Here at the beginning of a new school year – the start of another year, the beginning of a never-to-be-repeated moment in your child’s life – it is good to talk about the end. Not the end of this year, which will be here in just a couple of ticks of the clock. The end of the year – as in, the purpose of the year. We begin another year, and what is the end of the year? Why are you educating your children? I’m not asking merely about your immediate goals for your children (learning how to read, getting a high SAT score, seeking a career, earning money, etc.). I am asking about ultimate motivations. Why educate at all?
Over seven hundred years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux taught that love is the greatest motivation for education. “There are many,” he suggested, “who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.”
St. Paul wrote, “Through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). This is to say that to love your neighbor is to serve your neighbor. If our children will be educated in order to edify and serve others in love, then service should be just as much a part of the curriculum as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students should be trained to serve their fellow students, their teachers, their families, and ultimately their community. Their training in service will habituate them to look beyond themselves and their own narrow concerns to the concerns of others. This is what our Lord modeled for us in His life and commands us in His Word.
Author David Hicks wrote in his classic work Norms and Nobility that “the purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” Knowing is not enough; knowing needs to eventuate in doing, in serving others, whether that service is holding the door open for a fellow student or raking the school’s lawn or entering the U.S. military or becoming an architect.
Peter H. Vande Brake, in an article titled “Cultivating the Affections,” wrote, “If we want students who will be servant leaders, then we need to train them through a liturgy [a practice that shapes our habits] of servant leadership. We need to give them the opportunities to serve others. We need to find ways to help our students practice humility and instill a strong work ethic. We need to give students the chance to lead their peers in authentic ways. In order for students to act in accordance with what they know, they must be trained to know how to act. This involves the mind, but it also involves the will and the body. If our schools are only interested in training the minds of our students, then we are cheating them out of the most important facets of an education.” I hear a warning in that last sentence: beware chopping education down to a merely intellectual endeavor, but instead see true education as affecting the whole person: body, mind, soul.
Poet John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island” and warned that each of us is “involved in mankind,/And therefore” we never need ask “for whom the bell tolls” because “it tolls for thee.” As human beings, bearers of the divine image, and children of God in Christ, each of is joined to each other. Our children are being educated in a community – a web of relationships – where they will be taught how to respect authority, develop friendships, show compassion, use wise words, contend for the truth, and learn humility. These things are the things that matter most.
So as we begin this new year, join me in pondering the end of the year. What is your vision for your children?