Rethinking the Purpose of Education


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If most politicians — on both left and right, “liberal” and “conservative,” Democrat and Republican — could have their way, “education” would mean little more than training docile cogs to enter the “workforce.”

Recall Marco Rubio’s quip three years ago that “[w]e need more welders and less [he meant ‘fewer’] philosophers.” (He recanted earlier this year, realizing that, after all, both are important.)

There is, of course, a great lie at the heart of this point-of-view — one in which employers are complicit — that leads untold numbers of young adults to amass untold amounts of debt in pursuit of a career for which, in fact, a four-year degree is unnecessary.

But there is another, more ennobling way of construing the function of education. Frivolous as it may seem to technocrats, it situates education firmly in much more fundamental questions about ourselves and the world that compel us to pursue knowledge of self and of reality, not first and foremost for the sake of a job but simply because such things are worth knowing, irrespective of vocation.

This way of thinking can be found in the tradition of the Italian humanist Giambattista Vico as interpreted by contemporary philosopher Donald Philip Verene. According to this strand of humanistic reflection, we might consider the goal of education to be threefold.

First, education aims at “wisdom.” What is wisdom? It is, in the opinion of the ancient philosophers Cicero and Seneca, “knowledge of things human and divine.” It is an ordered reflection on the nature of reality in the broad sense. It is reflection on how the parts comprise a whole, and it is knowledge of that whole. Wisdom knows the human arts and sciences, it has some sense of the way those are ordained and arranged by God, and it knows how to tell the difference between the two.

Second, education aims at “prudence.” What is prudence? It is improvisatory wisdom. It is the application of the contemplative knowledge of the whole to the practical considerations of everyday life. It asks, “What does wisdom require of me in this situation?” And it knows how to answer.

Third, education aims at “eloquence.” What is eloquence? It is not flowery speech. It is not purple prose. It is not verbal pyrotechnics. It is the cultivated ability to discuss a subject with intelligence from all angles and comprehensively. It is the transformation of wisdom’s knowledge into human speech. This third aim is not optional, but is demanded by our very nature. For man is a speaking animal, and if ratio, “reason,” compels us to seek the fellowship of other rational animals, no less does oratio, “speech,” compel us to find the company of other creatures as loquacious as we are. Eloquence, furthermore, makes what we have learned available to others and makes it known in a persuasive way.

There is little hope that such a view of education will make great waves with our current educational establishment. It is too impractical, offers few material or corporate rewards, and creates too much potential for thought and the unapproved opinions to which such thought will give birth. Still, perhaps it’s not too late to see that this view is more in keeping with the kind of beings we are — those whose heads are raised from the earth — and is therefore better attuned to our higher aspirations. We are men before we are employees. Perhaps it is time for our educationalists to acknowledge that fact.

E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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