What is education for and what would a good education look like? This is not a new question, nor is it necessarily a simple question. However, that does not mean that it is a question without an attainable answer.
Certainly parents want to equip their children to succeed in life. This is a noble goal. However it often remains to be asked further: Succeed at what? Gainful employment? Financial security? A place of respect or even power in the community? Certainly these can be important aspects of a life well lived. Yet, clearly these things, in and of themselves, can never suffice.
As young men and women enter the transition period from childhood to adulthood it would seem somehow insufficient or even mercenary to insist that education focus solely on the acquisition of a targeted set of skills within the range of what is currently predicted to be most highly marketable. Even on a practical level this seems insufficient. We see in modern culture and commerce an environment of constant and rapid change. Specialization is always at risk of obsolescence. More fundamentally, education is always forming the student as a whole person and therefore it must adequately encompass the whole of human life.
The ancient philosophers understood that education must begin from the maxim, “Know thyself.” This is the sort of knowledge that is good not merely for what it can help us to acquire in life but good for its own sake. Yet even in the realization of certain successes authentic knowledge will always leave us striving for something more. Pope Benedict XVI described this dilemma well:
“Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain.”
This is why the questions of education and academic inquiry ultimately come down to the human questions: What is the world? Who are we? What are we? What is our place in the world? What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Where are we going? Why are we going there?
An adequate education must also readily acknowledge that the ultimate questions call for an ultimate answer. Only the infinite will suffice.
What is the purpose of learning anything? What is it that man seeks? Knowledge is always a seeking after of some real end. Certainly freedom is central to this question. What humans always seek is freedom. On this point we would stress the need for a comprehensive and unlimited academic freedom: not simply a freedom of inquiry but an authentic inquiry properly directed towards real human freedom.
This of course brings forward yet another fundamental question: What is freedom? Is freedom merely the unhindered access to a myriad of choices? Or is freedom something less reducible? With Aristotle we would assert that the free man is the man who is most fully himself. With the Church we would assert that it is Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God who most “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” (GS 22) Jesus Christ shows mankind what it means to be free. With St. Ireneaus then we can joyfully declare that, “the glory of God is man fully alive and the life of man is the vision of God.”
And yet a school is only a natural institution. It must equip students for the world. A school must be judged on how well it prepares students to meet the challenges of the world as they actually find it with all of the various dynamics of human interaction. However it is the high calling of a purpose rooted in humility and always striving towards glory that informs the duties and ends of a truly Christian education. We would always seek to develop a strong Christocentric Anthropology that always sets before students their great calling and destiny in the light of Jesus Christ.
It is in this sense that education is properly structured to reject a false dichotomy which weights industrial or market skills against an emphasis on the Humanities and Liberal Arts. The various fields of academic discipline must always be held in concert with one another. Furthermore, it is for this reason that we would take up the task of comprehensive inquiry in every field with a sense of academic rigor, engaging studies as if it matters what we do. In this vein a school ought to foster a love for the world, particularly in regards to physical sciences, liberal arts and athletics. In doing so a school may then stand as a healthy community presence that operates with a commitment to excellence. What does a successful school look like? It will be a place that strives to cultivate happy students, provides encouragement for families, strengthens homes and serve the polis yet always maintaining an eye towards heaven.
Gloria Dei est Homo Vivens, Vita Hominis Visio Dei!