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Some Thoughts on Education (4) – What should students learn?

It is easy to talk about education in the abstract, but we are concrete people with limited time and resources. These limitations require us to ask: what should students learn?

I think it is important to begin by noting that there is a lot that one should learn, more in fact than anyone can learn in a lifetime. Students should go abroad and live in another culture. They should learn about other religions, both contemporary and historical ones. They should learn philosophy and economics. I think every student should learn a trade. And a musical instrument. Students should learn at least one foreign language fluently, as well as computer programming, and they should engage in athletic training—growing in strength, agility, swiftness, and endurance and they should gain a basic acquaintance with popular recreational sports. They should learn home economics and personal-finance. They should learn problem-solving and cooperation and develop their emotional intelligence. Consider for a moment how much of your job performance comes down to your ability to handle a complaint or to defuse anger in someone else or to make someone feel welcome or heard? All of these things are important.

So we return to our question: what should we be teaching in school? When thinking through this we must first recognize that when schools try to do everything they end up doing many things poorly. This phenomenon raises the additional question: should students specialize earlier? When they do, students miss out on exposure to valuable things that they won’t otherwise be exposed to. But on the other hand, it is very difficult to teach adolescents something that they are not interested in. In short, though the question of when to specialize deserves a more comprehensive answer, I do not believe there is a clear or obvious answer.

In determining what to teach I think there are two important factors to consider: what a person is and what a school can do that other institutions can’t do.

What is a person? If you believe that every person has an eternal soul, then it follows that the focus of education must be something like the development or growth of faith and virtue. It is faith lived out through the virtues that makes a full person. And one needs to be a full or whole person to be the parent, spouse, neighbor, worker, citizen, etc. that God has created one to be. At the center of this character development, in so far as it relates to formal schooling, is the humanities, for they develop one’s humanness.

When deciding what a school should teach the second question to ask is: what can a school do that other institutions can’t do? When you think of something like cooperation or teamwork, those can be developed pretty well in sports. When you think about something like how to have the emotional intelligence to defuse a tough situation, I recommend customer service work. I for one learned more about management making pizzas and taking inventory at Papa Murphy’s as a teenager than through any class I ever took at the university. Or consider: how do we teach one to work one’s hardest and do humble tasks that no one notices, day in and day out? This is an absolute hallmark of a good worker or leader. I feel like I was better prepared for leadership by wiping down tables at Perkins than in any class I took at law school. In short, the development of skills like teamwork and leadership or qualities like emotional intelligence are often better developed in other contexts. This does not mean that schools should not be seeking to develop them(!), but schools need to focus first and foremost on things that other institutions can’t do, namely academic instruction, and allow these secondary qualities to be gleaned as a part of academic instruction instead of in place of it.  

Schools cannot and should not attempt a full education. Schools provide a part of what a person needs for their development, but in trying to do more than they can they ultimately prevent themselves from doing what they ought to do. There was a great article in The Atlantic this summer about all the different things San Francisco’s government tried to do and how their focus on these things, along with a strict adherence to an ideology, completely undermined their ability to do the things the government should do: preventing crime and holding criminals accountable, minimizing red tape that makes it impossible for people to buy homes, keeping schools open so that kids can learn, etc. I think this is a great analogue in this to schools. Schools can become so focused on secondary issues that things that only they can do, like math, reading, grammar instruction, etc. suffer as a result.

Looking to schools for too much can distract us from seeing educational opportunities in other areas of life. My kids go to a great school, and yet what happens around our dinner table is often more important than what happens in school. At my dinner table we read books aloud, we read through Scripture and pray, I ask my children to come up with interesting questions that we can discuss. Even my younger children can engage. “Why did God create sin?”, my seven-year-old asked recently. I gave Augustine’s explanation, that sin is a lack or a corruption of something good, just like darkness is lack of light or a hole in his sock is a corruption of the sock, and he could follow it. And this is why you all have your children at Charis and not a boarding school! You want the school to do things you can’t do, but you recognize that God has called you to do much and you would be remiss in your duty to expect a school to do everything.

Even college is not comprehensive. Over a century ago the philosopher and historian Will Durant said that the goal of college is to learn how to read well and know what is worth reading. In other words, in his opinion, schools provide the beginning of an education, not the totality of it. Many people will periodically change jobs, but the character they need to be a pastor, parent, engineer, small group leader, a hospitable neighbor, citizen, etc.—that will never change. So while I don’t think there can be a definitive list of what classes ought to be taught or what books need to be read, a school should have at its core the humanities, especially history and literature and in helping students grow in faith and character it should focus on the types of academic instruction that it alone can provide.