Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Educational Life: Thoughts on Education, pt. 1

It has struck me in recent days that it is of little benefit to a child to teach them to seek success over learning and character formation. This is not a new realization, of course. Countless others know and have said the same thing. But it is an important thing to say again and to think about, however briefly.

Recently I read Ross Douthat's book Privilege, a memoir of the twentysomething Atlantic writer's experiences as a Harvard undergrad. The book was compelling because of its first-person journey through a Harvard education, which many of us cannot help but be interested in. Douthat made many salient points in the text, but one that most drew my attention was his indictment of fellow students (and himself) for pursuing not education for its own sake but success. Douthat recounts at one point how a classmate wrote a paper in the early morning hours despite having never read the subject material he was discussing. The author then turned the paper in well past the deadline, though he was never caught because the overloaded TA for the class didn't pick up the papers until later in the day. Not surprisingly, the author attained an A for the class. This was quite common at Harvard, apparently.

It was quite common at my school, Bowdoin College, as well. I knew loads of smart and talented young people who routinely avoided hard work at any cost--but who pursued academic success with great intensity nonetheless. Sadly, I cannot claim to be exempt from such poor academic behavior. Students who read only a smattering of pages and who then long-winded essays on the text are committing a foolish and harmful academic mistake. They are responsible for such actions. Yet I also wonder if the current fascination with success over learning that prevails in America is not in good measure responsible for their behavior. Many who do such things have been rewarded only for their success, not their effort. They have been trained by a success-crazy culture that it is not learning and personal development that is important, but success. A's matter more than thinking. GPAs matter more than asking good questions. Getting the right job means more than character. This is a huge societal problem, and I saw its fruits at Bowdoin College in Maine just as Douthat did at Harvard. Students are to blame for such practices, but so is a success-based system frenzied for achievement.

We Christians should consider such matters carefully. What are we instilling in our children and in one another? What do we reward our children for--success or effort? Do we praise them because we love them in their essence or because their talent nicely acquits our rearing? Do we praise pastors because of their faithfulness to God or because of their success? Are we contributing to a culture that allows people to do shoddy, undisciplined, unlearned work and rewards them for such behavior? Or do we work against it? Whatever our answer, one thing is clear: we get what we deserve either way.


Blogger Paul Cable said...

Good post. I've had to think through this lately, critical of myself, starting seminary, and you're right that worldly success shouldn't be our ultimate motivation for education (or for pastoring, of course). I don't think learning to be learned alone should be the point either, (not that you implied this).

It's tempting to admire and even emulate those that set up these idols and do a great, successful job of worshiping them. There is a type of kingdom success (the glory of God in our learned, careful preaching, for example) that is the "chief end", past grades and even past our level of pure knowledge.

5:40 PM  

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