October 26th, 2008

The Purpose and Aim of a Modern Education

photo credit: sheikha85

What is the purpose and aim of a modern education? Or, put more simply, why do people go to school? Young children no doubt attend to their studies in part due to compulsion, but what of the majority of young adults who sacrifice time, money, and other pursuits to attend the educational institution of their choice? For whatever reason, it seems to be a common attitude that the summum bonum of education is to become successfully and lucratively employed.

Like any general observation, this one is not without its exceptions. But go to any university, stop a few random students, and ask them why they go to school—their answers will, almost assuredly, detail the career they intend to pursue (and by corollary, the amount of income they hope to receive). Hugh Nibley made such an observation over two decades ago:

People were horrified when General Barrows, at the time president of the University of California at Berkeley, bluntly proclaimed at a commencement exercise, “The only reason anyone goes to college is to increase his earning power.” I was petrified by the statement, little realizing that the time would come that it would be treated by everyone as a universally accepted truism and even an idealistic proclamation. (Hugh Nibley, via Quoty)

This false truism and secular proclamation leads to the compartmentalization of an individual’s life. Students by and large cast aside the distractions that would deviate them from their goal of receiving a diploma and landing a good job. They then go to work, and work hard. They save in their 401k, put in late hours at times, all for the goal of an enjoyable, easy retirement. Then comes the glorious day when they can finally quit working, and relax. Retirement has come—now what?

As Stephen R. Covey has noted, retirement is just one more secular compartmentalization of life that shifts our focus from things of eternal importance:

There’s not much place in the Lord’s kingdom for “retirement.” In fact, the idea of retirement is, in my opinion, a sick, secular notion. We may retire from an occupation, but we retire to serve missions on both sides of the veil.

Since life is not a career but a mission, there’s no better retirement concept than the gospel: the work goes on, we’re in a constant learning mode, and we continue to grow to the very end of our lives. Every person has enormous capacity, and we must not lose our opportunity to contribute as we get older. (Stephen R. Covey, via Quoty)

By looking at life as a set of phases through which we progress—preparing for work, working, and resting from work—we lose sight of what we should really be spending our time doing. Hugh Nibley further commented:

“The cares of the world” (D&C 40:12), said the Lord, have taken many away from the real path, the real work, for the cares of the world quickly become our sole concern. Brigham’s favorite word for Satan’s trick was “decoy”—the work ethic decoys us away from the work we should be doing. Mammon is a jealous god and will not tolerate a competitor. But we get the idea that the only virtues are business virtues. (Hugh Nibley, via Quoty)

Gone, it would seem, are the days when education was an end unto itself; when great mental sacrifice was made to learn and understand, not just to memorize and pass tests; when one’s life was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. In a day when people are dedicated to working 40 hour work weeks for 40 years of their life, yet 25% don’t have the time or desire to read a single book (and of those who do, an average of four are read per year), it would seem that our priorities are a bit askew.

The Lord’s idea of an education—the eternal kind to which we should dedicate ourselves now, and carry with us into the hereafter—is far more expansive and broad than what is provided in a 120 credit course at the leading universities. When He counseled us to seek wisdom out of the best books, he wasn’t referring to textbooks:

Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—
That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:78-80)

Our failure to continually and broadly educate ourselves has led us into what President Hinckley termed in 1997 the “age of utter mediocrity”. The “idealistic proclamation” to which Dr. Nibley referred has, in recent decades, become the conventionally accepted purpose and aim of education.

We as Americans don’t care about education for intelligence‘s sake; there is evidently no incentive to learn without an economic purpose and promise behind every assignment and test. Sadly, while an education today will help students make a living, it does little to help them make a life.

11 Responses to “The Purpose and Aim of a Modern Education”

  1. Jeff T.
    October 26, 2008 at 5:02 pm #

    Awesome post! I wrote something similar a while back:


    What I find interesting is that companies and business used to train their own employees, or pay for the training of their employees, or would hire apprentices, etc. How to make money was something for the employer to teach the employee, etc. Education was an entirely different beast: it was for learning about the world, and studying great writers. Now that the two have become one and the same in people’s mind, employers can just let the state train all of its workers. Now, when people aren’t prepared for the workplace, employers can blame in on the schools. And job-training takes precedence over learning the ideas and thoughts of the great writers of the world, because that is what people are paying for these days.

    I wish schools and universities were separate from trade schools and apprenticeships, like they used to be.

  2. Jeff T.
    October 26, 2008 at 5:08 pm #

    Also, I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day, where I mentioned this kind of stuff. He commented, “Well, if it isn’t about making money, what is it good for?” I said, “You don’t think knowledge and understanding is important?” and he replied, “Not if it doesn’t help me improve my living conditions.”

    Is monetary attainment the only thing people value these days?

  3. Separate School and State
    October 26, 2008 at 8:05 pm #

    State-run education is a system of imposed ignorance.

  4. Gabriel
    October 26, 2008 at 10:36 pm #

    The concept of retirement did not exist for 99.9% of all people on Earth until the Industrial Revolution. Through Social Security (in part) the Government has told us that retirement is a right that everyone is entitled to. This is simply not the case as you have pointed out.
    It is good to see people reading Approaching Zion. When ever I have tried to discuss its concepts with a few people it can create some bad feelings. The book has the means of making you seriously question your motives in life. Hugh Nibley uses the scriptures brilliantly in helping people understand the way the Lord would have us live.

  5. Matthew Piccolo
    October 27, 2008 at 12:13 pm #

    Very well said, Connor. I learned a lot of good stuff during my undergrad and graduate schooling, but now that I’m out of school I’m studying the things that are really important to me that I believe will make me truly educated. In my opinion, the purpose of organized education is to train us how to think, observe, analyze, and communicate so that when we “graduate” we can use those skills to make a living and also contribute something positive to society throughout a long life of continued learning.

  6. Curtis
    October 27, 2008 at 11:39 pm #

    “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood”

    Know who said that? Check out Nibley’s awesome article on our modern day education here:


  7. Bill
    October 28, 2008 at 9:01 pm #

    The purpose of public education is to create workers in the industrialized world. People of different talents & abilities have different places in the industrialized world. Some have NO place in the industrialized world.

    The industrialized world is low on agriculture and the arts. Because of these dearths in education, we end up with very well educated ignoramuses.

    In all industrialized countries, the priorities for all academia is

    1) literacy & matematics.
    2) physical & applied sciences.
    3) social sciences.
    4) The arts.

    Notice that agriculture in the classical sense is nowhere to be found. Only in a few areas of industrialized countries will you find agriculture classes. Mostly only available in high school.

    Public education was pressed on the people of this country at the point of a gun. After a generation or two the gun was no longer necessary. People willfully submitted to the ignorance machine.

    Once we are prepared to become a cog in the industrial machine, we will no longer have time to keep an eye on government. We will no longer have time to study economics. We will no longer have time to study history and recognize when it is about to repeat itself.

    The idea was sold to well meaning government officials to help the country prepare for the coming industrial revolution. But the sellers didn’t have the people’s welfare in mind. They wanted to destroy America.

    They realized that an assembly line school would produce ignoramuses. They realized that such a program would be self-perpetuating and would encourage immorality, or at the very least, amorality or moral relativity.

    It’s done a pretty good job.

    I myself went to college to become an engineer. It’s a highly technical field that requires learning public school subjects in the same priority that they are offered. This is why I did so well.

    I went to BYU and found a slogan that was so much more profound than I realized at the time: ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE.

    Our student body president pointed out that it does NOT read “Go forth to EARN”. Only now as I’ve learned about the history and purpose of the public school system do I really understand the importance of his words.

    Unfortunately, my college education was not much different than what I received in public schools. In some ways it was more disappointing. I believe this had to do with the accrediting requirements. I am a capable engineer. So I actually DID go forth to EARN.

    But only the religious aspect of my education was superior to what I would have received anywhere else. And a few of those courses left much to be desired. But because of the environment and the culture, I at least had morality as part of the process.

    So now I am in charge of my own education. In reality, it always was.

    True education will include the following four tenets:

    1) Read like a lawyer.
    2) Write like a founding father.
    3) Calculate like an entreprenuer.
    4) Serve like a disciple.

    Not necessarily in that order.

  8. Shaun
    November 13, 2008 at 8:27 pm #

    Beautifully written Connor.

    I found my college US History class almost intolerable because of the zombies in there. The teacher did everything he could to get people to comment, to take interest, to have some opinion, feel the contraditions, the severity of many complex issues, but it was as if though he was speaking to near dead people—in their 20’s.

    I loved to bring in material here and there that refuted the textbook (propaganda) which the teacher acknowledge to be accurate and I too had him admit the text book was filled with propaganda against the real character and belief of the US Founders. But most of the other students had zero interest in anything that was not in the narrow “is it going to be on the test” discussion. No curiosity, no creativity, no hunger for knowledge, the only concern for information was “will it be on the test.” How deadening.

  9. Angilee
    December 5, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    I just found your blog, and I really appreciate this post. I’m a homeschooling mom, and I think you are exactly right. You forgot one of the most important aspects of modern schooling, though. Passing tests, going to college, and getting jobs are important, of course, but only second to the reason I hear most from other parents – socialization. Oh, there is so much packed into that word that I wish someone could write a good blog post about! Every time I try, my head blows up.

    Parents I know actually believe the state should make kids go to school. Most of them decide that, well, yes, it’s ok for me to homeschool. But I’m an exception. Parents in general shouldn’t have that right. Shouldn’t have that right! As if the government in its great benevolence is condescending to give me a right to raise my children.

    I also had classes in college where many kids were apathetic. But I had one really great course called The Human Situation in which we read Plato, Thucydides, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Hume, Voltaire – we read the original texts, heard lectures on them, and wrote papers on them. How simple, but it changed my life. I realized I had never read original documents before in all my life of school. I loved writing those essays. That’s when I first started to think about homeschooling, because at the same time I was going to that class, I was also teaching SAT prep classes to high school students to pay my way through school. I would try to talk to these kids about what I was studying in college and how great college was and what was the most exciting thing to them about going to college? Blank stares. They were only there for the test scores to go to college where daddy wanted them to go. They had no individual desires or interests. They were like zombies. But they were from private schools, and I promise you many of them will make good money.

    One time, I taught SAT courses to a poor public school. My employer did that as a kind of charity. I was new and signed up to teach that class. I was so excited about helping poor kids score better on the SAT so they could go to college. (I’ve always hated the SAT, but there is no doubt it can make a huge difference in going to college). The first day a student told me he couldn’t read. I tried to get him out of the class and into a reading class, but I was told to just do my job. Then I realized that this was a school that went to state in football every year. I was teaching kids to get better SAT scores so that they could qualify to go to college to play football. That was the day I began to realize the world I had grown up in. I put it all together – the rich kids going to daddy’s school, the poor kids going to football school, the kids in college who rolled into class in their pajamas to discuss texts they hadn’t read (without any shame). School is not about education. It’s about doing your time so you can fit into a life that is prepared for you.

  10. Brigham
    April 19, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Great blog…

    “You are moving into the most competitive age the world has ever known. All around you is competition. You need all the education you can get. Sacrifice a car, if necessary, sacrifice anything that is needed to be sacrificed to qualify yourselves to do the work of the world. That world will, in large measure, pay you what it thinks you are worth, and your worth will increase as you gain education and proficiency in your chosen field…You will bring honor to yourself and to your family, and you will be generously rewarded because of that training. There can be no doubt, none whatever, that education pays.” – Gordon B. Hinckley, Way to Be


  11. cornerstone university lansing
    July 21, 2010 at 9:52 pm #

    While it may be true that education can give you a lot of money making opportunities by making you really really smart,It is not the sole purpose of education. iIntelligence is one thing but Intelligence plus Character–that is the goal of true education.

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