Educating for the 'Who,' Not the 'What'
In a society that reduces the purpose of education to career preparedness, parents and educators must be willing to challenge cultural assumptions to help children pursue a life worth living.
I clearly remember the day our 5th grade teacher polled us on what we wanted to be when we grew up. Mr. D snaked around the desks accumulating fairly predictable answers, but when my friend Tammy proudly said pilot, he responded with notable derision: “girls can’t be pilots.” It was a defining experience for nearly half the class - the moment we collectively decided that never again would we let someone tell us what we could and could not achieve.
I’ve thought about Mr. D from time to time, like when my oldest daughter chose to attend the United States Air Force Academy, and when her sister committed to the United States Military Academy at West Point. But I think back to that day for another reason too, to the moment my friend Ellen told the class she wanted to be a wife and mom. Then it was my turn for some (albeit silent) contempt. Everyone knew we’d all get married and have kids some day; why hadn’t she just said what she wanted to be, like the rest of us? Like most of my classmates, I had easily adopted the cultural assumptions embedded within the question. To my ten year old mind, marriage and parenthood were inevitable add-ons, but hardly central to the task of becoming an adult. Profession was the defining characteristic of grown-up identity.
I carried those assumptions with me for a long time, and did indeed pursue education as if the career it promised at the end was the key to my selfhood. As far as I can remember, that instinct was enthusiastically validated in the halls of every institution I attended. Mr. D had been a one-off, largely forgotten voice of discouragement. It wasn’t until a series of providential encounters during my first year of law school that I began to wonder if “lawyer” might accurately signal what I wanted to do, but could not answer who I wanted to be.
By the time I had kids of my own, I’d learned to disentangle identity from profession, but it didn’t occur to me to untwine profession from education. As I had always understood it, the purpose of school was nothing more than to prepare students to become the doctors, businesspeople, or pilots we dreamed of being. What else could it offer? Sure, you might find some incidental enjoyment in subjects you liked, but the point was to succeed so that you could cycle yourself into future professional success. Moreover, it was well understood that the list of careers worthy of pursuit was long, but finite.
I first encountered a different perspective about twelve years ago, from a highly respected friend who was helping to found a classical school in a different state. From the way she explained it, it seemed to me that this “new” (to me) approach didn’t exactly contradict my understanding of education, but considerably broadened it. For her, job readiness was but one of many goals; the primary purpose of school was to teach children how to pursue a life worth living. I filed it away as an interesting eccentricity and continued to send my kids to our town’s excellent career-first public schools.
A few years later, another series of providential encounters introduced me to a Headmaster who was refounding a nearby Catholic school in the classical tradition. I hadn’t been looking to re-evaluate our school choice, but his thoughts on education made too much sense to ignore, and I was forced to ask myself a few key questions:
Is there a worthier brass ring than good grades and high test scores? Is “love of learning,” as he put it, really something worth shooting for? And what about his radical assertion that student joy is the true measure of a school’s success?
I was committed to raising the kids Catholic and felt pretty confident in my ability to do so. But would they be better off if I relied on an educational partner to help me transmit the faith? Would they have a closer, deeper, more stable relationship with God if He was allowed in their school, and did that integration of faith and daily life matter to their future happiness?
Should schools be in the business of character formation? Or is every school in that business, making the only real question what kind of character they form? Did I want my kids in a place founded on the proposition that truth, goodness, and beauty are objective and knowable, and that life only makes sense when lived in conformity with them? Could I afford not to send them to a school like that?
Was classical education actually the shorter, sounder road to academic success and professional preparedness? Both the Headmaster and my friend spoke fluently of interdisciplinary study, independent thinking, collaborative learning, and an inquiry-driven, discussion-based classroom. Did these defining characteristics offer significant benefits that my kids had been missing out on?
It took me a while to wrap my mind around the nature of classical education, but I’m glad I got a chance to grapple with its distinct advantages while my kids were young, in time for us to make the switch. I’m very grateful for my education and the doors it opened for me, but I think they’re getting a much richer experience. Above all, school now makes real a lesson I’ve tried to teach my children from the very beginning, having been a slow learner myself: It’s good to start stepping towards what you want to do when you grow up, but it’s even better to start stepping towards who you want to be.
Johanna Webber, an attorney and mother of 8, lives with her husband in New Jersey. Their oldest daughter is a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy and their second is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.Daughter number three attends Lumen Gentium Academy, a classical high school in the Catholic tradition and the next four children attend Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Boonton. The youngest, a two year old, keeps Johanna on her toes all day long.