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The Supreme Task of Education

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on Wednesday, 25 January 2012
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Claiming absolute certainty in knowing what the supreme task of education is may be like treading on a frozen lake in springtime. We must not proclaim too loudly lest our vanity get the better of us. And yet, for any of us to dive into the mysterious endeavor we call classical, Christian  education—including the carrying of our students’ souls to the foot of Truth—without also concurrently examining its meaning and its ends, is to walk on an equally thin sheet of ice.


I, for one, have been on thin ice for a long time. Classical, Christian education makes a great deal of sense to me, but this sense is mostly tacit and not yet fully objective or conscious to my experience; I have neither plumbed the depths of classical education nor have I the familiarity to claim special knowledge. My wife and I move forward mostly in trust, but we are working towards greater understanding of what we are doing and what we have claimed. In that spirit I want to contemplate just a fragment of just one sentence from David Hicks’ book, Norms and Nobility. I am convinced this fragment presents in a nutshell the wisdom I am working to fathom:

“...the supreme task of education━the cultivation of the human spirit: to teach the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 13)


Let’s break this sentence fragment down into its key ideas:


“The supreme task of education...”


There are many justifications for why we educate our children. We want them to read, to think well, to be able to teach themselves, to love knowledge. Education is multifaceted and nuanced. It is also a bet on the future in some ways; we make choices now that will have long-term ramifications. But when we talk of the supreme task of education we are talking of what unifies all the rest. The supreme task is the overarching goal, the key activity that animates all the rest. It is also what gives meaning to the minutia and the daily grind. Without it we strive in vain, dissipating our energies and doing disservice to our students.


I have tended to lose sight of any supreme task. Too often, I have squandered what God has given and run after shifting and fragmented goals.


“...the cultivation of the human spirit...”


I am not a great gardener but I do know that gardening is an art. To cultivate a garden is to work with nature towards a shared goal. It is natural for plants to thrive if the conditions are good. Cultivation evokes images of turning over the soil, of removing weeds, of providing water and sunlight, of pruning and fertilizing. It also implies knowledge, the kind of knowledge that comes with experience and closeness—a closeness such that one both understands and deeply cares about the garden’s present and potential states. The human spirit is like a garden and the teacher like a gardener working with nature. The teacher understands the nature of the human spirit, understands what spirit is in a child and what it should be in an adult. Cultivating the human spirit is fostering right growth in accordance with nature. Strangely, all too often we educate in such a way that we “cover the material” but squash spirits.


Unfortunately I have tended to make educating my children about me, seeking what is convenient or easy and not what is best for their spirits. Rarely have I been a good gardener.


“...to teach the young to know what is good...”


“Good” is a virtue as old as creation itself. God created the world and called it good. But there are two kinds of good. One is the pragmatic, utilitarian kind that animates much of our lives and public discourse. The other is eternal and has to do more with the nature of things rather than merely outcomes. It is a moral and life-giving good that begins in, and proceeds from, the character of God. Christ is the great “translator” of this good to man. He shows us what the eternal good looks like in human terms. In him we find that “what is good” begins with humility, service and sacrifice, laying down one’s life for others, bearing one’s cross, and seeking first the Kingdom.


The best way our children will know what the good is comes by our example. Christ did not merely tell His disciples about goodness, He lived it. He offered himself as the example. Teachers should strive to do the same. But we are also sinners and will never, in this life, conform perfectly to Christ. And yet, our students see the striving, and that says a great deal. The second best way comes through stories. Read and talk about great stories with your students. Pick stories in which the driving issue is whether the main character will choose goodness.


Like all men I fail at goodness. I pray my children will see that I strive after goodness and that they too will learn to strive for it.


“...to serve it above self...”


It is strange to consider that the heart of education is not about oneself. Are we not to learn for our own benefit? Or when we teach, is it not for the benefit of the student? Of course it is true, education is for our benefit, and sometimes the “process” of education is a turning inward for a period of time. And the best education will even lead one to the darkness of the soul among other things. But we are made to face outward, to hold to standards beyond ourselves, to cling to permanent things. If we can distill the highest standards—the permanent things—down to just one thing, that thing is “the good.” What is good includes all excellence and moral virtue. We must be willing to give our lives to it, even to the point of death. It is love for brother, love for enemy, striving, service, and true hope. Ultimately it is the pearl of great price for which all is given. 


Sometimes I am surprised at how quickly I forget this. Sometimes I am not surprised.


“...to reproduce it...”


The good, however, does not merely consist of ideas and abstractions. What is inherent to the good is the extending of itself into the world through the agency of human beings. Students cannot be said to have learned what is good if they lack all evidence of embodying it, of serving it. Our hearts will become known through our actions. We cannot claim to love what is good and then act as if we do not. To reproduce what is good comes in many forms. We can speak of good in terms of business and politics, of parenting and art making. At the highest level we speak of the good in terms of character. Again, Christ is our example. When one takes up one’s life and chooses one’s direction, a declaration is made regarding commitments to what is good, one way or the other.


In fear and trembling I cling to the fact that it is God who does the real work. Praise be to Him, because I am weak.


“...and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility.”


Knowledge is intrinsically bound up with goodness, for knowledge is a gift from God. How one uses knowledge, however, manifests the condition of one’s heart. Knowledge is never truly neutral, and we are never without knowledge. As educators we know we must be responsible with our teaching. But we must also recognize that we are imparting both knowledge and a moral orientation towards knowledge. If we do not consciously make this connection then we may convey a false orientation, for the connection is there regardless. All knowledge is bound up with goodness, but not all men are good. Thus knowledge, which is designed to be a tool for good, becomes perverted and corrupted when used for evil. We must make the connection for our students between knowledge and responsibility.


This is where the homeschooling parent realizes teaching and parenting are really the same thing. We teach it, we live it…they learn it, they live it. We cannot commit to knowledge apart from our whole selves.




I claim no particular wisdom. I am sure for most of you this is old news. But I am convinced that modern man over-complicates the goals of education precisely because he has given up on permanent things and forsaken his own soul. However, lest we (lest I) become too proud, we must recognize that in the simplicity of Truth there lies an even greater challenge, a challenge which is finally impossible: We are to be imitators of Christ. That is our supreme task. Education is one arena in which this challenge is lived out. It is to this powerful truth that my study of education━again and again━leads me.

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