The Pursuit of Knowledge: An Education Manifesto

I’m working my way through this fascinating book by Michael Ward, Planet Narnia. It is an attempt to give the Chronicles of Narnia a coherent unity, focus, and theme by arguing that C.S. based each book from the mythical personality of one of the medieval planets. For instance, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is inspired by Jupiter or Jove, the god of happiness, celebration, and so forth. I’m greatly simplifying the scope of this book, which not only explores the medieval mythology in the Narniad but also in his sci-fi series, Out of the Silent Planet, and his other scholarly and literary works.

Since you cannot explore the Narniad without understanding C.S. Lewis better, I’m learning so much about him, the way he thought, and the worldview that he had. One concept which Ward only mentions in passing was especially fascinating to me, and that is the idea of a liberal education.

 

“Lewis, as a staunch defender of liberal education, was keen to keep alive the idea that ‘free study seeks nothing beyond itself and

 

desires the activity of knowing for that activity’s own sake. That is what the man of radically servile character will never understand. He will ask, ‘But what use is it?””

 

Our culture desperately needs a new education paradigm, for the current system has completely failed. Please note I’m not even talking about the public vs. private education issue. I’m talking about education in general, even college education. We pursue education and we encourage education for the wrong reasons. I can think of 2 primary misguided reasons for education:

1) Education to complete a goal or receive a piece of paper. People go to school to learn things they hate or things they just don’t care about so that they can say they’ve graduated or received a specific degree. Why? Because we’re told that if you get this degree, you might get a good job. The focus isn’t on learning and retaining knowledge but merely surviving until you get the grade or degree you need to go do something else. In this situation, knowledge is used to serve our ends of pursuing a better position in life.

 

2) Education that focuses only on utilitarian or “practical” studies. There are two problems with this.

  • A) The definition of “practical” is so subjective. It basically comes down to your personal opinion of what is useful and what is practical. It is wrong for us to force our own subjective viewpoints onto other people.
  • B) This is a pragmatic approach to education and pragmatism is one of the most insidious errors ever developed. This world isn’t based on “what works” or what serves my ends in the most efficient way. Pragmatism is essentially devoid of any moral boundaries and taken to the logical conclusion, pragmatism can justify horrific crimes, all in the name of what works.

This utilitarian or pragmatic viewpoint of education is used to serve our own subjective ends and our own judgements of what is useful…even to the point of maintaining that it is a waste of time to study anything other than what is “useful.”

 

I want to clarify before I continue…

Not everyone is going to study everything. I have watched a few videos about nuclear physics and it is absolutely fascinating. However, I don’t think I shall ever become a nuclear physicist. I’m not skilled with math, and physics is a little difficult without some math. But if someone were to explain a concept of nuclear physics to me in terms I can understand, I would absolutely love to learn something new. It will make no difference to me when I wake up the next day, it will have very little relevance to my everyday life, but that doesn’t matter to me. Also, since we have a limited time on this earth, we will never be able to learn everything. So we have to decide what subjects are most important to us.  And we will have the opportunity to study and learn at different times during life, so not everyone can devote as much time to education for their entire life as a student is able to do.

But I’m more interested in addressing the attitude we have towards learning, regardless of our limitations. So, now the question is, how do we approach education and learning? What is our attitude towards education?

Let us remember that we are finite creatures surrounded by the abundant creation of a glorious and infinite God. Education is our feeble attempt at better understanding the creation and the Creator. I would propose that to use knowledge to serve our own pragmatic ends is to demean knowledge. Made in the image of God, we have been given an intellect, and if we decide to not use it to the best of our ability, we are wasting the gift of God. Moreover, we are essentially saying that we are better judges than God. We are arguing that instead of being humbled by the vast amount of knowledge we should attempt to understand, we can decide what is useful and what is not. By refusing to study nuclear physics we are saying that it was a waste of God’s power and creativity to bring protons and neutrons and electrons and quarks and all those other things into existence. By denying the purpose of studying literature we are saying it would have been better if God had not created these writers and artists. In other words, we can’t be bothered by attempting to understand this world, then why did God bother to make it? We serve a liberal and generous God who is not stingy with His creation. Must we be stingy with our minds? Must we let our minds rot because we do not want to wear them out by too much thinking? We serve a God who has made so many apparently superfluous things. Why are there so many varieties of plants and animals in so many incredible colors and shapes? God is obviously not a pragmatic or utilitarian God. So how can we, His creation, deign to know better than Him and decide that only pragmatic pursuits are worthwhile? How can we be awed by our Creator if we close our minds to the complexity, beauty, and depth of the creation? How can we worship our Lord if we decide His creation is not worth exploring? Rather, we should respond to the liberality of our Creator by passionately pursuing a better understanding of Him and this world He has made, not for the sake of pragmatism, but simply for the purpose of being more educated and informed servants of our God.

 

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