What, exactly, are children for? What are we supposed to do with them and why? What is the purpose of school? Shouted altogether, these questions sound like some angry existential rant from a high schooler who just read Kafka for the first time. But they’re pretty basic questions that anyone charged with the care of children or their education ought to be able to answer.
If you look through the “Purpose” or “Mission” statements on school board websites, you’ll usually find euphemisms and vague gestures toward “success through learning” or “preparedness for the future.” Yes, of course, the purpose of education is learning but WHY? Why is learning desirable? The mission statement for the Common Core State Standards dives right into this question and concludes education ought to be “robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
In other words, the purpose of school is to prepare children for the work force where they will be successful if they earn money and contribute to the global economy. That’s it. That’s the purpose of human beings. Not to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty but to turn the wheels of industrial capitalism. This isn’t a dig at Common Core, which basically reflects the standards that are already in place across most states. Our schools have long since adopted the philosophy that the goal of school is to produce workers. In a society free of religious dogma, what other idea could there be? If we can’t assume an idea of virtue or “eudaimonia,” what common goal could we aspire to but economic success?
But, as a Catholic, I’m happy to make radical statements about human beings and what they’re for. These beliefs shape how we raise our children and how we choose to educate them.
We believe that every person is a unique creation and gives glory to God by his or her mere existence. So, right now, without earning a cent for the US GDP, our children possess immeasurable value. When they play outside and enjoy the beauty of the world around them, they are ALREADY fulfilling a part of their purpose.
God also gave us these children as the most precious gifts imaginable. This isn’t a cliche meant to express great affection for my kids. This is something we really believe and has major ramifications for how we want to form our family life. Because the gifts that are our children are meant to be loved, nurtured, and enjoyed by us. This forms another part of their purpose; they were made to be loved! And a part of MY purpose is to be the one to love them. So, when my wife and I spend time with our kids everyday, we help each other live out the love for which we were designed. Simply laughing and being with our children is a purpose-filled act, even if it doesn’t show up on anybody’s education checklist.
Of course, my wife and I do plan to do more with our children than simply bask in their presence and soak up the magic of childhood. We do want them to learn. But our reasons are vastly different from those put forward in the government standard. We believe that learning -in itself!- is good. When Benjamin learns to read or begins to understand how something works, it’s good because he is utilizing his potential. Not his potential to make money or contribute to the economy but his potential as a human being uniquely made to understand and communicate with the world around him.
As Catholics, we’re also in a position to make claims about the rest of creation; most importantly that it is good! This is dramatically different from the Common Core which uses the phrase “real world” to mean, quite narrowly and foolishly, only that which pertains to money-earning work (and perhaps a few other aspects of adulthood). But we Catholics see the whole world as good, not just the parts that offer us economic or physical benefits. So, we believe it’s good for our kids to learn about animals, plants, rivers, etc. because those things have intrinsic value and because they reflect the goodness of their creator. With this view, learning becomes not just a means to an end but an act of praise in itself.
Obviously, we want our children to be able to earn a living. We’ll certainly teach them things that the Common Core might call “useful for the real world.” But this is really a secondary concern. Because, for us, success has nothing to do with the amount of goods produced or the sum of money earned. Success has everything to do with virtue and a life lived well.
I want to be clear that I don’t think Common Core is an evil plot against my kids. Obama isn’t trying to brainwash anybody. Most school superintendents are doing what they honestly think is best for kids. And the vast majority of teachers are sincere and intelligent people who genuinely care for their students. But, good intentions aren’t enough to combat an ideology that is inherently flawed.
You may have noticed I’ve only vaguely alluded to our efforts to homeschool our kids. That’s because this isn’t about homeschool vs. public school. Instead, this is about the way we view human beings and how we approach education. Homeschool isn’t an option for everyone. But what IS an option (and obligation) is awareness of the philosophy behind these things. We can all work to influence educational policy and combat bad ideas about people. And we can all instill in our children the importance of virtue, the goodness of creation, and the value of every human life and mind.