Education – For What?
We spend a lot of our lives getting an education, especially when we’re young. Think of those years at home, learning to eat, crawl, walk, and talk. The years at primary school, learning to read, write and do maths. The years of secondary school, polytech, and university... It seems like it will take forever (or it did, to me, when I was 10 – I wrote an essay about it and probably caused my teacher to think I was a very odd girl). These years are a huge investment of time, and money. Probably you, and more especially your parents, made big sacrifices for your education. Maybe your Mum went out to work at some part-time job she didn’t really enjoy, just to bring in the extra income needed for you to go to a Christian school. You yourself may have put in hours after lectures, in the weekends, maybe even late at night, earning the money to pay for university tuition fees. Wearily you plodded on, while your non-uni friends enjoyed their leisure – and went shopping! What was it all for? Were you sure it was worthwhile? How do you know?
A Clear Sense of Purpose
We need a clear sense of purpose to keep us going in any task in life that is difficult, takes time or requires sacrifice to make it happen. There’s no doubt about that! Easy, pleasurable pursuits are what we fall back into when we can’t be bothered with effort or deferred gratification. If we’re starting to wonder whether we’re just “doing time” at school, the incentive to stay there gets very hard to drum up. It’s at times like this that it’s important to ask the sorts of questions that explore the purposes of education. We need to ask things like: What is the desired result? What is my education supposed to equip me with? Turn me into? If I can see the goals clearly, and can agree with them, then I’m much more able to do what it takes, and to invest the time required, to achieve them.
But of course the answers to such questions depend very much on our philosophy of life. If we believe that living is for pleasure and happiness, then we’ll seldom bother with extended hard effort, unless someone can convince us that the effort will in the end produce greater pleasure. (And it’s not easy to convince hedonists of this!) If we believe that life is all about wealth, success and power, then a stronger case can be made for education: certain qualifications will bring us these. But for the Christian woman, life has quite different meaning and purpose; and we are all aware of this. We need to ask ourselves what difference this meaning and purpose make to the way we are educated – and to the way we approach our education. These may be some questions you have never really asked yourself before!
The World’s View of Education
But first, and in order to set our questions in perspective, it will be useful to devote a little time to exploring the world’s view of what education is for. In the early and middle years of the twentieth century people in the western world had generally discarded the biblical view of man’s sinfulness, and believed instead that human beings were basically good. The movement toward democracy in the nineteenth century had freed many European peoples from oppression; and in this new environment intelligent men and women could apply technology to solving any problems that remained. It is no surprise, then, to find that according to this view of the world, education was vitally important. (Education was an obvious way to solve practical, tangible problems). Theorists such as John Dewey (1859-1952) advocated a new education designed for the ordinary boy and girl, to fit him and her for life as a useful adult. Away with the obsolete classics and ancient languages, in with home science, typing and bookkeeping! Away with an education which provided only the privileged upper classes with what Dewey viewed as useless knowledge; and in with those subjects that related to the ordinary workaday experiences of ordinary people. Over the past sixty or seventy years these ideas have been the driver of an education for the masses. An education designed to provide students with practical skills for life in this world. Please don’t misunderstand me, practical skills are a good thing. (My dear father taught me – or tried to teach me – many). But if they become the goal of education, we have made the things of this world the focus of our attention. Practical skills on their own do not solve the problems of the heart; and they do not prepare us for eternity.
A Different Thinking Nowadays
These days a different thinking reigns. Educationists are now keen to solve social problems and create a new, tolerant utopia. Over the past few decades we have seen a shift in thinking: it is as if the idea that diversity, of choice, of everybody being able to create their own values, has become a new, unquestioned truth. This has become such a powerful idea that it determines the way almost every subject is taught at school. In fact, when I hear about what is taught in various curricula and the way it is taught, I begin to wonder whether individual subjects have simply become vehicles for the transmission of this one great idea. We all know how powerful this idea is: we recognize it as “political correctness”; and for many of us, it is the reason we choose to send our children to Christian schools. It is powerful, and most of us realize it is dangerous. Its goal is to transform all of us and our children into people who do “right” in the eyes of anyone but the God who created us. It is an alternative to the gospel, and those who believe it demand that we deny Christ’s one.
The Pragmatic Thinking
On the everyday level that most young people and their parents operate, there is another approach to life at work. This one has been around a very long time; probably as long as there has been human society. It urges that life is about doing well and achieving certain tangible successes: good grades at school and university; a good job in a field that the world rewards; plenty of money (and all the good things that go with that); and status. Education has always been sensitive to these aspirations on the part of both students and parents; and it is true that the best schools in the world (academically speaking) have been most successful at meeting them. Of course, many of these schools have also provided other important things, like teaching students critical thinking – and even some values consistent with the Christian faith. But the problem with this approach to life and the educational goals it pursues is that it engenders an ugly selfishness and a strong instinct for what will please others and thus get me what I want. This is not the path of those who seek to deny themselves and take up the cross, daily.
Related to this approach, and to the kind of education it seeks, is the instinct on the part of many people (particularly those whose goal is success in this world) to seek out the kinds of interpersonal skills that will enable them to deal with difficulties in the social and workaday world. They want to know how to handle employment disputes with skill; how to sell more effectively; how to cope with marriage or parenting crises, and so on. Sadly, all they often want is an “effective outcome” – one which ends the tension, but which does not really get at the root of the human problem. This can be a rather shallow and manipulative desire, but it is common and pervasive. It has created a demand for all manner of human relations courses and seminars, and they are popular. Doing such courses may teach you how to “manage” people and problem situations, but they will not show you how to be Christlike, and a servant, in your relationships with others.
As a Type of Insurance
Finally, it is also a goal in our world for people to become independent and self-sufficient. You have heard much of this yourself, I am sure. Both men and women talk about financial security, their ability to fend for themselves, to live alone, to extricate themselves from marriages, broken homes and serial relationships. In large part, this is the inevitable result of hurts, sometimes horrific emotional injuries that scar people for life. It is natural that men and women should want the ability to rise above the pain of failures in personal relationships. Education is often seen as a way of insuring against these possibilities. Not very many summers ago, my sister and I were at a ram sale, and we were talking with another farmer’s wife. Her daughter was doing well at university, and she was telling us how much she wanted her to get a good degree. “You never know,” this lady was saying, “she might get divorced and need a good income and level of security.” Jane and I looked at each other, somewhat horrified to find that people’s thinking had become so hopelessly cynical. It is a sad fact that education has become a means of ensuring self-sufficiency, as well as a vehicle for teaching young people ways of looking after themselves. Small wonder, when one thinks of the number of children at school today who have already seen so much sadness in their lives.
God’s View of Life
But we all know that God’s view of life in this world and his goals for education, are quite different. These days, the contrast between his design for us, and what we see daily around us could hardly be more striking. When we Christians think of the purpose of life, and the big questions that life raises, we always think in terms of God and what he has told us about these things. We know that he made us, and that he has rescued us from our sin, the cause of all our difficulties in this life. He has saved us to glorify him; to bear fruit for him in this world. So when we start to think of education, we think of it as a preparation for this purpose God has for us. When Paul was writing to Timothy towards the end of his life he emphasized that Scripture is what is needed to make the man of God “competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:17). God’s Word is central to the Christian’s education.
We know that we need to be taught, from the Scriptures, by our parents, by the church, and through the schooling our parents choose for us. God has made it clear that this is not only in formal classes, but also in conversation with wise adults, and by watching their examples as they live out their lives in front of us (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). We can also see that education, for the Christian, is both a matter of character and of understanding. It is a matter of faith and behaviour as well as of knowledge of God’s Word and the world. Wise parents will see to all these aspects of their children’s education; and we can be thankful for many wise parents in our midst. But the wisest of all know how much everything depends on whether God is at work in their children’s hearts. None of their efforts will avail much if He is not; and it drives us, humbly, to prayer for our young ones.
We know that we need to have a godly character if we are to serve God in this life; and we know that we need certain specific skills if we are to do the work he has for us. Some of these are what we might call practical; others we might call knowledge, or even well-honed gifts. Let us consider these in light of the work that God puts before us Christian women, young and old, in the lives he has given us.
The Way Education Truly Helps
There are many callings a Christian woman may pursue; and God alone knows what he has in mind for each of us individually. But for most of us, in the normal course of events, marriage and motherhood will be the primary, determining focus of our work in God’s kingdom. And we know these callings are a blessing; most of us look forward to them. While we all know there are difficulties attached to both marriage and motherhood (we live in a sinful world), there are great blessings that come along with them. If it were not so, we would not grieve when God withholds them from us, even temporarily. It is in marriage and in caring for a family that we experience the sweetest moments of human love that God gives us on this earth. We all thank him for that. But of course, alongside romance, there are duties. There are big responsibilities in being a wife and in being a mother, and I think it is worth considering how we can best prepare our girls, and how girls can best prepare themselves, for these things. How can education help? (It is worth asking, because some girls treat education as something that gets in the way of romance, engagement and marriage!)
For one thing, completing an education – actually getting your qualification – means that you’ve learned stickability. You’ve got perseverance. You see things through; and this will be a valuable lesson to pass on to your children. You’re going to be far more likely to insist that they, in turn, learn the good habit of seeing tasks through to completion. Your education, if it has been a good one, will have given you many good skills and will have sharpened your powers of insight and analysis. Naturally, if you’re an engineer you will be good at fixing cars and tinkering with the wiring and the plumbing in your house; but those who’ve learned how to read, research and write essays will also be a great help to their husbands and children. There is no better home tutor for Bible study than a godly, literary lady who wants to see her children become good students of the Word. She will show them the big picture of the Scriptures, help them read the different kinds of literature they contain, and show them how to interpret and apply God’s Word to every area of their lives. She will help them think through all their school subjects biblically, and model Christian thinking for them in the stimulating discussions she has with them – day by day, week by week and year by year. Have you ever wondered why some families seem to thrive, both spiritually and academically? Take a look at their mother, and consider how she has used her education.
Secondly, there is life in the church. There are many important tasks women are needed for in the church; and if we think carefully, it is not hard to see that well-used educational opportunities will enhance the contribution a wise Christian woman will be able to make to the life of her church. Most likely she will be a good encourager of younger women: not just her own daughters, but also other young women, perhaps university students or others living away from home. She’s frequently the type of woman who asks herself: what new task could I be learning? What ministry could I use my skills for, or apply my gifts to? She is usually willing to give things a go, because she learned to master new subjects at school or university or polytech. Often, she’s well-organized and disciplined – quite possibly a good teacher. Or she may lead in a work of service, with a clear understanding of its biblical purpose and an ability to inspire others with the same enthusiasm for the value of the task. Almost always, she’s a teachable woman with a desire to grow in Christ. She wants to press on, to make progress in her walk with God, and to become spiritually mature. She will also want to help others along in their faith, and develop the hunger that she has for spiritual meat. She knows it is good for her, good for them, and good for the church of Christ.
Your Place in the world
Thirdly, we are all called to kingdom work in this world. That includes all of us, high school students, full-time employees, professional women, mothers at home with small children, retirees. God calls us all to do something for the lost in the world around us; to shine like stars in some way, even small, so that the world is a little lighter for our presence. What can we do? How do we improve our efforts? In our younger years, we are students, and perhaps we have classmates who do not know Christ. We can befriend them. We also need to serve God through real, earnest diligence in our studies. He may have plans for service that require us to have good qualifications, and be capable of leading or instructing others, of taking responsibility in paid employment, or in a voluntary capacity. Perhaps marriage or motherhood will not be your vocation, and he wants to use you in the world of work. Your education may be of great service to others in the future. You will never be a trusted senior nurse, doctor, lawyer or accountant if you do not lay the foundations now by careful attention to your study. But perhaps you will work in a field that is not respected or considered influential by the world. There are some areas of study that are important for the cause of the gospel, but will never win you great respect in the world. The employers of this world will not reward you handsomely for degrees in some subjects that may, on the other hand, make you very useful in the church or in some self-sacrificing service in the future. A Christian missionary, or Christian history, scripture or English teacher will probably never earn a large salary or the respect of society’s leaders, no matter how good or how faithful she is. But remember, a life of worldly success with the handsome financial rewards that go with it, are not necessarily the things that will earn you the words “Well done, good and faithful servant” in heaven.
Living this Side of Glory
There is one more possible outcome that we need to prepare for. It is not the calling that any of us would choose; but it is one that seems more likely as the decades pass, and as hostility to the gospel increases. This is the possibility of persecution for the church, and suffering for individual Christians. Many of you who are mothers and grandmothers tell me you are afraid for the future of your loved ones. Anti-discrimination laws, anti-smacking legislation, and the increasing boldness of opponents of the gospel in high places have you worried about the future of your grandchildren. What will it be like for them by the time they are trying to bring their children up in the faith? What can we do for them now? Well, there is a lot, really. If we look at the history of Old Testament Israel, we can see that there were always a lot of warning signs being posted as times got harder for them. Almost always, they were sliding into sin, neglecting God’s Word and succumbing increasingly to the lure of the world around them. Those who remained faithful in spite of these trends were those who listened to the prophets, who put effort into knowing the Law, and who kept loyally worshipping at the temple, attending to the means of grace in their day and being instructed by the priests. It is no different for us. We can best prepare our young ones for the things to come by making sure they are faithfully taught the Scriptures, that they are shown how to obey God, and to love him with all their hearts, by your solid examples. They also need a good education so that they understand the world they are inheriting, where it has come from, why it is going the way it is, and where the trends are likely to lead in the future. This will equip them to make righteous decisions and give wise counsel to their children. They will need to be like the men of Issachar, 200 chiefs and their kinsmen, who joined David at Ziklag in 1 Chronicles 12. These warriors were commended as “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.” Do we know our times? Have we made use of the education available to us, so that we are similarly equipped? Study the times, and know what the church ought to do. Remain faithful to God, instruct and encourage your children, and God will be faithful to you and to them.
So what is education for? To prepare us to love and obey God, with all our hearts, for all of our lives.