What is the Purpose of a College Education?
One of the great dangers of our industrialized view of education, wherein we view our children as raw material that are moved along a conveyer belt until they come out the other side educated widgets, is that it bifurcates our lives. We are, in this view, students for a time, until we are students no more. We think grade school is for this, junior high for that, senior high for the other, college for the next thing, and maybe some graduate school for this last thing. When we’re done, we’re done. Instead, a college education is for the same thing a kindergarten education is for, to repair the ruins. The great Puritan poet John Milton wisely said: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
How many of us, wherever we might be in the educational process, now know God aright? How many of us sufficiently love Him, imitate Him, are like Him? When we understand this purpose of education, we in turn understand that graduation happens when we die, our death certificate is our diploma. When we understand this purpose, this end, suddenly our means change as well.
There are essentially two common views on the purpose of college education. The great majority of people in our day see it as preparation for a career. We go to college to acquire specialized skills that will be in demand so that we can make a good living. This is school-to-work for the college set. I’m not against people learning skills. This, however, is training, not education. In addition, the Bible says that we prosper through frugality and integrity, not through acquiring the right set of tools.
The less common, far more historical view is that we go to college to receive a liberal education, to learn those things necessary to give us the tools to make us thoughtful adults who are familiar with the key issues of public life. We read the great books, so we can join the great conversation.
This second approach I certainly prefer to the first, though every time I am in an airplane I give thanks for engineers. The trouble with the second approach is that freedom, according to the Word, comes from the Word. That is, it is the truth that sets us free. The folly of Homer, the blindness of Plato, these will not enlighten my path like the Word, which is a lamp unto my feet. I don’t want to exit the education factory looking like Michelangelo. I want, every step of the way, to look more and more like Jesus.
There is virtue in reading the great books. We do so not to find direction, but to learn to recognize where the culture is headed. We find there the traps that are set before us. We do so not to join the great conversation, but to win the great confrontation, to be faithful soldiers in the war between the city of God and the city of man. That happens, however, only as we read the Great Book, as we study its wisdom, and submit to its discipline.
The goal then is to become more like Jesus. Which means we don’t need to pursue the kind of education Calvin or Luther or even Milton received. We need to receive the kind of education Jesus received. Study the Word, in season and out. And repair the ruins.