What is the purpose of education? To what end are children taught? These are questions that have been asked throughout the “classical conversation” of history, and they are questions that must continue to be asked.
Classically, the answer about the purpose of education has been very specific. In fact, even the organization of classical education was done with intentionality. Education began with the seven liberal arts (the Trivium and the Quadrivium). It then progressed into the natural, moral, and philosophical sciences. It culminated in the study of theology. This organization and sequence speaks to the purpose of classical education: the contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Present-day education—the dissemination and propagation of contemporary culture to future generations—has had a destructive and distracting influence on this purpose. Students now go to college in pursuit of paper qualifications. In other words, they go to college to obtain degrees or diplomas, not to signify that they have contemplated truth, goodness, and beauty. In contrast, their paper credentials signify their ability to earn and their expectation of a decent salary. Furthermore, the culture, along with its educational methodology, embodies the ideas of Francis Bacon, “Human knowledge and power meet in one.”1 Education today serves to propagate contemporary culture’s desire for the power to manipulate the universe; it serves utility rather than contemplation.
In contrast, as discussed above, classical education was organized with a strikingly different intention. It served to prepare a human being for knowledge, and thereby for contemplation. The earlier arts were preparatory for the study of the later arts and sciences. From beginning to end, the arts were taught according to Plato’s four levels of knowledge: sensory awareness, opinion, understanding, and reason. Each level of knowledge was a prerequisite for the subsequent level. Essentially, the literate arts of the Trivium gave students the language, metaphor, and analogy necessary to learn the succeeding disciplines. Then, the numerate arts of the Quadrivium provided both the language of science and the structure behind art. Through the study of number and its relationship to physical space and time (through arithmetic, geometry, harmony, and astronomy), the Quadrivium gave students the intellectual intuition necessary to proceed into the exploration of higher-order studies. With the intellect thus prepared, the learner progressed from the Trivium and Quadrivium to the examination of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), to the moral sciences (politics, economics, and ethics), to philosophy and, ultimately, to theology.
Learning on this path provided secondary benefits along the way. First, the student became capable of interacting—not just for profit, but also with regard for the appropriateness of the interaction—with both the creation and his fellow man. Second, it trained him in the right and proper use of his freedom. Third, it awakened in him deeper questions, questions for which he could not have developed a desire for their answers had he not had this type of education. Finally, the student would have learned how to learn, a skill that would enable him, if necessary, to master the later sciences by his own inquiry rather than through a teacher.
In addition, the purpose of education as Stratford Caldecott describes it in Beauty for Truth’s Sake, “is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with all this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation.”2
Yet another damaging effect of contemporary culture and its overarching educational philosophy has been the fragmentation of these arts and sciences into subjects lacking integration and communicability. It is beauty that provides this lost unity. Beauty, according to medieval philosophers, is one of the “transcendental properties of being.” What qualifies beauty as a transcendental property is its presence in all things. All things, so far as they communicate and embody truth, the logos, are emanating beauty.
The ultimate pursuit of education, therefore, is the pursuit of beauty; beauty in turn provides the unity and integration of the arts and sciences that make them communicable and learnable. True education teaches the student to love what is beautiful, and beauty ultimately exists in and radiates from the Triune God. As a student pursues truth, goodness, and in particular, beauty, he pursues God. As he seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all other things (including such benefits as knowledge and livelihood) will be added unto him.
1 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Part I, Aphorism III. (Boston: Taggard & Thompson, 1863, volume VIII), 67–68.
2 Caldecott, Stratford. Beauty for Truth’s Sake. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 2009), 28.