What is the purpose of education?

School is drawing to a close for the year – I can hear the collective “hallelujah” in my ears! High school AP exams are finished, and those of you in college have turned in your final paper and taken your last final. You have probably returned home to mom’s cooking and are hoping the huge stacks of laundry will magically clean themselves. As you exhale, it is a good time to reflect on the following question: what is the purpose of education? It probably feels like you have been drinking from a fire hose with the amount of facts you had to learn. So, it would be logical to say that the purpose of education is to obtain knowledge. But should it be? I argue that the purpose of education should be to obtain wisdom. What’s the difference?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, knowledge is the acquisition of facts and information; wisdom is having good judgment in the application of such knowledge. Uh oh, did you see what just happened? – we crossed over into realm of deciding what is “good”. There is no way around it, you can’t answer the “good” question without appealing to philosophy or theology. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Hebrew: chokmah). This is because the Bible has a pretty dim view of the human ability to discern what is “good”. Its claim is that we are blinded by our selfishness, by our inability to understand the complexity and interconnectivity of the world, and by our inability to see the future. Therefore, we need God to tell us what is “good”. Humanism, on the other hand, tells us that we can decide “good” for ourselves through enlightened thinking. But humanism falls down in many places: (i) it assumes finite beings (without complete information) can make decisions as to what is “good”, (ii) it assumes that humans can be reduced to rational beings whose minds are supreme to their emotions, and (iii) it assumes if we all act in our own enlightened self interest, then we will agree on what is “good” (in other words, enlightened selfishness).

Those of you in academic circles will likely debate this with your peers. Indeed, it is the question that is facing society today – by what mechanism do we discern what is “good”? Ask yourself if finite beings acting in their self interest are capable of determining “goodness”? Read the Bible in a group that is open to tough questions and ask yourself whether the Bible should be your source of wisdom. As we all know, knowledge without “goodness” is dangerous. Therefore, wisdom has to be the goal.

Associate Pastor Emeritus, Greg Zehner