Learning the Limits of Education

It’s worthwhile from time to time for educators to sit back and evaluate the limits of their work. Much attention is given to what education can do - and it can do a lot. Just as much attention, however, should be given to the places where education (particularly post-secondary education) is less competent. Postsecondary education is unable to:

1. Make facts enough
Charles Dickens gives us Professor Thomas Gradgrind, a stickler for the facts. “Facts alone are what is wanted in life,” he declares. When Gradgrind calls on a new student, Sissy Jupe, to tell the class about herself, she reveals that her father is a horse trainer. The occupation is beneath Gradgrind. Attempting to expose her ignorance, he demands that Sissy tell the class what a horse is. She responds, but not to his satisfaction. He scolds her for not providing any facts about horses before turning to another student who provides the correct answer: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth, and twelve incisors…” The irony is, of course, that Sissy knew more about horses than any in the class, least of all Gradgrind. The fact is, the facts only give us a partial view of reality.

2. Replace local church community
University education, as conceived in the United States until roughly the 1940s, was a cooperative work of the church, culture, and the university. The church incubated potential citizens, the university honed them, and culture provided the public life where students contributed to the common good of the society. Something shifted. During the 1960s many university campuses became hotbeds of new ideas about personal freedom. Traditional authorities (like the church) were overthrown. By the 1980s the highest goal imagined by many colleges or universities was to give students the skills they needed to become liberated consumers. Christian colleges and universities, by and large, have mirrored the approaches of their secular counterparts while requiring students to take a few courses in apologetics, Bible, or theology. This is inadequate. What’s needed these days is not an army of liberated consumers who can prop up the nostalgic notion of the common good from “a Christian perspective.” What’s needed are thriving communities capable of engaging and weathering the rigors of an increasingly fragmented society.

3. Replace practice
When Jesus refers to himself as “the way,” he places himself in the Wisdom tradition – that long and venerable tradition peopled by the likes of Job, David, the preacher of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, and personified by lady Wisdom. To live in the way of wisdom is to live with the awareness that no theoretical knowledge is complete until it has been performed. Christianity is not merely theory about God without any change of behavior. It is also a way: a set of attitudes, skills, and practices learned under the guidance of the master teacher. This takes practice-practice outside the classroom.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “No man who worships education has got the best out of education ... Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.” Every form of education has its goals and limits. An education that fails to grapple with these is perhaps least prepared for the task of education.

Kyle Stoltzfus
FBTI Academic Dean