Thursday, July 9, 2009

What is the end of education -- its object or goal?

Almost everyone interested in education has had something to say about this subject. Some educators will say that education helps prepare one for a trade, to make a living or make a mark in the world, or leave a legacy. However, it's easy to see that this is what the ancients called a "servile" use of education. It's making money or power or whatever more important than the learning itself. That would imply that once you get off work or earn the money or get the power, the learning is no longer of value. It's a coin that you trade for other coins.

But what if your education is no longer "useful?" What if you learn the computer language PASCAL and then it becomes obsolete? What about when you are dying and your training is no longer helping you make money? If you become a mother and stay at home to bring up your children, is your education suddenly worthless, so that it would have been more economical and sensible if you had just received the rudimentary basics of literacy to get your kids to school-age? What if you are a scholar who barely makes enough to feed his family and whose advances in the field are never recognized or are so slight that they barely make a discernible difference? Is your work less important than that of the plumber? Is it more important?

The tradition of liberal education seems to speak to these issues that come up in our modern world. Just to take a few that come up easily during a search : )

Robert Hutchins says:

“The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”
Dorothy Sayers says:

"Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils 'subjects,' we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning."

Do these quotes indicate a closed loop or a sort of division by zero? "The goal of education is being able to acquire more education" -- there isn't much good in that unless education is already considered a good. However, both Hutchins and Sayers (and the others who say similar things) ARE assuming in these brief quotes that learning is a good thing.

They are speaking about educating young people and they are speaking specifically about an "art" as opposed to a "science". "Art" in traditional language means something like "skill" or "learned capability". So grammar, dialectic and rhetoric in the "Trivium" were called "artes" because they were thought of as "ways" (via, "way, road, channel, course"). Servile arts are useful for another end aside from themselves (often a noble one -- medicine is an example and carpentry is another one hallowed by association); liberal arts perfect the free, rational man AS man.

As Sister Miriam Joseph writes in The Trivium:

Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.

John Henry Newman brings out a classical point when he writes:

Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward. And if this is true of all knowledge, it is true also of that special Philosophy, which I have made to consist in a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values.

and also:

Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.
Cicero says that :

" we are all of us drawn to the pursuit of Knowledge; in which to excel we consider excellent, whereas to mistake, to err, to be ignorant, to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace."

Also, that it is:

"....the search after truth. Accordingly, as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares, forthwith we desire to see, to hear, and to learn; and consider the knowledge of what is hidden or is wonderful a condition of our happiness."
The consensus of the liberal tradition has always been that there is something intrinsic in the human being that is perfected by knowledge:

Now, when I say that Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake, surely I am uttering no paradox, for I am stating what is both intelligible in itself, and has ever been the common judgment of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind. ......That further advantages accrue to us and redound to others by its possession, over and above what it is in itself, I am very far indeed from denying; but, independent of these, we are satisfying a direct need of our nature in its very acquisition; and, whereas our nature, unlike that of the inferior creation, does not at once reach its perfection, but depends, in order to it, on a number of external aids and appliances, Knowledge, as one of the principal of these, is valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end.

This brings up questions of what knowledge is. Not to mention, what human nature is : ), and whether this "perfection" that Newman talks about is a sterile one, the mental equivalent of a body-builder that devotes his whole day to maximizing the size and form of his musculature and ignores everything else.

But this post is long enough already so for now the key points are:

  • "ALL men by nature desire to know" (Aristotle's version of what Cicero and Newman said).
  • Education is the means by which men come to know. (So far, this doesn't necesssarily imply instruction -- more on that later)
  • The "means" of learning ("artes") are those which enable the student to be able to continue to learn throughout life. In other words, considering that we can learn either badly or well, it is better to be able to do it well. And the ability to learn well can be learned, and taught.


  1. Hhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...........

  2. LOL, Dawn! Thanks.. I guess... ;D

  3. I'm catching up on your posts (over 20 of them) since I've come back from vacation. It's taking a while, because I don't want to skim. And I always love a good conversation on the ends of education!

    Lots of good thoughts here, and also in your Plato posts below. I read the quote from Republic to my family last night at dinner. (It actually came up spontaneously, otherwise it never would have happened.)

    Just wanted to let you know I enjoy your summer studies ;-).


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!