Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vocation and Education

I have a few regrets about my college years. The most keen regret that I feel is that I was a poor student for most of my time in college. I had no understanding of what an opportunity for enrichment education truly is, nor did I realize that education is far more than the learning of facts or learning a trade.

I fear that the notion I had about education is endemic to our culture. When children are very small, we begin to ask them "what they want to be when they grow up." It is an interesting question or else we would not ask it, and I believe that it is an important question because it gives us a little peek into their souls if we are wise.

If you ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up, especially a little boy, he may tell you that he wants to be an astronaut, a fireman, a garbage man, or a police officer. Surely, no adult is under the illusion that the child has the slightest idea of what it means to be an astronaut or what it takes to become one. Children just like the idea of going into outerspace, and that is a fine thing for a child to want to do.

When a child says that he wants to be a garbage man, what he is really saying is that he wants to ride on the back of a great big truck all day and explore the town. (Alas, garbage men no longer get to do this in my town.) When a child says that he wants to be a fireman, he really means that he'd like to be someone's hero. When a child says that he wants to be a police officer, he really means that he would like to capture bad guys and carry a gun. It is the budding virtues that ought to be encouraged in a child, and that is precisely the foundation for all good education: the teaching of virtue.

This is why there is often a disconnect between education and vocation. A boy who wants to be a police officer does not understand the point of studying Shakespeare. A girl whose greatest ambition is to be a nurse may not see the point in studying Western Civilization. But police officers ought to be schooled in Shakespeare, at least, they ought to be taught why he is relevant to non-barbarians.

Shakespeare is important to police work because Shakespeare wrote about criminals. MacBeth was a criminal. He was a murderer and a usurper. He struggled with his decision. MacBeth struggled with his criminal impulse. He said, "We but teach
bloody instructions, which being taught return to plague the inventor." Ah, you see, MacBeth knew that murder was a bloody schoolmaster, and that murderers tended themselves to be murdered. Murder is unwise, MacBeth says. Think of it, MacBeth was murdering the king in order to be the king. If king's are subject to such betrayal, then what will stop the next opportunist from killing MacBeth? If everyone behaved as MacBeth, then the society could not function.

MacBeth is filled with the idea of morality, criminal activity, and the consequences thereof. So is Hamlet. All the classics of literature grapple with these great questions and help to shape our moral thinking. History is a grand drama in itself, greater than anything that Shakespeare imagined. I say that because he pulled his stories from the common experience of mankind. He echoed in his fiction what was wrought in the reality of the world. This is why nurses ought to study history and firemen should study literature. This is why we do not go to college to simply learn engineering or accounting. This way, when an officer is offered a bribe, he will be prepared to refuse it because all the greatest sages have warned him of the consequences of corruption.

I should like it very much if, instead of bending down to little toddlers and asking them what they would like to be when they grow up, if we would also ask of their parents, "What would you like for your child to be when he grows up?" This would probably stump most parents. They might say something like, "Whatever he would like to be." I would say, "And what if he would like to be a criminal?" I imagine no parent wants that for their child. For myself, I wish for my children to be people of virtue and character. I do not care if he is a ditch-digger, a landscape architect, or a medical doctor. I want my children to be, above all, godly. My endeavor is to instill in them wisdom, virtue, and moral character. After that, they can do whatever they like.

I wonder, is that how we look at education? Do we agree with this from Solomon? "How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver" and "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight" (Proverbs 16:16, 4:7).


JD said...

Did Barbara Blanks put you up to this?

Brad Williams said...

Ha! No, I had Mrs. Vassar.