Classical Christian education promises not only distinctive methodology but also a different understanding of the ends of human life. I recently heard Andrew Kern, in a discussion of Homer, say something that hits squarely in the center of this distinction:
We don’t have an ultimate craving for survival, for power, for practicality, for utility. We have an ultimate craving for harmony, for things fitting together. I think that Maslow got his hierarchy of needs upside down when he said food is first. I think that the first need of a human soul is probably honor, but connected to honor is harmony.
If you want to hear more about what he means by harmony, do go listen to the whole podcast here. Andrew Kern and Wes Callihan are delightful throughout.
Kern’s point here is especially worth meditating upon. Much of what goes on in schools is oriented not toward the harmony of the soul, either with itself or with others. Instead we focus on power, practicality and utility, that is, prestigious jobs, test scores, and college acceptance. In any debate about the success or failure of American education, these are the benchmarks by which success is measured.
The problem is that these ends are not the ends of a human being. When we educate with scores, college, and jobs as our primary ends, we do not educate human beings but workers or machines. We focus on the economic output potential of the child rather than his full humanity. In such an education, what use are studies that delight and enrich the soul, that bring harmony to it? They are of no use as long as they do not produce some material benefit.
Kern’s thought also reminded me a of a wonderful essay by Winston Churchill in which he describes an imaginary future where mankind is so technologically advanced that there were no longer any physical problems; no material wants or sickness or death.
In the end a race of beings was evolved which had mastered nature. A state was created who citizens lived as long as they chose, enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own, navigated the inter-planetary spaces, could recall the panorama of the past and foresee the future. But what was the good of all that to them? What did they know more than we know about the answers of the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shape we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. It is this fact, more wonderful than any that Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well. Projects undreamed of by past generations will absorb our immediate descendants; forces terrific and devastating will be in their hands; comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, their lives will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.
The best kind of education is one which ponders those simple questions, lifting our eyes to see above material things.