This article defines the meaning and aim of education, particularly Christian education.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1983. 4 pages.

The Meaning of Education

Education: What Is It?🔗

The word "education" is one of those more popular words in our society today that is probably most often left un­defined. We all impart our own particu­lar, meaning and yet use the same word to describe it. Words such as nurturing, training, molding, disciplining, and school­ing all add to our understanding of "ed­ucation" and yet bring their unique di­mension to bear. At the same time, knowl­edge, understanding, and wisdom also contribute to making the picture com­plete.

We should recognize that any definition we may wish to consider for the word "education," in fact shows what our convictions are about the basis and ultimate aim of education without actu­ally filling in the details. This makes it difficult, then, to define the term with­out first articulating the basis and aim, but it does allow us a focus within which the full meaning of education may be­come clearer.

I would like to show how others have tried to relate to the aims of educa­tion and in doing so have in fact defined the term. In addition, I want to suggest a definition that may lead to a more com­plete understanding of education.

Some time ago, in a government re­port on education, the following was written:

The underlying aim of education is to further man's unending search for truth. Once he possesses the means to truth, all else is within his grasp. Wisdom and Un­derstanding, sensitivity, compassion, and responsibility ... will be his guides in adolescence and his companions in ma­turity. This is the message that must find its way into the minds and hearts of all children. This is the key to open all doors. It is the instrument which will break the shackles of ignorance, of doubt, and of frustration; that will take all who respond to its call out of their poverty, their slums and their despair; that will give mobility to the crippled; that will illuminate the dark world of the blind and bring the deaf into, communion with the hearing ... This above all will be our task.Living and Learning.1

It's indeed interesting to read such a statement of intent, written by those who so vehemently maintain that education is neutral. Compare it with Isaiah 35:4-6,

Behold, your God will come ... He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; ... and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy…

and you can't help but produce a "righ­teous chuckle." Such education is aimed at maintaining the idea of the melting pot, for the Common Good. It has rec­ognized the need to address the horizontal relationships and responsibilities in our society, but failed to define them along the lines of the vertical relationship between God and man. Truth has been identified as the key to unlock doors, but this truth is not a Master key. All this rhetoric defines education in pseudo-reli­gious horizontal terms, perhaps giving some kind of low-key spiritual content to a curriculum devoid of lasting values. In this context we may see education de­fined as "salvation," the school as the "church"; teachers may be regarded' as the new "high priests," and the scientific method or science as "god."

We may have recognized these di­mensions in present-day public education. However, a system that is aimed at pro­viding for a "pluralistic society" must compel teachers and students to leave their personal beliefs at home. At best, we might hope to be allowed to somehow develop our "own values" in an educa­tional climate of "no values." More probably, education in practice would be defined in accordance with its ability to disseminate facts. Those who acquire many would be termed well-educated, and those who gather few would be con­sidered slow learners. The stress is then placed on content, training, preparation, and schooling. Education becomes lim­ited to that which only "happens" be­tween 9:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Mass pro­duction and assembly line techniques dic­tate administrative structures. The stu­dent, rather than becoming the victor, more often becomes just another victim in an already broken and divided world.

Another view, perhaps in reaction to defining education as a distributor of content, suggests that it ought to be defined as a "process." With this, it's not so much what you learn as how you learn. Child-centred education, without bar­riers to inhibit the process, are the hall­marks of this approach. The basics are thrown to the wind and illiterates are graduated — cum laude. We suffer today from the effects of this bandwagon ap­proach.

This way of defining education does have a certain validity because it recog­nizes the child in the educational maze. It tries to adjust for individual differences among students in its attempt to provide a balance to an overemphasis on facts. But most trends are comparable to a pen­dulum that swings too far in either direc­tion, and education has experienced its share of that. So here we see that, a meth­od that overemphasizes process at the ex­pense of content, fails to recognize the framework that must be built to hold to­gether educational truth in a meaningful whole.

We should learn from the modern trends in education, for they help us rec­ognize some key components of a truly Biblical approach, perhaps mostly on ac­count of their conspicuous absence.

We, too, need to evaluate our think­ing to ensure that we have maintained an equitable balance between process and content. Our view of education must em­body the idea of a continuum. Education does not stop in some mysterious fashion at 3:15 p.m., on the weekend, or after graduation. Instead it is a development. It, too, must recognize and clarify life's relationships, especially our position as parents and children before the Lord.

Therefore we could define "educa­tion" as the development of the true un­derstandings and relationships between God and man, man and fellow man, and man and the physical universe.2  Such a capsule summary may generate under­standing that grows into a more complete articulation of the basis, aim, agents, and methods of education.

The Aim of Education🔗

A clear formulation of the aim of education often seems like an elusive dream. Education is a term that is wide in scope, and so, by its very nature, such a formulation will be general, as it at­tempts to cover all the dimensions of life. In doing so, we often find that we have merely formulated the aim by using a series of other terms that themselves need further clarification. A common criti­cism against such formulations is that they have omitted key ideas, which to one person may be implied but to anoth­er need to be specified. It is difficult enough to put these broad concepts into concise words. Why then bother? It is be­cause I believe that in spite of this type of confusion and criticism, it is impor­tant that we ask ourselves time and again what we are attempting to do. Often by asking the question, we are forced to fo­cus more on certain elements of our task in educating that may otherwise be easily overlooked.

I believe we could argue that the child is at the centre of our education. This is not because we, too, believe in the goodness of mankind and consequently in some modern notion about child-centred education. Certainly, in our modern world, there is an overemphasis on the child to the point where rights receive more attention than responsibilities. However, in spite of this influence around us, we may with confidence focus on the child as we build our curricula and for­mulate our objectives. Our motivation for this is not based on a recognition of rights, but on an understanding of parental re­sponsibilities according to Biblical norms which show clearly the needs of our children, based on their natural condition.

So we would do well to ask ourselves what educational plan we envisage. What objectives or goals have we established that may give shape to our daily activi­ties? What are we doing with our students, be it in Mathematics or History, English or Art, that is not specific to the subject but general and applicable to a life of service in the kingdom of God? I would suggest that the following might be included among such objectives.

To recognize that each child, as a cove­nant child created in the image of God, is a unique individual with his own particular talents.🔗

I think it is important that we recog­nize the uniqueness of each child. This will help us to be sensitive to the learning needs of different children. It reminds us that as the talents are distributed in dif­ferent ways, so too the responsibilities will vary and our teaching may need to be modified. We're all cast from the same mold, yet we are all so marvelously different. We may be unique, yet this uniqueness may not become an excuse for employing less than our best.

As we recognize this, through our actions in the classroom, perhaps in some small way the students will more and more learn to know what it means to be a hand and foot to each other in their classroom community and even beyond.

To direct a child's education so that, he learns to live as a faithful child of God, responding more and more from the heart.🔗

In all areas of life the Lord demands our heart. This is no less true at school than it is in the home or the church. We're thankful that we don't have to build this heart commitment by ourselves, for then we're sure it would be doomed to failure. But the Lord has given His sure pledge and promise at baptism that He will work in the hearts of His covenant chil­dren. Such a promise demands thankful obedience, lays on responsibility. And so the home, together with the school, fed by the preaching of the Word, directs its efforts to raising a generation of cove­nant children with visionary zeal for the kingdom of God;

To direct a child towards a sense of self-discipline.🔗

Discipline for a young child may take on a different form from that meant for older children. For a young child, re­proof is often more direct and the effects may even be felt physically. For older children, there is a shift toward internal­izing discipline. The consequences for disobedience may not be as immediate but may be of more consequence in the long run.

Directing children to hear and re­spond to that "inner voice" which is fed by the Word of God, should be our aim.

To foster a sense of critical inquiry by which today's philosophies of life may be measured against the truth of God's Word.🔗

We must teach students to think, on their own, and on their feet, armed with "the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God." Our world is decaying around us; there is social unrest, political injustice, economic ruin, environmental destruction, and moral decline. These in­fluences are making their mark on the young lives of our covenant children through modern song, advertising, the newspaper, the film industry, and no doubt even The National and The Journal, television programs. We must combat these effects and teach our students that just as salt can be used to prevent the spoilage of food, so too the Word of God is a healing balm for a world full of broken lives. This means our students will need to learn to analyze, to hunt for hidden meaning, to discern, to be critical. We will need to challenge them to look deeper, to go beyond the surface and the obvious, to probe and to apply their, learning in concrete ways. Such a challenge will require us to constantly evaluate our curricula, to ensure that critical inquiry is more than "saying," that it is also "doing."

To enable the maximum intellectual development of each child so that the God-given talents may be employed to their best advantage in the service of our King.🔗

We must provide for curricular variation so that our students may more and more develop their own talents. This development must first of all recognize the central place of Scripture — we can never get enough. Then we can apply the truth of Scripture to the knowledge of the various disciplines and so gain true knowledge. Informed Christians of this calibre will be better able to employ the skills of critical inquiry and apply what they learn long after they leave the class­room.

To provide a distinctive Christian atmo­sphere where a child can interact with fellow students and thus with them grow into a school community.🔗

Effective learning requires an or­derly and structured learning environ­ment. We cannot expect self-discipline, communal sensitivity, and intellectual pursuit to arise naturally out of the heart of sinful man. We need boundaries and limits. Again the Word of God has pro­vided these, with the proper perspective on authority. It's not always easy to ap­ply these norms. Students may think that an easing back of the boundary is an opening of the way to freedom and li­cense, rather than an invitation to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to us from the inside out.

We need to build our school envi­ronment so' that we impart a sense of sharing, tie firmly the bond of belonging as we in recreation and play, and in what­ever else we do, create communal fellowship. Such an atmosphere will comple­ment learning. It will also spill over into the community.


  1. ^ The Report of the Pro­vincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario (Ontario Department of Education„ Toronto 1968) p. 6.
  2. ^ Adapted from a definition by N. de Jong in his book Education in the Truth (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977), p. 118.

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