One day back in Grade 9, our math teacher confessed something to the class that many of us had already begun to suspect. With disarming candour, he informed us that 90 per cent of what we were learning in school would have zero practical impact on the rest of our lives. In fact – depending on our career path – most of us would likely forget all the math equations, science formulas, historical facts and literature studies within a few years, if not months, after we’d graduated.

No, he assured us, the main reason we’d spent the bulk of our days in school up to that point was to learn two things: how to think and how to get along with others.

Such a frank admission to a bunch of 14-year-olds may not have been the shrewdest of moves. And yet, the passing years have proven our old math teacher far more right than wrong. Of course, not everyone would agree with his assessment – especially nowadays – nor should they be expected to do so.

That’s because asking questions about the goals of education is like climbing the steps of a pyramid. There’ll always be a variety of answers as to what should sit at the top.

Knowledge and practical skills

For many people, it’s all about the basics. Kids need practical skills that’ll allow them to succeed in the adult world. For our parents and grandparents, that meant the proverbial “three R’s” – reading, (w)riting and ‘rithmetic. By contrast, in the specialized technological job market of the 21st century, it’s more like the three C’s – computers, commerce and communications. Simply put, the goal is to equip young people with the tools they’ll need to find stable, well-paying careers.

There’s an older school of thought, however, that sees education as more than learning job and life skills. It would stress that a well-rounded person needs to be well-informed about the world in which they live. To that end, young people need enriching experiences to give them an appreciation for various aspects of human culture: arts and music, science and history, politics and philosophy. This is the impetus behind a classic liberal arts education.

All of these are worthy educational goals that share one common trait: the acquisition of knowledge in one form or other. They work on the principle that knowing things will create a more successful – or even a better – individual.

Critical and social skills

But as our erstwhile math teacher pointed out long ago, the ability to think critically – to discern, evaluate and solve problems – is of greater lasting value than merely knowing stuff. He also drew attention to the fact that not all knowledge is head knowledge. An equally vital educational goal is socialization – the ability to work well and interact with other members of one’s community.

Humans are relational beings, created by a relational God. At our most essential, we all need to love and to be loved. We need to belong, to contribute, to matter. On a practical level, we need to learn right from wrong. We need to be taught how to bring our best to everything we do, and how to treat others with kindness and respect.

These moral and social goals of education are just as crucial as the cognitive ones. But unlike the latter, they’re not typically achieved through books. For the most part, they’re learned from the example of others – parents, peers and teachers – and from how they behave toward us during our formative years.

A hierarchy of needs

If we return to our metaphorical pyramid, we find that each of the educational goals we’ve considered forms an integral part of its structure. However, the question remains: Which of them – if any – should be placed at its pinnacle?

In the 1940s and 50s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchical model of human needs that has become familiar to educators, sociologists, and more recently, management trainers. Maslow’s model – represented as a pyramid – has five ascending layers of human needs, from basic to ultimate.

At the lowest level are physiological needs: food, shelter and the like. Then come safety needs: health, financial security and so forth. Above that are the needs for love and belonging: family, friendship, intimacy. Moving upward, there are needs related to esteem: acceptance, respect, significance. And at the peak is self-actualization: the need of each person to realize his or her full potential.

Maslow’s hierarchy has been criticized on a number of fronts, not least for its assumption that individualistic fulfillment is the highest goal in life. Less well-known, however, is the fact that Maslow himself later critiqued his own model as inadequate and revised it.

Order and wonder

Beyond self-actualization, Maslow came to recognize a need for self-transcendence, for finding ultimate meaning outside oneself via a sense of order and a sense of wonder.

To be sure, Maslow the humanist wasn’t seeking to point people to the God of the Bible. And yet we may follow his lead, to a degree, as we search for a capstone to our pyramid of educational goals.

Most children, it would seem, possess an innate sense of order regarding the world around them. At some level, they have an intuitive grasp that it was designed, and that the things in it have function and purpose. Even more palpable is their sense of wonder, their awe and delight at the mysteries and beauties of creation.

Sadly, their years of formal education – to say nothing of their surrounding culture – often succeed in driving these instincts from them by the time they reach adulthood. They’re steadily exposed to the counterintuitive idea that the universe is a random accident, and that the more we understand its workings, the less mysterious or meaningful it will appear.

This is even sadder in light of Scripture, which points to creation – and humanity’s response to it – as evidence of God’s handiwork and glory. Indeed, our Creator has wired us with this sense of order and wonder that it might direct us to him. We’re spiritually impoverished – as individuals and as a society – when we undermine it and leave it behind in childhood.

A lifelong delight in God

Amidst all the worthwhile goals of education, could this be chief among them? Could it be to maintain and heighten our sense of order and wonder, beyond our formative years and throughout life? Might we approach every field of study – the world of nature, the world of ideas, the achievements of culture – with a view of God’s glory and beauty behind it?

For non-believing children (and adults) it would lay vital groundwork for the Gospel to bear its fruit. And for believers, it would do the same, deepening our affection and appreciation for our creative, sovereign Lord. In either case, that’s an educational goal whose benefits reach well beyond this life and into eternity.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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