Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    The End of Education

    July 22, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    EDUCA’TION, n. [L. educatio.] The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

    Noah Webster, 1828

    I have been attempting to define education for the last seven years; essentially since I became a mother. There is so much talk out there in academia about methods, benchmarks, standards, and so on. Whether we realize it or not, all of these things presume an end. They have a purpose. It is the purpose, or the end goal of education that I am trying to solidify in my mind this week.

    Within the realm of secular education, the general purpose is to produce a worker for industrial society. This is why politicians like Obama are always tying education to jobs. It isn’t just that a good education makes a person more fit for a job {which is objectively true}, but that the child is viewed through an industrial lens as a cog in a wheel, a future worker for our brave new economy.

    This is not to say that every individual teacher within secular education agrees with this, but that all of the benchmarks and standards are created in order to pursue the goal of getting the child into an industrial job.

    Sometimes, there is a step in between that thinly veils this idea, so that the goal of education through high school becomes getting the child into college. Then, the goal of college is to either produce professors to perpetuate the existence of colleges, or to produce a worker for an industrial society.

    And so it goes.

    Might I digress for a moment and lament the fact that it seems to be unacceptable to go to college just to read a book? To take a class for the book list, or to simply soak up new ideas? This makes Wendell Berry sad, too.

    Education {and the child!} has only been defined like this the last century or so. It was a gradual change over time, but here we are, raising future little workers for the Great Society.

    However, this is not the true end of education, which is one reason why, even according to the new standards, the children “produced” by the schools tend to be inferior to each previous graduating class.

    The key concept is this: The end of education is to nurture the child into an adulthood in which he is fit for both kingdoms of human existence.

    I’m really putting myself out there to try and define the purpose of education in one sentence. Please don’t throw tomatoes; it took a lot of effort to come up with that sentence, and now I need a nap.

    Two Kingdoms

    By using the phrase “two kingdoms” I am alluding a bit to Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms of God, and a little bit to Augustine’s concept of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, but mostly to my own basic understanding of human existence.

    As Christians, we believe that this life is not all there is. We do not cease to exist when our heart leaves off beating. As one of my favorite songs says, it is not death to die. This reality must, must, must inform our philosophy of education. The child must be fit for both stages of existence, his life here on this earth, and his future life in eternity.

    If we limit education to one of the kingdoms, we will truncate the child. Current secular education does this by telling the child that this life is all there is, and that they must chase it like the proverbial wind, and pay no attention to that Man behind the curtain. But Christian education can focus too much on the secondary kingdom, and produce heavenly-minded sons who cannot accomplish the basic duties of this life like feeding and clothing their own families or sitting at the city gates and governing with wisdom.

    What to do About Nonchristian Children?

    I thought I’d raise this question myself, since it seems to be an obvious one. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot, and I think that this is where the Christian educational philosophers are lacking. I haven’t read any good dealing with the nature of the child of unbelievers, his family’s need for the Gospel, and how this impacts education.

    That nonchristian children will be educated differently from Christian children seems obvious, but I am not sure where I stand on the issue. The primary place where folks try to work this out practically is in debates raging around the acceptance of nonbelievers into Christian schools and universities.

    I am not prepared to really answer this question, but I think that if I’m going to give a blanket definition of education’s end, I need to at least try to apply it in a difficult situation.

    My thought is this: if we are to say that a primary goal of education is fitness for God’s kingdom, we will have to deal with unbelievers differently. Generally speaking, however, secular education has managed to bury God, ever since Nietzche killed Him, at least*. In burying God, the Right Questions, according to David Hicks, have been buried as well:

    [The method of the modern school] narrows the search for truth and the free exchange of wisdom by rejecting immaterial categories of thought, as well as the ancient notion of the mind’s participation in the object of perception. This method stamps students for life, establishing aprioric rules for perception, thought, and experience and inviting them to dismiss subconsciously the impalpable, the marvelous, the inexplicable.

    In general, if we are going to apply the “two kingdoms” mentality to children from unbelieving homes, we must still aim at the heavenly kingdom, too, and not the earthly only. Among other things, this will mean changing methods like Hicks is referring to, which is to say methods which close minds to the idea of God, or which relegate God into irrelevance, right from the start.

    Fitness for the Kingdoms

    When we say that education makes a child “fit” for the two kingdoms, we mean that he is ready for them, or appropriately prepared for them. One of the things I have to deal with each summer during my preparation times {these posts are a part of my preparatory studies, by the way} is the fact that our study cannot be exhaustive. Admitting this is the first step to planning a reasonable school year.

    All of this is to say that “fitness” does not mean the child knows everything. Graduation into the aforementioned adulthood will not mean that the child new adult is automatically capable of living as wisely and prosperously as a 40-year-old. However, it does mean that graduates should be suitable for their new task, which is to build a life as an adult, which implies not just a vocation, but also the ability to live wisely, practice virtue, and leave Father and Mother and take their places in newly formed families.

    Confidence and Humility

    Tied into the idea of fitness, I think, is a certain amount of confidence, but a confidence that is, ideally at least, not overconfidence. If we are going to discuss ideals, then I think we would also expect to see fitness include a measure of humility, not self-deprecating, but definitely reasonable. When I say reasonable, I suppose I mean realistic. The idea here is that the graduate realizes that they are just starting out in life, and that their childhood education might have ended, but that there is much that life has to teach them, and walking in wisdom will consist of an ongoing pursuit, not one which stops because there is no longer any assigned homework.

    An easier way to say this is that graduates are prepared to live a life of learning.

    On Adulthood

    Adulthood has been cheapened by the fact that many 20-year-olds are nothing but fully-grown children. We all know people like this. I remember when I was out and about, pregnant with my third child, and I came across the mother of a childhood acquaintance. I asked about her children, and she volunteered that one was not “ready” for marriage, and the other was married, but not “ready” for children. The way she said it made me think they were still children themselves, and yet we were on the brink of turning thirty at that point.

    Adulthood can, and should, begin at a certain age. I have good reason to believe that the age is twenty, but I don’t want to get distracted right now by explaining why. I could say “nurture the child into maturity” instead of “adulthood” to eliminate any negative associations, but then I realized I mean adulthood.

    Children will graduate from our school at adulthood. This is an age, and my hope is that our children will be ready for it when it comes. Conversely, children who are exceptionally mature will not be graduated early, or at least that is our conviction at this time. Here, I am using graduated in the broad sense, meaning “released from our authority.”

    Parents are called to parent their children, whether mature or not, until they are adults, whether mature or not, and so I suppose I have this clear picture of where my responsibility begins, and also where it ends.

    Why This Matters

    As I’m thinking this through, I keep coming back to the concept of Two Kingdoms. This is our balance. This is where it all comes together. This is why we can say with conviction that swimming school matters, and so does catechism. This is why we can say that it is as important for our sons to provide for their own families as it is that they learn to care for widows and orphans. This is why children will be taught to earn a dollar and save it, earn a dollar and spend it wisely, earn a dollar and invest it, and also earn a dollar and give it away. The Two Kingdoms make up human existence, and both of them matter. A proper education will consider them both, take seriously both, and nurture a fitness for both.

    * Note to Dr. King: I know that Nietzche didn’t really kill God.

    Read More:
    -At Google Books, you can check out Douglas Wilson’s The Paideia of God, and Other Essays. At least read the essay on paideia.
    -Willa has been studying up a storm this summer. Read her Educational Epiphany, Mining Parnassus, and Four Turn of the Century Educational Ideas for a sampler.
    Toward a Philosophy of Physical Education
    The Purpose of Singing in the Home

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Mystie July 24, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I have to admit, I am not a Bluedorn fan; I wasn’t compelled by much of their book and was put off by quite a bit of the undercurrents (family-centric “homers” as Wilson would say). Their opinion on literature in particular I disagreed with, and it was another instance where I think kids can be nurtured into maturity and ability to handle things much sooner than they think. Sheltering is for small children, but guidance comes into play more than sheltering at the latest by the logic stage.

    My husband thinks our sons should be sent off out of their parents’ house by 18 or 20 at the latest to make their own way in the world. We think it would be ideal for a young man to have a year or two on his own, not in his mother’s house, before getting married.

  • Reply Brandy July 24, 2009 at 5:52 am


    I agree with you. I don’t think it’d be best for Christian schools to do anything other than teach Christianly all of the time. I just have this angst over Christian education in general, and how the topic intersects with the fact that not everyone is a believer. What one of my questions is: If a Christian teaches children from unbelieving families in a purportedly secular environment, what should that Christian do? I think this is where refusing to bury the Right Questions would come in.

    It’s a complicated issue, no doubt.

    As far as adulthood goes…After I wrote all of that I started second-guessing myself. My parents were married at 17 & 19, and they are still going strong. So I found myself wondering what I’d do if I had a child wanting to marry at that age? And how does that work with, for instance, the Bluedorn family’s very compelling case for adulthood arriving at 20? I don’t know.

    I have read a number of novels in the same time period. I am still torn. I do wonder how it spiritually effects a boy to be outside of his father’s home when he is in his teens. I always think of the book of Proverbs, where the Teacher is taking the student out in the world, showing him its ways, and instructing him on Wisdom’s path within that world. I wonder what was lost by boys not getting that sort of introduction. Or did they get it, but just at younger ages?


    I am unsettled…

    With that said (or not said, at least not clearly), one of the benefits I see in homeschooling is the ability for boys to gain work experience and explore work possibilities at much younger ages. This is a huge advantage, and also takes care of a lot of that restless energy teen boys get from doing mostly nothing all their days.

  • Reply Mystie July 23, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    I also agree on your observations about adulthood. Children should be trained toward maturity and reaching adulthood, and by their high school years they should be apprentice adults — treated as adults and given responsibility as adults under supervision.

    Of course, I read a lot of history and fiction set in the 1500 & 1600 hundreds, when 12 was when children were apprenticed out and 15 or 16 was considered adulthood. 🙂 My husband and I married at just-barely-19, and I don’t think it would have made much difference if we’d married a year earlier. The trick for our boys will be finding a job that early. My husband had 6 years of full-time farm work during summers under his belt at 19. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie July 23, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    It’s a great definition, Brandy! I was skimming the post first, but the definition stopped me in my tracks. Concise and right-on.

    I’m not sure non-Christian children really *should* be educated differently, although of course non-Christians will educate differently. If, say, a church or a patron decided to start a charity school reaching primarily non-Christian children, the same assumptions should be taught from because it’s simply Truth. And all humans are created in the image of God. Of course, having non-Christian children memorize and recite catechism questions (which have the child speak words assuming they are part of the church and a believer), might not be wise. But truth is truth no matter who the student is, and I think it would be a disservice for a Christian, who knows the truth, to teach as though the truth wasn’t relevant or applicable to any student.

  • Reply Brandy July 23, 2009 at 9:57 pm


    Your comment made me think back to the idea of studying the humanities–that something about studying these things humanizes us, which is to say that it makes us more fully human. No matter what we believe, we are all created with certain natures and dispositions, and so it seems that all children should be educated with the nature of their humanness in mind.

    I think your cultural observations are really evidence of the postmodern rejection of plain, sterile modernism. Unfortunately, with postmodernism’s rejection of Truth, these kids end up with a lot of empty superstition instead of the richness of the divine.

  • Reply Willa July 23, 2009 at 5:55 am

    I like the “two kingdoms” phrase — very memorable.

  • Reply Rachel R. July 22, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    I think that your definition is superb, and I’m saving it. 🙂

    As for non-Christian children, I think that the idea of “burying the right questions” is right on target. Traditionally, it has been the very rare person who does not believe in the supernatural in some sense or another. So even a non-Christian would recognize the relevance of education related to both the natural and the supernatural. Their pursuit of it – and their conclusions – may be different from ours, but they would recognize the existence of both realms, nevertheless. But nowadays we pretend that the supernatural does not exist. (Ironic, given that our young people clearly are in pursuit of something they “wish” were out there, as evidenced by all of the television shows, books, etc. about vampires, psychics, and so forth.)

  • Leave a Reply