had always done well - innovation.

Unfortunately in this critical moment, they mistakenly thought their mission was to make film. In reality, their mission was to produce images. Because they couldn't imagine producing images digitally, they now make nothing. Keep in mind that photography hasn't stopped. The art of photography continues apace. Great photographers are still taking our breath away with spectacular pictures. But Eastman Kodak is gone.

A good education helps us learn to learn.

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