It is a common habit to talk about (or, what is even less pardonable, to argue about) things without defining them. Before discussing various facets of education we must first define that education is.
Our English word education comes from two Latin words that mean “to lead out of”. This begs the question: to lead out of what? In short, to lead out of ignorance into knowledge, out of selfish immaturity to magnanimous maturity, out of folly into wisdom, and out of vice into virtue.
The Latin word for student is discipulus. Our words disciple and discipleship are derived from this. When we talk about discipling someone, we want to form them in a certain culture, to help them develop souls that not only do or don’t certain things, but rather love and enjoy certain things. And this is the ultimate goal, the final purpose, the telos of true education.
Notice I write about forming the soul and not filling or training the brain.
Everyone talks about educating the whole child, but we cannot do that unless we know what a person is and what he is made for. We are not empty vessels to be filled; we are not intelligent animals to be trained, but rather image bearers of the triune God made to know and enjoy Him forever. John Ruskin was on to this when he wrote “The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things—not merely industrious, but to love industry—not merely learned, but to love knowledge—not merely pure, but to love purity—not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.”
If I had to boil down what motivates me, what gets me out of bed every day, why I devote the majority of my waking hours to the education of our children, I would say that my ultimate goal and the goal of Charis is not to graduate students that know or can do certain things, but rather people that are a certain way—people of faith, love, virtue, and character that love and value what is true, good, and beautiful. I want my students to someday become parents that will love, care for, and instruct their children in the Christian faith; workers that will be dependable, reliable, honest, and innovative; neighbors that will be hospitable, generous, and kind; citizens that will be wise and courageous; and Christians that will love sacrificially, lead humbly, and serve God faithfully.
To put it pithily another way, while the focus of many schools is on expression our focus is on helping students to develop a self worth expressing. (Note: this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be taught how to express themselves—indeed they need to know how to communicate clearly, concisely, persuasively, and winsomely, but knowledge, instruction in clear thinking, and moral formation need to come first.)
This view of education might seem novel or even radical, but it is how most people in most times viewed education.
Consider the sixteenth century French essayist Montaigne. He said that all his life (for his life was one of constant study) was “to make this self of mine worth something” and that the goal of all his learning was “to teach me not to write but to act.”
Quoting a few ancient authors together Montaigne summarized the goal of education thus. An education should teach the student “What he may justly wish for; that money is hard to earn and should be used properly; the extent of his duty to his country and toward his wants; what God orders him to be, and what place he has assigned to him in the scheme of things; what we are and what we shall earn when we have overcome. Teach him what knowing and not knowing means; what valor is, and justice and temperance; what difference there is between ordinate and inordinate aspirations; slavery and due subordination; license and liberty; what are the signs of true and solid happiness; how far we can flee from hardships and how we can endure them.”
Montaigne went on to add, in his own words, “Let our tutor remember the object of his trust, which is less to stamp the date of the fall of Carthage on the boy than the behavior of Hannibal and Scipio; less to stamp the name of the place where Marcellus died as how his death there showed him unworthy of his task.”
Education is not the simple training of the body, for we are more than bodies; it is not the mere transfer of information to the brain, for we are more than computers. As Peter Kreeft put it, “don’t ask what you can do with philosophy, ask what philosophy can do to you?” Students are not things to be acted upon, but persons—and this entails much. We are eternal beings made to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Any system or theory of education that does not start with this fact is sure to go awry.