The Three Ends of Education


by Ed Macierowski

Every so often someone comes up with the complaint that “our educational system is failing to prepare students for the job market.” Of itself this could be a major problem if the sole purpose of education were to train students for a job.

But what if education, especially higher education, has more than one goal? A weakness in one area is not necessarily a total defeat in all areas. On the other hand, a major problem in one area could be part of a much larger and more serious challenge, especially if the other important goals are completely neglected.

I do grant, by the way, that preparation for a job is one of the goals, and so it is important to consider how to achieve that goal, too.

Here are what I take to be the three ends of education:

  1. To help students achieve a happy life,
  2. To help students to become good citizens, good human beings, and contributors to the common good, and
  3. To help students find suitable employment.

Of these, only the third seems to occupy our attention.

In fact, getting a job seems in general propaganda to be the only end of education. To appreciate why this might be a problem requires getting out of the box.

Let’s describe what in fact is meant, almost exclusively, when people are urged to “get a job.” What this means is to become someone else’s employee. If, however, everyone were trained to this task, everyone would be trained to be an employee and no one for becoming an employer. If the exclusive aim of education is to train everyone to become merely an employee, this would have a catastrophic effect on any economy.

Let’s not mince words. When the ancients thought of slaves, they wanted “living tools.” This means that some people were thought of as simply instruments for other people’s choices. Those “other people” would be the owners of the slaves, but, they would have to be capable of having purposes of their own to be able to tell their slaves what to do. These “other people” would be the citizens and would have the status of political liberty and the freedom to make choices of their own. This division into slave and free, however, is not entirely satisfactory. For if to be a slave means to be subject to necessity from outside and to be free means to be able to start changing things from one’s own inside, it is obvious that, to the extent to which all human beings have bodies, to that extent we are bound by bodily necessity.

If, however, those who are “free” have rational souls, then to the extent that we human beings all have rational souls, we all have some claim on freedom and to the extent that we are bodies we are subject to necessity. This rough and dirty distinction opens the way for a distinction in types of education.

To the extent to which we train people only for instrumental thinking and slavish action to execute merely the goals of others, to that extent we might speak of “servile” education. To the extent to which we aim to cultivate the perfection of the human soul, we aim at “liberal” education. (In today’s over-heated political atmosphere, however, we do fail to take our bearings by the relevant standard. Today we usually chatter without thinking, using “conservative” as the opposite of “liberal.” The relevant opposite to “liberal” is “servile”: A free person is capable of making reasonable choices for himself or herself; a slave, to the extent that he or she is merely a slave, does only what he is told. This way of speaking is shocking to contemporary ears, but needs to be born in mind.

In Democracy in America (Volume II, Book I, Chapter 15), Alexis de Tocqueville helps us understand:

“What was called the People in the most democratic republics of antiquity was very unlike what we designate by that term. In Athens all the citizens took part in public affairs; but there were only twenty thousand citizens to more than three hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants. All the rest were slaves, and discharged the greater part of those duties which belong at the present day to the lower or even to the middle classes. Athens, then, with her universal suffrage, was, after all, merely an aristocratic republic, to which all the nobles had an equal right to the government.”

This brings us to the second end of education: citizenship.

In the political setting in which we find ourselves today, we do not have direct democracy, but representative democracy. There is still an element of aristocracy in this institution: we elect our public officials to public office; in the Athenian democracy, they were generally assigned by lot. In a strict direct democracy everyone’s vote counted equally, but the point of representative democracy is to select people of good character and good judgment to act on our behalf.

To the extent to which we allow ourselves to constrict our understanding of human things to the marketplace alone, to that extent we allow political notions like what is called “the common good” to drop out of sight, and in this constricted horizon we think of ourselves not even as moral agents or citizens but rather as producers or consumers.

Does human excellence arise automatically from market forces? A lot of good things may be found in the market, but I know of no one so stupid as to think that civic virtue can be bought. Nevertheless, this civic dimension of American education is much undervalued. There are still high-school courses in civics, dealing with the nuts and bolts of how to vote and the like, and there are private schools concerned with the development of moral character, which is still more primordially the province of parents and the family to foster.

I should point out that in places like New England, the townships and communities would have rather more the character of the direct Athenian democracy: Every citizen could recognize every other citizen by face and by name. Indeed, not everyone would even go to high school. Children would generally learn a trade or a craft from their parents, with the exception of those who were destined (if I can use that word) to one of the three major professions: medicine, law, religion. To prepare for these professions, further advanced study was required: the liberal arts college. The purpose of these professions was (and is) to attain and communicate in various ways truth.

These three professions involve a commitment to a vocation, often bound by oath or vow to act in conformity with a certain code. Here it is important not to misunderstand the notion of liberty involved in these professions. Liberty does not mean doing just anything that I want. The physician is sworn to the art of healing, and so when he uses a drug is committed to heal, not to harm his patient. (To be sure, his technical knowledge of drugs might make it possible to poison his patient, but he has freely committed himself to pursue and do that good and to avoid the evil.) Those engaged in the legal profession commit themselves to the pursuit of justice, and it is from the population of practitioners of the law that lawmakers are usually elected. The clergy were ordained to their task of the cure of souls. In these matters, character counts no less than intellect. The ancient and medieval tradition of a hierarchy of means to ends is presupposed for this order of things to work.

None of this should be taken to mean that there were no murderous physicians, crooked lawyers, or corrupt clergy: when members of these professions go wrong, it is quite natural to be shocked and to demand justice. But it would be pointless to ask for justice if none of these functions had any purpose.

The primary purpose of education is to help people achieve a happy life. But there are many candidates presenting themselves as “happiness.” Some people identify it with pleasure. In fact, are there not many people who think that something that comes to them from the outside will “make” them happy?

One reason why people might go in this direction is obvious; they will answer our question something like this: “Surely you don’t mean to say that happiness is unpleasant, do you?” I would readily admit that what I understand to be happiness is not unpleasant, but would ask again: “Does this mean it is simply identical with pleasure?”

If there is such a thing as a free human being, I think the answer has to be negative. Why? If I am a free human being, I have to be the starting point of my own actions. I need to choose the happy action. Happiness cannot be forced upon me from outside. Happiness has to be an inside job. Happiness is involved principally in what I do rather than in what is done to me.

If this is true, there is and cannot ever be a “happiness pill.” The most promising suggestion I have seen for a definition of happiness goes something like this: to be doing the best that a human being is naturally capable of for the entire course of one’s life. Discovering what that is is the goal of a liberal education.

The Declaration of Independence interestingly speaks of three inalienable rights. There is a right to life. There is a right to liberty. Curiously or wisely, the Founders did not find a “right to happiness” but only a right to the “pursuit of happiness.” This vital purpose of education applies no less to college than it does to learning a trade.

Despite my wife’s observation that I could make more money as a plumber than as a professor of philosophy, there are few points to consider: Would I be a good plumber? If not, would people want to pay me? Would it be good for society as a whole for everyone to become a plumber? Might it not be to the common good for at least some people to ask questions? If philosophy is the love of wisdom, might that not be a good job description for everyone who  raises thoughtful questions? Such a life is probably not available when almost all people are at the brink of starvation. Where we do all of have what is needed for life, might there not be a little room to ask: What counts as a good life? Am I doing the good deeds that go into a good life?

Now let us descend.

Is the purpose of education merely “to get a job”? And is “getting a job” simply a matter of supply and demand? If it is true that we all aim at happiness, might one of the features of a good job be some sort of match between what we are able to do and what we like doing and what is in fact worth doing? If we treat schools and colleges as holding pens for the demands of the job market, might over-specialization during school train us for jobs that will not exist by the time we graduate?

Further, I gather that most college graduates get jobs that do not match their college major anyhow. Might it be worth revisiting the old-fashioned idea of apprenticeship?

When I was in a public junior high school in New England, parents and their children were faced with choosing which public high school was best. (The chaotic situation immediately after the Second Vatican Council led me to think it might be better for me to take religious studies at the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and to continue in one of the public high schools.) The high school of commerce focused on business subjects. The vocational high school on the various trades, building, auto mechanics, plumbing, electricity, etc. The technical high school focused on mathematics and sciences, with allowance for some foreign language study. The classical high school offered advanced placement courses in history, calculus, physics, and English, as well as (depending on what language we studied in junior high school) three or four years of Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Latin, or French. Ninety percent of the students at the Classical High School went on to college; probably a majority of those at the Technical High School went on to college. Eventually, this system, brought in by Horace Mann in the 19th century, was scrapped in favor of a comprehensive high school.

It may be worth exploring the scrapped system of streaming students by interest and talent. My father was a truck driver and I was the first of our family to attend college: The system was relatively porous. For it to work, however, requires either strong families or strongly articulated interests.

In Italy today there is a liceo classico  with a curriculum significantly stiffer than what I had at the Classical High School, but wide-ranging more specialized high-school level training programs in art restoration, information technology, business,  the trades, and newly emerging fields. The need for a full-scale program in art restoration would be obvious in a country with almost 3,000 years of art and archeological treasures; I would expect demand to be significantly lower here.

In short, I think that the standard concern is worth considering seriously, but it is important to consider it within the larger context of human happiness rather than simply market forces. Let our descent not be permanent, but let’s remember that civilized human beings want not merely survival, but a good life.

Edward M. Macierowski came to Benedictine College in 1993 after teaching in and chairing the department of philosophy at Christendom College. He has also taught at the Center for Thomistic Studies in Houston and at the Catholic University of America. In addition to his graduate work, he studied at the then-Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy in Tehran. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts where he was graduated from its Classical High School. He is married and has five adoptive children.

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.