I won’t assume that you’ve ever met someone who thinks education’s sole purpose is usefulness, but I have—me. Although I did not have a classical education in high school – it was closer to liberal arts – I grew to love literature, the Western Tradition, and ancient languages. My appetite to read widely became constant, and I began to pursue literary works out of a hunger for knowledge and an appreciation for the delight of the great books. Alongside a love of old literature, another hunger began to grow: knowledge for knowledge’s sake. My appetite for being able to say, “I’ve read that” or “I’m familiar with that idea or person,” became veracious, and it became the end and purpose of my education. Unfortunately, I had merely found a new academic way to nurture my pride. Education became a means to a self-oriented end. Although my pursuit took the form of pride through knowledge, education can also become a means to acquire a prestigious college degree, consequently a high paying job, and ultimately a refined life, but these self-oriented means can make education dangerous to the life and the soul of a person.
As I have grown to acknowledge my arrogance in reading for the sake of having read or knowing for the sake of knowing, I have been able to sympathize with my students when they ask: when am I going to use this? I too have asked the question, although I was more subtle and wicked. Hidden behind that question is: what is the aim and purpose of doing this assignment or this class or this reading? A question every teacher must entertain, because even if asked out of spite, it provides a window of opportunity to truly direct the questionnaire’s gaze elsewhere, away from the self. More specifically, it is an opportunity to point to Christ and the things of God.
The inquiry regarding usefulness becomes tempting when we see education, any education, as aimed at ourselves. We can struggle to see grammar, logic, latin, or literature as important. If these things aren’t immediately useful, if they don’t elevate our image or brand, then they aren’t worthy of our attention or time. However, the end of classical education isn’t usefulness or self-elevation, the end of classical education is Jesus Christ.
Additionally, the end of a classical education is to learn that many things do not exist in the world for their usefulness, and we are sinfully prone to utility, even to using Christ’s saving grace or our own ends. If a student is taught that everything has a useful aim, what will they do with Christ and scripture, but make him, his church, and his word, useful—a means to an end. Even the best natured student, who has been conditioned this way, will initially see Christ in that way, and they will have to work hard against the sinful desire to selfishly use him. Years of education directed towards status, accumulation of money and things, and prestige will attempt to subsume Jesus into those same ends.
Instead, if we begin to show students that Christ is the end of their labors and knowledge, then they will come to see the beauty of what is commonly called useless, for in Christ even the menial becomes purposeful. They will no longer be required to bear the burden of only committing to things because they elevate one’s image. Seeing this will also serve them in the long run. An identity founded in usefulness will only lead to emptiness.
Instead of usefulness, students and teachers should know, remember, and be taught that there is a better way, a self-forgetful joy that sees the beauty in everyday, ordinary things. It draws in the observer, reader, or hearer beyond the practicality of an assignment into the beauty of the thing itself. When we elevate Christ as the aim of classical education, he sheds light upon those things around us, those things previously only seen for their usefulness. And when we do not view Christ as a means to our own selfish ends, but as beautiful, we move beyond ourselves into true life. We move to praise that elevates his beauty and person. The magnificence of Jesus creates enduring value, value that lasts longer than mere practicality, imbuing significance into every small corner and “worthless” task.
It can be a long road from usefulness to Christ. I myself have taken a long time to value the things that are not immediately practical. Coming to see everything that God has made as good, ordered, and valuable has provided a joyfulness and a perseverance that does not come while seeking practicality. If the end of classical education is not Christ, we are merely chaff blowing in the wind. Our pursuits will terminate with ourselves, and our haste will cause our feet to miss our way, as Proverbs 19 says. As the question of usefulness continues to arise in the classroom, teachers must be diligent to point to more magnificent things. They must point to Christ.