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  • Michael Martin

What is the Purpose of Education?

My grandfather, Michael Patrick Conlon (back, 4th from right) with his class in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, c. 1919

What is the purpose of education?, and, in particular, what is the purpose of a K-12 education? I know this might sound like a stupid question, but it’s not. Furthermore, I’m not sure many people really know what the purpose of an education is, or, if they do, on closer examination they might find that their assumptions about it are gravely mistaken, if not entirely incoherent.

Educational theorist Kieran Egan (who, sadly, left us in May of 2022) clearly articulated this incoherence in a number of books, most notably in The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding (1997)—and it is an incoherence not merely of the general population but of the educational establishment itself. For Egan, three “old ideas” haunt contemporary educational paradigms and these ideas, often mixed together awkwardly, have aims completely incompatible with each other. These incompatible ideas are based on what he identifies as commitments to: 1) Socialization; 2) Rousseau and Nature’s Guidance; and 3) Plato and the Truth about Reality.

We can all identify the socialization project. When I was a boy in Catholic school during the 1970s not only was this ethos promulgated by the daily prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance with which we began each school day, but also through weekly Mass attendance, and the ungodly punishment of The Baltimore Catechism for Children, a book that has arguably created more atheists than either Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. More recently, we can see Project Socialization in the relentless instruction (okay, “indoctrination”) students have in public schools (and even in a good number of parochial schools) that gender “is on a spectrum” and that “structural racism” is built into the very fabric of western democracies. And don’t even get me started on the drag queen-ification of public schooling. You get the picture: socialization.

When it comes to Rousseau and Nature’s Guidance, contemporary educational models, in addition to socialization, seek to trust the child’s natural instincts and let him or her discover the world somehow organically, as we can see in the unschooling movement favored by some homeschoolers or in various educational experiments like Montessori (to some degree) or the Summerhill School in England. In this model, the education is intended to fit the child instead of the child fitting the system. Considering the systems available, it is not the worst idea one might encounter. In more mainstream settings, the Rousseauean project can be seen in the overemphasis on the child or student and his or her experiences, particularly in the overemphasis of the personal narrative in writing studies. The danger, of course, is that education then becomes a fostering in narcissism and self-absorption, seen nowhere so evidently as in the postmodern fascination with social media and turning oneself into a brand.

With Plato and the Truth about Reality, we find an education that is content-heavy and its aims are to create free individuals able to think independently of the crowd. This approach is often favored by those of a conservative inclination and often a reintroduction of Latin and of the classical Trivium and the Quadrivium accompany this commitment. Unfortunately, a kind of bunker mentality also often haunts this project to the point where it becomes a kind of cosplay that looks like a romanticization of the British public school system, as if the system of history’s long-lost elites is the template for human progress and can save us from the snares of postmodern secularism. But the platonic model is also a feature of the venerable college preparatory schools that tend to lean more to the liberal side of the political spectrum. It’s a system bent on creating tomorrow’s elite class, but I think the family money and prestige that make such an education accessible have far more import on creating a future ruling class than do the study of Aristotle, Virgil, or Shakespeare. And I probably don’t need to mention that Plato’s original model had a fifty-year-long syllabus.

Whatever the case, we can see, as Egan points out, that these three educational paradigms are completely at odds with each other. One can’t have a system committed to both socialization and creating free-thinking, independent agents. Nether is socialization comportable with trusting the child’s instincts (seriously, is participating in a drag show ever a childlike instinct?). And we can’t have a school system focused on a content-heavy curriculum that is also directed toward self-actualization. Yet, in the main and across the board, we do have such a school system. And it’s a disaster.

Egan proposes a new way of thinking about the way to map education that is none these. Instead, he maps a way of structuring curricula based on what he sees as stages of understanding found in children as they grow and mature. He names these somatic understanding, mythic understanding, romantic understanding, philosophic understanding, and ironic understanding. While it is not my intention to lay out his entire philosophy, I will briefly describe what he means by these terms.

Somatic understanding is the kind of understanding, pre-verbal, particular to infants. It’s connected to the body and its way of unconsciously coming to terms with its environment and its self-awareness, even if unconscious.

Mythic understanding is the kind of understanding exhibited by small children, pre-K to about age eight or nine. Egan points to how such children have an almost magical interaction with the world and think in deeply imaginative ways, contrary to John Dewey’s demonstrably false assertion that children of this age are “concrete thinkers.” One wonders if Dewey ever met any actual children.

Following the mythic stage comes romantic understanding. Romantic understanding, according to Egan, is that stage (ages 9-13 or so) when children become fascinated with mega ergon and the limits of human potential. Think how boys of this age are often interested in achievements in sports, world records, or even whether a person can have three legs, not to mention conjoined twins. Coupled with this is an attraction for the heroic—King Arthur, for example, or Florence Nightingale, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Lucy Maude Montgomery, herself a rural schoolteacher in early 20th century Prince Edward Island, in the Anne of Green Gables series, illustrates how central romantic understanding is to children of this age via her heroine, a girl who possesses a remarkable “scope for imagination.” Indeed, Anne of Green Gables is a veritable handbook for teaching children (and I have assigned it to students in education courses for precisely this reason).

With philosophic understanding, the student moves into thinking in systems as a way to situate and comprehend the complexities of the self in relationship to society. This is a kind of understanding seen particularly in high school students when young people often take up this or that world view as a lens for interpreting, well, everything. Anyone who’s ever met a sixteen-year-old witch, a twelfth-grade Communist, or a fifteen-year-old atheist will know exactly what Egan is talking about; and one has to wonder if the trans ideology currently infecting so many high school kids is not also a part of the phenomenon Egan observes.

At last, the young reach the stage of ironic understanding, which could also be called Socratic understanding. At this stage, the systems taken up in the previous stage are called into question as anomalies implicit to the system are introduced and, we might say, real thinking arrives. This stage arrives, typically, in early years of college, though Egan suggests that not everybody is up to the task of interrogating their assumptions in a very serious way. That used to be what college was for, of course, though it is a very rare commodity in the current ideological landscape.

Egan also hints at the notion of spiritual understanding, though I don’t think he ever developed it to any significant degree. Though a former Franciscan novice, he identified (as far as I can tell) as an atheist, but Pythagorean and Platonic notions of a moral life were profoundly important to him.

What I find attractive about Egan’s model is that it is not ideologically driven but based on a kind of anthropology, a schematic of human cognitive development that is deeply phenomenological in its approach. Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner likewise maintained sound anthropologies in their educational projects and I think the success in their approaches is directly related to the ways in which they viewed human development.

But back to our question: what is the purpose of education? I would suggest that the purpose of education is to make us more fully human. Certainly, the realization of such an ideal depends on what one thinks a human being is. I’m no Hobbesian; and while I see plenty of evidence in the world that man is a thoroughly immoral, cruel, and sadistic creature, I still hold to the divine image of man grounded in the Christian tradition and promulgated from thinkers from Goethe to Schiller and from Traherne to Blake (among many others). That said, my operating assumption is that, fallen though we be, human beings are essentially good and that education’s aim should be at gaining as much as possible of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as we wander through what Keats called “the vale of soul-making.” A Classical curriculum certainly operates under such an assumption, and I lament that even the lip service once paid to the rich cultural inheritance of the West in college courses in Western Civilization or Western Humanities have entirely evaporated in the dry winds of wokeness. But I also worry that the current counter-trend of “the Classical Academy,” often distributed along franchise means (!), offers too arid an environment for the promise of human flourishing.

In my thirty years of teaching experience—everything from kindergarten to graduate school, including homeschooling my own children—I have found that the educational models available to us are enormously inefficient. Basically, schools are holding cells created to monitor (and, often, propagandize) children while parents are at work. That is, schools are outgrowths of the factory model, replete with bells telling children when to start, when to stop, when to eat, and when to defecate. It’s Pavlovian. My own children follow a modified Waldorf-Classical curriculum, but their school day usually ends by noon, with maybe a little math or reading practice after lunch. The problem, I think, is the over-emphasis on the intellect, not that the intellect is a bad thing. But our highly technologized culture is nothing if not intensely intellect-based. That is, it takes place almost entirely in the head; and education, where even useful skills such as handwriting are in the process of atrophy if not abandonment, is not any different.

In the age of the Classical curriculum—when it wasn’t a weapon in a culture war but the foundation for any education in the West—people were not captived by the technological snares in which we are all so enmeshed. Instead, they were ensconced in the Real—in the world of plants, animals, clouds, birds, rivers, art, music, sound. An education in the intellect, then, was a supplement to the human-making properties of the Real. What is missing from education now, whether in a socialization, Rousseauean, or Platonic model—is reality. And it is only through the Real that we can create the Human. Otherwise, we are merely simulacra of the human.

In my book Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, I proposed the idea of a “Postmodern Sophiological Hedge School.” The Irish hedge schools that inspired me were clandestine, makeshift schools devised to educate Irish children in their own religion, language, and culture and not by the classical conditioning of the state-sponsored institutions of their British overlords. (The “flying universities” in Poland and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War worked to very much the same end.) In my book, I propose what that might look like in our own cultural and civilizational context:

“The hedge school would create an environment in which the morning could be devoted to studies in the traditional sense (the three R’s, languages), but, as Steiner demanded, they should be taught artistically. No textbooks. No computers (at least before the age of fourteen). No ugly and utilitarian classrooms filled with ugly and utilitarian furniture and an ugly and utilitarian curriculum. Only engagement with what is real: color and sound, beauty and presence, human interaction and contemplation. That means that students would need time to think or, better, time for reverie in addition to time for instruction. Afternoons could then be devoted to developing practical and artistic skills. In the classical Irish hedge school, such would be redundant; in our own time, they are absolutely vital.

“The recalibration of the human ego to participation in the Real is fundamental to my conception of the postmodern sophiological hedge school. There could be many varieties of hedge school, but without participation in the Real, they would only be adaptations of the educational superego that permeates the culture. My claim is that a way of learning imbued with the arts and engaged with practical activities combined with a contemplative ethos provides a corrective to the human soul done serious damage by a culture characterized by the technology, isolation, and synthetic media that insulate human persons from nature, the cosmos, and, ultimately, from God.”

Clearly, there is more to education than the imparting of information (a data set) or than the forming of citizens (depending on what kinds citizens the Archons desire). As William Butler Yeats observed, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” And that fire is the fire of the Spirit.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_

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