What Makes Education Valuable?

In the middle of class, while students are diagramming sentences, the teacher hears “Why do I need to know this?” come from the center of the room. The teacher, knowing exactly who asked the question, sets his dry erase marker down with a subtle smile, kneels down next to the student’s desk and patiently explains to the child that underlining verbs and subjects and memorizing prepositions will help him speak correctly and write coherently. The child accepts the response but lowers his gaze to the worksheet surprisingly unsatisfied.

            The child’s question seems to ask, “What purpose does this information serve?” which can be interpreted as an inquiry about a fact’s value with respect to its usefulness and application. A teacher is not wrong to interpret the question this way and may respond respectively giving the student logical step-by-step reasons about how grammar provides the foundation for logic and rhetoric which enables a person to form solid arguments both spoken and written. If he were a real pragmatist, a teacher could go the extra mile to explain that the knowledge found in those subjects can also be used in the world to get a job. But what if underneath a limited vocabulary and unrefined thoughts, the child were asking in the midst of a grammar or multiplication lesson, “Given that this is true, what does it mean in itself and with respect to everything else that is true?” If this is the case, no longer can the teacher explain addition and subtraction as means to higher mathematical computation or grammar as a stepping stone to eloquence. Relating the day’s lesson to a job would be laughable if the student even cared to listen that far. What, then, can the teacher say?

            Education in 21st century America has become a topic of debate among students (granted not those at the primary level), professors, parents and politicians. Most agree that a society can best ensure its stability and future by educating its youth, but disagreement arrives once the topic of discussion turns to the methods by which a society will do so. The stakes are many as education is the foundation of the general awareness of and, thus, closeness of members in a community. It sparks efficiency and creativity in the work place, enriches and promotes culture, and sustains the bond between society and its values . Our hyper connected world endowed with unceasing opportunity for cross-cultural communication and enterprise only raises the stakes, adding fuel to the preheated discussion.

            A particular aspect of this discussion entertains the discrepancy between secular and faith-based education. In a nutshell, secularists believe that education consists of facts only and that educators should not teach religious values in any of the curricula, unless done so analytically in a history class. Secularists argue that an education absent of a religious faith maintains an ethos that respects diversity and thus treats all students equally and fairly. One need not only look to the public school system to find this mentality as many private religious schools cater to a secular student body and secular funding by taking a neutral stance on their own values so as not to offend any current students or intimidate prospective students. A person can hardly argue against the need for facts in education, but the secular view raises the question, Should religious values be eradicated, if possible, from education?

            One need not genuflect on Sundays to know that knowledge itself does not suffice for a stable society. Every known fact contains within it power and thus responsibility. Putting it simply, the “is” (knowledge) and the “ought” (moral responsibility) cannot be separated. Just because somebody knows how to split atoms and make nuclear bombs doesn’t mean that he ought to do so. Knowledge, since its grants he who possesses it the power of influence, also endows its possessor with an undeniable responsibility. “Now don’t slide down such a slippery slope,” one might caution. “Arithmetic and grammar are not the same as nuclear physics.” Children may not be able to enrich Uranium in the back of the classroom, but he who can read and count will always have power over the person who cannot do so. Facts alone do not ensure a stable and egalitarian society. The American Indians, having had the first unveiled encounter with the archetypal representatives of secular education, would probably concur. 

            Facts must not only be taught through a moral lens because of the influential power they possess and bestow, but also because the intelligible nature of the universe reveals itself to be inherent with meaning. Aristotle noted that no individual can be known in itself; all individuals must be known through the species to which they belong. Take, for example, a cat. We can call a cat a cat because it biologically shares the same physical and chemical makeup as all other cats yet it is unlike any other subset of animal species. We know that a cat is not a clam, lobster or wolverine, because its structure and habits are different from those aforementioned. If only one cat existed, however, scientists would have no way to classify it because it would be qualitatively incomparable to all other things. Through observation and critical analysis, scientists can discover universal categories into which they classify individuals. Thus, an abstract and intelligible universal derived through concrete experience is the source of all knowledge.

            The existence of these abstract, intelligible universals shows that the universe is not random and chaotic, but ordered and rational. If intelligible and abstract universals did not exist and knowledge were purely empirical, all science and technology would be the product of mere chance. At this point, it is appropriate to look at the Latin word for knowledge, scientia, stemming from the verb scire which means to know. Latin speakers use scire, pronounced ski-ray, to mean to become familiar with, in a relational sense. Since relationships occur when two separate entities that share something in common associate with each other, it is no coincidence that attaining knowledge implies a closeness, unity or harmony with the knower and the known. Furthermore, understanding that a reality outside of our own perceptions does exist, a person, by his own will, can unite or distance himself with everything that is. In essence, the more an astronomer studies the stars, the more familiar he becomes with them and the better he can interpret and predict their actions much like two people in a friendship. Should he choose to discontinue his studies, however, the void between he and the celestial bodies would expand until they became mere strangers with nothing in common but proximity.

            The act of knowing and the universe’s intelligibility does not support the notion that people exist in solipsism as creators of their own realities without any common values. On the contrary, our ability to know and the existence of a knowable universe affirms that we have agency within our relationship with reality and are thus morally obligated to interact with the universe and all its inhabitants according to its laws. As for the question asked by the child in grade school, answers will vary, but the teacher ought to choose wisely if he is to ensure the future of his society.


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