There’s a dark irony within our current educational institutions. It appears as if the very time in which we began to place a heavy emphasis on test scores and practical skills is exactly when our schools and students started heading downhill. Don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to imply that there was once a “glory day” for schooling, as if everything was once perfect and has only recently begun to break down. Nor do I wish to claim that an emphasis on testing and practicality is somehow the only factor contributing to poor education. I am simply pointing out that there is a strong link between goals and results. When we aim at the wrong end, we are not likely to get results with which we are happy. Our goals in education have gone astray, and our students are now suffering the consequences.
If we want our schools to run effectively, we must answer the question “What is the purpose of education?” Responses, of course, will vary. Getting into college, fulfilling career dreams, or becoming a key contributor to the public sphere might be a few of the answers you hear. Those accomplishments are all fine and good, but they set a very low bar. Furthermore, those sort of objectives doom certain students to inevitable failure. Uncontrollable life circumstances guarantee that not everyone will be able to go on to higher education at a university, become a prolific scientist, or even attain competence as a reader and writer. Our educational goals have left us with a peculiar mix of low standards and unattainable expectations, which is a sure recipe for disaster.
If we step outside of our current historical moment and listen to the wisdom of the past, we might find a healthier alternative. For thousands of years, figures like Plato, Cicero, Augustine, and C.S. Lewis have carried the torch for a different kind of education: the formation of the soul. When our aim is set squarely upon training up well-formed and virtuous souls, all else will start to fall into place.
With this end in mind, we can cast aside the low bar of mere academic achievement, and push our children to reach towards a higher calling and more appropriate standard. Are math wizards, rhetorical craftsmen, and scientific geniuses really success stories for an educational system? If we accomplish these things, along with a myriad of other academic achievements, but have done nothing to train our students in virtue, then I think we have quite the opposite. The skills and abilities we teach to children are powerful tools. But as we know from the old Spider-Man maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility.” When we give students intellectual power but do not teach them responsibility, those tools are wielded dangerously. In effect, we have “put weapons in the hands of madmen” (Cicero, De Oratore, Book III).
While we might worry about some intellectually elite students taking the tools we give them and turning them into weapons, we must also think of those who struggle intellectually—those for whom our academic expectations are unattainable. A proper education should be something that is accessible to all. Our educational goals, then, must be aligned with that principle. Some students, due to nature or circumstance, will not master calculus and write beautiful poetry, even if they put forth the utmost effort. Does this make them failures? Only if your ultimate goal is academic achievement. Not everyone is equipped with the abilities to reach the same level academically, but all people are capable of striving towards virtue and self-improvement. An education that believes the soul, rather than the mind, is of primary importance can offer success to all of its students.
You may be thinking that goals focused on the soul and virtue will inevitably lead to a lowering of our academic standards. You may even think that the sort of education I lay out here necessitates that we devalue academics. I believe that the opposite is true. If the goal is merely academics, teachers are left with the impossible burden of knowing that a bad grade could give a child the message that they are a failure. If virtue is the goal, teachers are freed to give students a grade based on the quality of work without the fear of crushing their self-worth. Teachers who have soul and heart formation in mind can know that giving a below-average assignment a below-average grade can be the fuel that leads to perseverance, integrity, courage, humility, and responsibility. They can also, with sincerity, tell a student whose heart is virtuous but whose grade is failing that they are not a failure. Their dignity is maintained not by empty praise and unearned A’s, but by a proper focus.
When good grades are the goal, they are only capable of leaving a student either arrogant or broken. When grades are a tool, they might be the very thing that pushes a student to strive for excellence in all of life. Any successful school will push for academic rigor in the classroom. It is an essential part of forming the soul, as well as preparing students for adulthood. But we must see it as that: a part. Academic growth is indeed one important goal of education, but it can never be the primary one. When it is, our foundation begins to crumble, and our students will crumble right along with it.
To conclude, we might adapt some of C.S. Lewis’ wisdom for our theme: “Aim at a well-formed soul and you will get academic growth ‘thrown in’; aim at academic growth and you will get neither.”