For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
What Is An Education For?

What Is An Education For?

You can listen to the newsletter by clicking the play button above or you can click the “Listen in Podcast app” link and follow the directions to open this feed in your podcast app. Currently, you may find the feed on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify.

For several years I worked as an academic dean for a small school central Florida. In this role, I often found myself talking about the school’s vision for eduction. And when I did so, I found it useful to ask the question, “What is an education for?” We take it for granted that an education is a good thing, of course. And it may seem, at first, that the question of purpose can be easily answered. But as I would get further along in the conversation, it would become apparent that the question was not as straightforward as it seemed.

In these exchanges, it also became apparent to me that the tacit answer for most to the question of education’s purpose went something like this: the purpose of a good secondary education was to ensure acceptance into a solid college or university, the purpose of which was to ensure the best odds at landing a well-paying job in the marketplace.

I had then, and have now, no intention of belittling the importance of preparing adequately for future employment, but it seemed to me that this was at best an inadequate view of the purpose of education.

I would suggest that we’re probably not in the best position to address the question of education’s purpose until we’ve addressed an even more fundamental question: What are people for?

By asking this question, we can take the broadest possible view of the meaning and purpose of education. For example, consider again the view of education described above. Should we think of education primarily in terms of preparing students for the labor market? Only if we also believe that we measure the meaning of a human life in terms of economic productivity. If people are more than workers, then it would seem that education should aim at something more than turning out men and women prepared to enter the workforce.

As it turns out, this is an interesting moment to be thinking about the purpose of education. The Covid-19 crisis has upended the ordinary rhythms of schooling in America. Fierce intractable debates now rage on about whether or not schools should re-open and under what conditions. (I’d suggest that the debates are intractable, in part, precisely because deeper questions about the purpose of education remain are rarely addressed, much less answered.) Moreover, beginning last spring, alternative modes of learning and teaching have been deployed at an unprecedented scale as schools struggled to continue their work under quarantine and social distancing mandates. The experimentation has also unfolded beyond traditional institutions as parents have been forced to manufacture creative schooling options rather than risking the health of their families.

As in so many other social spheres, the virus has in this way proved revelatory. It has revealed the true nature and health of many of our institutions and practices, perhaps especially education. Consider, for example, the degree to which the imperative to get children back to school has revolved around the need to get parents back to work, seemingly suggesting that this is, in fact, the more pertinent relationship between education and the economy.

It would seem, then, that we are presented with an opportunity to re-examine our assumptions about education and to think again about its purpose and value.

Allow me to offer a couple of thoughts in this regard.

First, we would do well to consciously distinguish between education as a life-long task of self-development and education as the process of progressing through a series of curricular milestones in an institutional setting culminating with the attainment of a degree. While these two forms of education tend to overlap, they are not coterminous and we should avoid conflating the two.

Relatedly, this distinction also implies distinctions among the sites where education happens. Only when the latter view of education as a fundamentally institutional process is in view is it also obvious that education happens at school.

Second, if we think of education in the broadest terms as serving the larger purpose of helping men and women realize the fullness of their humanity, then education should not be too closely bound up with economic aims and outcomes. Some other ends and goals should animate the work of teaching and learning. What these other ends will be depend in large measure on one’s underlying moral, political, and metaphysical commitments.

I would propose that we at least entertain the view that learning in the pursuit of truth and the good life is itself a sufficient good. The view is almost quaint if not archaic now, but it has a distinguished pedigree. Human beings, among all creatures, are endowed with unique intellectual, moral, and aesthetic capacities that answer to transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty, the pursuit of which is the natural end of the life of the mind and its own reward. In the ancient Christian tradition, it was understood that the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty was, in fact, the pursuit of the God Who was their source. Or, as C. S. Lewis has put it, “the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty.”

From this perspective it worth considering the degree to which the life of learning in this sense is difficult to sustain in most of the contemporary institutions devoted to education. But, while this is unfortunate, it is hardly cause for despair once we remember that learning in the deepest sense is not coterminous with these institutions, indeed that these institutions, at their best, are merely preparing us to set out on the life-long calling of learning, thinking, contemplating, and, finally, celebrating and worshipping.

I’ve been reflecting along these lines recently as I’ve thought about the current and future work of the study center. It has long seemed to me that study centers are uniquely positioned to be precisely the sorts of places that sustain the life of the mind, especially because they are unburdened by the institutional and economic pressures that bear upon traditional educational institutions.

The study center offers no credits, no certificates, and no degrees. Instead, we strive to create opportunities for careful reading, deliberate thinking, and serious reflection. We are committed to the virtues of thoughtfulness and intellectual humility. We believe, with the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, that “truth lives in conversation,” so we aim to facilitate the sorts of conversations that will spur us on to seek not only what is true, but also what is good and beautiful. We do this because we believe that in so doing we are addressing a deeply felt and profound human need grounded in our creation in God’s image.

Michael Sacasas
Associate Director

Study Center Resources

September is around the corner and we are continuing to prepare for the launch of our fall program. Here are the highlights.

We will be offering two director’s classes in two formats. Dr. Horner will be offering a class on the gospels and Mike Sacasas will be teaching on the moral and spiritual dimensions of place. Dr. Horner will offer an in-person version of the class on Tuesdays at 4:10 p.m. beginning September 15th. He will also offer a Zoom section on Wednesday at 11:45 a.m. beginning September 16th. Mike will be teaching an in-person section Wednesday the 16th at 4:10 p.m. and a Zoom section on Tuesday the 15th at 11:45 a.m.

The in-person sections will meet on the second floor of Pascal’s. Registration is required and will open on Monday, August 24th. The in-person classes will be limited to ten participants while the Zoom sections will be limited to fifteen. Registration will initially be limited to undergraduate and graduate students. Audio of the classes will also be available to all through this newsletter.

The Dante reading group will recommence on Wednesday, September 2nd at 1PM over Zoom. Participation is open to all. If you are interested in joining, please email Mike Sacasas at

Finally, with a view to promoting the life of the mind as discussed in the essay above, we will be hosting a Zoom reading group, Readings in the Christian Imagination. The group will meet on Monday evenings, twice-monthly, beginning September 14th at 8PM. Our first reading will be Zena Hitz’s Lost In Thought. In our first meeting we will discuss the first half the book. In our second, Prof. Hitz will join us for an interview and Q/A.

This newsletter will be a hub for our digital presence. Along with twice-monthly essays you can expect twice monthly conversations with Dr. Horner and Mike Sacasas, audio of the director’s classes, and occasional interviews with scholars and writers of interest to our community.

We certainly encourage you to pass along a link to the newsletter to those you know who would value the center’s work, especially as so many our offerings will be available to those beyond the Gainesville community.

Share A Newsletter of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville

Recommended Reading

— Historian Mark Noll take a long view of the pandemic as a turning point in history:

Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished historian of British imperial history at the University of Toronto, has stated succinctly what many others have concluded when they look beyond daily demands: “France in 1789. Russia in 1917. The Europe of the 1930s. The pandemic of 2020. They are all junctures where the river of history changes direction.” Surely MacMillan is correct. But where is the river turning, how fast, and in what direction?

— Zena Hitz, whose book Lost in Thought we will reading together at the study center, responds to some of the more fruitful criticism of her argument:

Individuals must experience their learning as a mode of freedom and spontaneity, not a complex navigation of yet another structure of authority and achievement. Any fundamental question, or a practice that leads to one, is as good a place to begin as any other. There is hubris in imagining that human knowledge is well enough developed that we can confidently arrange for others what is first and what is last. We can develop our pedagogy as elaborately as we like, but no plan survives contact with the inner battlefield where an individual struggles to find happiness or truth.

— Wheaton professor Esau McCaulley writes about giving children joy even during a pandemic with an emphasis on the unique pressures facing black parents:

There are no easy answers as to how to parent Black children in America inside or outside a pandemic. It is not my job to tell someone how to do it.

My wife and I have drifted to a bias toward joy. We tell our children about some major events; other burdens we carry ourselves. Our children know much of the history of this country, but the focus is on Black triumph over suffering, not the suffering itself. I immerse them in the soul, hip-hop and gospel music that has lifted many a weary soul even when they would rather listen to Kidz Bop.

I have told them of Moses and the Israelites, of Mary Jesus’ mother and her dramatic yes to God. They know about Sojourner and her railroad and Martin and his dream of Mother Pollard and her rested feet. I remind them that God has looked upon their Black skin, hair and bodies and called it good.

I am making deposit after deposit of Black joy and faith in the hope that it will be with them when the inevitable struggle comes. I do so because that is what my mother did for me.

For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
Listen to audio version of study center essays as well as lectures and talks.