What is the main purpose of education? Print
Our Catholic Schools
Thursday, Sep. 21, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

First in a series.

It's that time of year again when the air starts to cool, leaves reveal their true colors, and children board buses back to school. All of us have experienced the end of summer vacation and the start of school.

Generation after generation, the cycle repeats. It is a rite of passage, part of the fabric of our modern society. It is so common that most of us take it for granted, rarely pausing to reflect on the purpose of school, or an education.

Purpose of education

The purpose of education and the means by which to achieve it have been the discussion of much national debate over the last decade.

President George W. Bush championed "No Child Left Behind," while President Obama urged states to adopt Common Core Standards to propel their schools forward in the "Race to the Top."

Funding of public schools is often debated in our own state, and ever more states are considering whether or not to provide funds for non-public schools through tax credits or vouchers.

On a recent Friday evening, Sept. 8, four major networks -- ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC -- all aired, at the same time, a special program about improving America's high schools. Think about that. When do you ever see the same program running on all the major networks?

Education critical for Church and society

Clearly, education is important. In fact, there may be few other endeavors so critical.

In the Diocese of Madison, we have 42 Catholic elementary schools that educate over 6,000 students each year. Education is as critical for the Church as it is for society. As we consider how best to provide their education, we must be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it. We must be clear about the purpose of education.

A common societal view is that education is necessary for children to get into a good college, get a good job, and become good citizens. We have heard that schools should exist to ensure that all students are "college or career" ready to compete in a global economy.

Right to education stems from human dignity

This limited view, however, is not the main purpose of education, nor is it why we, as Catholics, engage in the educational endeavor.

No school should educate children simply to ensure that they have a good future and contribute to society. This is not the primary purpose of education. The reason that we educate children, the reason why every human being has a right to an education, does not stem from a child's potential usefulness to society, or industry, or the economy.

Rather, the right to an education stems from the human dignity shared by all people as unique individuals created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27). Not only did God create us in his image and likeness, he willed us into existence out of love, for a specific purpose to which he calls each of us (Jer 1:5, Jn 15:16). Our dignity is from God.

It is this dignity from which derives all persons' right to an education. When we realize our true dignity, we become more fully, more wholly human. Just as acts of violence and brutality deny our dignity, dehumanizing us and making us less human, so too does each act of hope, love, and respect affirm our dignity and make us more fully human.

This then is the true purpose of education, not merely to acquire facts and knowledge for useful application, but to make us better people, to make us more truly, more authentically human.

Education should reveal the depth, complexity, joy, and immense dignity of our very humanity, making us more fully human. Education should not primarily prepare us to succeed as workers; it should prepare to us to succeed in life and enter further into the fullness of our humanity. This is the true purpose of education.

I will speak more of this and how we strive to accomplish this in Catholic schools in future columns in this series, "This Dignity That Is Ours." Until then, thank you for reading.

Michael Lancaster is the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Madison.