Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Value of Education

What is the true purpose of education?  Is it, as many people seem to think, a program of instruction designed to prepare us to earn a living?  This is a reasonable assumption because we cannot depend on our parents to nurture us throughout all the days of our lives.  At some point, their work as caregivers is done and we, the beneficiaries of their largesse, must find our own way in the world. This understanding of education is derived primarily from an economic perspective of life. How do we plan to earn a living, to pay our bills, to meet our financial obligations?

 These are important questions. Most of the human population is not blessed with parents who set up trust funds for their children’s future happiness. We have to pay our own way. And the fact is, good paying jobs are not easy to come by. The marketplace is highly competitive. So, shouldn’t we focus all our time and energy on preparing ourselves to compete for the best jobs which are available?

This might be true if money was the only consideration. But, for some of us, it is not.

What exactly do we mean by education? In the vocational sense, education is the accumulation of a certain body of knowledge and skills which are considered necessary for success in today’s competitive world. But is this the kind of education that Henry Adams is talking about?


 Education in the classical sense implies having a foundation of knowledge in all areas of life that matter to a civilized person. Education goes beyond a mere accumulation of facts.  It implies an awareness of and desire for certain values, both moral and philosophical. The key word here is “civilized” which suggests a larger context than mere individual achievement.

Education is particularly important in a democratic republic where everyone shares the burden of self-government. Our responsibility to one another as citizens requires an understanding of certain principles such as justice, honor and freedom. No man is an island. We live in a community that requires a certain level of cooperation to succeed. And how do we measure success? Well, I think it means something greater than mere survival. Hobbes believed that cities (government) was necessary to ensure our survival, but he didn’t concern himself with other perspectives such as happiness. Is it the proper role of government or society to make us happy?

It sounds a little silly to say it, but many people today seem to think it is the responsibility of government to make us happy, or at least make us a lot happier than we would otherwise be living in nature. But public education is not designed to make us happy. It is designed to enable us to do our duty as free citizens, to participate in the running of our own affairs, both in the private household and in the public realm. This is where the idea of shared responsibility comes in. If people do not believe in the idea of shared responsibility (public virtue), then the mechanism of self-government will fail over time. When people lose respect for their institutions (such as the department of justice, or the office of public safety), then law & order will break down.

So, one of the ingredients of a proper education is to ensure that we do not lose respect or faith in our institutions or the laws that bind us together. Education is the development and awareness of what society requires for the common good.

But what about the private realm? Does education contribute anything to my desire for personal happiness?

Yes and no. The principles we hold dear (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…) are largely the remnants of the kind of education we have acquired. We seek in education that which we lack but which we cannot provide for ourselves. Thus, we turn to the wisdom or advice of those we admire. We put our trust in the good sense of those we emulate. In that respect, education is nothing more than a form of imitation. We follow in the footsteps of those who preceded us; in other words, those people we would like to become. This is how children learn. They become the very thing they admire.  

So, now the question becomes how should education be taught? How do we inspire others to behave in a particular way? Well, it isn’t complicated. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand a complex theory. It was stated long ago and remains just as true today:
“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Lead by example; not by proclamation. Isn’t this what Henry Adams was getting at?


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