What It Means to Be Educated

“It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church, or the law. Before his parents chose a calling for him, nature called him to be a man… When he leaves me, he will be neither magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; he will be a man.” ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I used to think smart people were either born that way or had terrible childhoods where they were forced to read by evil stepmothers who had fiery red hair, a shrill voice, and a hankering for beating children with switches. (It’s amazing how your ignorance makes comic books out of everything you don’t understand.) And with all this “safe-speech” talk on college campuses today, I felt the need to articulate the purpose of Education, lest we forget why we even bother with it.

I grew up in a small town where I met very few true intellectuals, so the only “smart” people I knew were exactly that: quote/unquote smart. They weren’t actually smart; they just postured so and weren’t found out because by-and-large small-town people aren’t in fact very smart. Which all added further to my disdain for people who claimed to have answers. I thought being smart was about merely looking smart, about amassing piles of random, unconnected, and basically useless data as proof you were better than everybody else so that when the situation arose, you could assert yourself, trump everyone, drop the mic and walk off.

But in college I had this epiphany. I realized that I’d been fed lies my entire life. I had been taught that life was about reward: going to college so you could get a job; reading a book so you could impress your friends. But I realized that intelligence was a gift from God, and something we could actually work to achieve.

The measure of a man’s education is that he takes pleasure in the exercise of his mind. ~Jacques Barzun

And I found out that this hypocrisy wasn’t just a southern problem, it was cultural. Apart from coastal cities and a few scattered intellectual hubs across the middle, this is what hypocritical America was—a bunch of fake people pretending to be something they’re not, deathly afraid of being found out, hating everyone who has the intellectual ability to find them out.

America Has a Problem

Or a thousand of them, to be a little more precise. But the core American problem is unmeaning and a lack of Truth. We lack real values since value comes from meaning and meaning comes from absolute Truths. We’ve lost our hold on the purpose of things because we’ve lost the definition of purpose altogether (teleology). We don’t believe there is a rational design to the universe and so we have absolutely zero confidence in bringing unity from the diversity. Which is ironic because 1) “Universe” literally means “unified diversity” and 2) the cultural institution established for education and human progress is called a “university,” the place where unity is brought from the diversity of life.

Without absolutes there can be no objective Truth. This redefines truth to be mere opinions (personal differences in perspective), meaning the definition of truth is now diversity which undermines the entire philosophy of a university—or a Universe for that matter. Because if Truth can be found inside our own heads, with no need for any sort of rational effort at making connections and finding universal meaning, why go through the discomfort of education, of aligning your wrong ideas with right ones?

What is Education?

Education is About Seeing

Education is about tuning your mind into Reality so you share its bandwidth. It’s not about amassing random data but about making sense of it. It’s about wiping away the ignorance we are born into and opening our eyes, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s about seeing.

So this means that being smart isn’t about memorizing lots of data and knowing a bunch of random facts; it’s about seeing the world as it really is; it’s about bringing light into the darkness and learning the way things are. We humans live in an infinitely complex world in an even bigger infinity of our Universe, and yet, some of us live our short life-spans illiterate, ignorant, oblivious to everything but our personal needs, desires, opinions, and subjective views of reality.

Education is the process by which our eyes are opened. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). In that one statement we have the tension between the two fundamental worldviews—modernism and postmodernism—each one isolating one element over the other: modernism focusing on the seeing, postmodernism focusing on the seeing through a clouded glass.[1] But in Christ, through faith, we are able to see truly the Truth of Reality, even though our minds are clouded and limited by the Fall.

Education Makes us More Human

Illiteracy and ignorance is part of what defines the inherent limitation of animals, therefore, it is dehumanizing to submit ourselves—our wonderful God-given minds and imaginations—to the level of the beast in the field. It’s the greatest gift of civilized culture, and yet we act like it’s boring.

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” ~Mark Twain

But in our culture, ignorance is praised, and why wouldn’t it be? We’ve lost the unity to be had and now just exist in pointless diversity. It’s naïve to believe in unity and order anymore.

Among those of the intellectual upper-crust (namely, University towns trying to keep up with the Ivy Leagues), intellectualism is in vogue as a resurgence of Enlightenment positivistic-rationalism (the belief that humans can find ultimate answers and meaning just by using our minds). And some important people are preaching the gospel of education as man’s savior (ted talk, etc), but—and this is a big but—intellect isn’t enough. It’s not sufficient to find the unity in the diversity because mankind can’t even get his head around all the diversity in order to absolutely say, There, now I’ve done it; I’ve figured out why things are the way they are, and have absolute confidence they haven’t missed a piece.

Education is About Real Wisdom

You can be the smartest man alive and still miss the point of education. We are meant to put the whole picture together and see Reality so that we can live skillfully as masters of our territory, but when you dethrone God (as our culture has done), you dethrone Truth and defang knowledge. You rip True things out of their contexts in Reality, and isolate facts from their coordinating facts. In a word, you lose the proper hermeneutic (or, the interpretive framework) you need to absolutely interpret Reality and absolutely ascribe the proper meaning to one piece of the diversity. In an even shorter word, you lose wisdom.

“Using the truth rightly is what we call wisdom. That is the issue. It’s not just about the ideas but in putting them all together in right ways. And that is the limitation of human wisdom. You can’t put it all together and you can’t come to ultimate wisdom.” ~Abner Chou

What’s the Purpose of Education?

The goal, as I’ve said, is wisdom. It’s about seeing the Truth by seeing Reality as it actually is (not just how you think it is), and successfully navigating life. It’s about being in the light, being “enlightened” to the way things are,[2] freed from the crippling fears of the darkness,[3] freed to have confidence in your opinions since your opinions aren’t based on whim or marketing but on propositional facts you know to be True.[4]

“You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). “Your Word is Truth” (John 17:17).

The beauty of the university is in its ability to bring specialists of every field together and have coherent conversations. We were supposed to be learning from each other, coming together and collectively meaning more together than we do alone. That was the point of the institution, but not any more. Now, the specialist just takes his ball and goes home, unwilling to communicate himself and his field to “non-specialists” and so the University has become simply Specialized Diversity.

The Joy of Education

The question of the hour in America is “What’s in it for me?” Why should I give up my hard-earned money and energy just for intellectual knowledge? Three reasons.

  1. Legitimacy. The ability to stand on your own two feet and defend an opinion which you yourself own, that you’ve thought through and found to be True. The peace that comes from being who you are, of integrity in both opinions and worldview.
  2. Wisdom. Wisdom is the “art of skillful living” and it only comes from putting all the pieces together in their proper order. Your job is to put humpty-dumpty together again and make sense of a seemingly meaningless and chaotic world. That process is education. It’s attaining knowledge, applying it in True ways, and finding at the end a firm framework of Truth with which you make good and wise choices.
  3. Power. Knowledge is power because it gives you the tools to rule, the proper skill-set to take apart ideologies, find the good, throw out the bad, and offer Truth to those in need. With great power comes great responsibility, and what more Gospel-sounding thing can you do than give your life for the good of others, in benefiting them in their own decision-making and problem-solving.
  4. Knowing God. God is the Creator of everything, and He has revealed himself in creation. His written Word tells us about Him, but only as it makes sense of creation around us. So, in order to see and know God and His worldview, you have to master the process of coming to know the truth (education), master the textbook (The Bible) and master the field of study (creation). That is the glorious climax of what it means to be educated.

“The time is short, and education is long. What I’m saying is that, since education is long, and since it is indispensable, we should begin it right away." ~Robert Hutchins

  1. Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, pg 16.  ↩

  2. Eph 1:18; Heb 6:4; Heb 10:32, etc.  ↩

  3. Eph 5:8–9; 2 Cor 4:3–4, etc.  ↩

  4. John 8:32  ↩