Letter to an 8th Grader: What is Education?

philosophyDear _____,

You are totally right! I think I may have jumped the gun with my last letter about how to read a book. That letter contained all kinds of assumptions about the nature of education and the premise that you should read the Great Books at all. Of course, on the one hand, you are stuck in my 8th grade class, so you are going to have to read books, especially if you want to get good grades (which is a discussion for a whole other time!). But, if I can motivate you to actually read these books carefully and with something approaching desire or, at least, purpose, then you will get so much more out of this class!

So, perhaps, we should begin with a definition of education. Of course, the nature of education has been a matter of debate since Socrates’s day (and before!), and I am not arrogant enough to assume that I have a some sort of secret insight that is not available to the average person, so I thought I would start with our society’s common conception. Our society typically defines education as the process of the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. That is, education is primarily the transfer of information from one person (the Teacher) to another (the Student). In my mind, however, this definition is woefully inadequate because it defines education primarily as a transaction, a one way street. But my professional experience indicates that the street certainly goes both ways and, more to the point, far more than mere information is at stake.

Plato, in the Phaedo, famously has Socrates describe education (as he does in other places as well) as the process of recollection. That is, Socrates posits that knowledge is actually implanted within the soul prior to birth and that the process of education over the course of one’s life is the process of recollecting, or remembering, what the soul originally knew. That is, education is a kind of discovery that, for Socrates, ultimately allows the soul to depart unencumbered from the body into Heaven. For Socrates, education was the process by which one became divine or, maybe more accurately, the process by which one entered the divine realm. Plato’s theory, essentially, was that people only behave unjustly or poorly because they are ignorant. If they only knew what to do (and were persuaded, in actuality, that doing so was good), then they would do so. It is the philosopher (Greek for “lover of wisdom”) that is thus closest to the gods.

Plato is, of course, closer to the truth (famous dead people usually are!), but he is still missing something. He primarily defines education as a cognitive process. In fact, in the Phaedo, he specifically argues that the philosopher is able to transcend the bodily experiences of pleasure and pain and to move to a higher realm of abstract ideas. He suggests that those who die whose souls are too enamored of the pains and pleasures of the body often linger as ghosts before finally being forced to move on. In this, Plato injects the seed of the most pernicious problem in Western thought: the spirit/soul is good but material/the body is bad. Plato does not (like the later manicheans and other gnostics) reject the body altogether as an evil thing, but he does clearly put it second.

So if education is not just the transfer of information, or merely the ascendency of the soul over the body as the soul begins to contemplate the grand truths of the universe, then what is education? I define education as the subset of discipleship that is concerned with the right ordering of one’s mind. Okay. Let’s break some of that down. Discipleship (or, to use another common phrase, Spiritual Formation) is the process of becoming like Christ by crucifying the self in hopes of resurrection. St. Augustine famously argued that our primary problem as humans is that our loves are disordered. That is, we are made to love (Jamie Smith says we are not primarily thinking beings, but we are loving beings), but we simply love the wrong things. Since we act in pursuit of our loves (think of the effort, money, and time you put into the Starbucks drink you are clutching right now), then the real question is how we shift ourselves to love what we ought to love and to not love what we ought not to. The result (since we act in the world based on our loves) is that we will act virtuously rather than sinfully. So, if the task of discipleship is to align our loves with God’s desires, then education is primarily about the very first step in the process: wanting to want what is Good, True, and Beautiful.

As any addiction specialist can tell you, change only occurs when the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing. The first step in breaking an addiction (to social media, say) is to become motivated. That is, to desire to desire what is right. But the only way one comes to the point of desiring to desire what is right is by learning what is right. So then, education is the process (long and grueling and joyful and good) of shaping one’s mind so that one a) knows what the Good, True, and Beautiful are and b) desires to desire them. The rest of the work, the actual act of desiring, is (in my mind) beyond the scope of education. In my mind, then, the role of the teacher is like that of the chef. I will set before you a feast of idea and will teach you what they are, but it is your task (if your desire is piqued at all) to dig in.

Of course, along the way, one will learn facts and skills and theories, but these are only helpful if they aid in helping you learn to want to love what is Good, True, and Beautiful. Thus, my previous letter can be best understood as one of the most important skills to learn (how to read) in order to rightly order your mind.

Faithfully yours,

Mr. Jeffers