When Education Lacks a Telos (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

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(Note: this article was originally published at The Domain for Truth on November 13, 2018, which can be found here).


What's the point of education?

For many, the answer is purely materialistic: learn so you can have a good career; get a good career so you can make a lot of money; make a lot of money so you can buy and do a lot of "stuff." Obviously, this perspective is fraught with danger. With self-indulgent consumerism as the ultimate pursuit, ethics are often just an obstacle to be overcome.

Others see the immediate futility of that view, and seek an integration of morality into education: learn so you can become a better person; become a better person so you can help a lot of people; help a lot of people so the world can become a better place.

As one scholar observes,

People often claim that education resolves almost every conceivable problem that individuals and communities face. If only everyone had a better and higher education, so the argument goes, there would be no political instability, international tension, teen pregnancies, and hospital wards filled with patients suffering from stress and chronic depression. A college or university degree in hand, graduates are supposedly prepared to storm the heights of mankind's loftiest advancements to solve the worst of mankind's problems.[1]

This second perspective certainly has a level of respectability lacking in the first. At the same time, it still has about as many holes in it as Swiss cheese. After all, what does it mean to be a “better” person. What is a "better" world? According to what standard? And why does the world need to become a better place?

Thus, we return to the initial question: what's the point of education?

No Telos

Truth be told, what both of the aformentioned views lack is a meaningful telos. Although telos is an English word, it is a direct transliteration of the Greek word τέλος, which means "an ultimate end" or "a purpose." In other words, if you are looking for the point of education, you are seeking its telos.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, a legitimate telos is precisely what is not found in secular education institutions. The late Dr. R.C. Sproul once recounted a situation that clearly revealed this, in which he attended a parent open-house event at his child’s school. The principal of the school stood before the parents and recounted the impressive credentials, academic rigor, and plethora of opportunities afforded to the students at his school. He waxed eloquent about all of the benefits the pupils were receiving, and then opened up the time for parents to ask any remaining questions. No one had any questions to asked, especially after such a particularly impressive presentation was given—no one, that is, except for R.C. Sproul.

Sproul describes his interaction with the principal as follows:

I said, “I deeply appreciate not only the content of what you have communicated today, but the spirit in which you’ve done it. You’ve been so articulate and I’m overwhelmed by the amount of care and precision that has gone into the planning and preparation of this curriculum. I only have one question. We all know that there are only so many hours in a day, and that there are only so many purposes that we can seek to implement in an educational curriculum, and that we have to choose from a lot more potential or possible purposes than we ever have the time to implement. And you have chosen these specific purposes to implement in the curriculum. Now, what I would like to know is this, simply: what is the overarching purpose you’re trying to achieve? What is the overarching purpose of education that you have here, that leads you to discriminate among these various specific purposes you are trying to implement. In other words, what kind of a child are you trying to produce, and why?” Well, first of all, the man’s face turned white and then like a thermometer—mercurial—blood flowed to his head and he turned beat red. And to his credit, he was completely candid and honest. He looked at me and he said, “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that question.” And I said, “I respected you when I heard your first speech.” I said, “Now, when you’ve been so open and honest, my respect for you has even increased, and I appreciate the honesty of your reply. But frankly, your reply terrifies me.”[2]

Essentially, the principal could explain what the students were learning, and how they were learning, but had absolutely no idea why the students were learning. And that only makes sense, because apart from a knowledge of the one true God, and a life lived for Him, there ultimately is no point. An earthbound education, by definition, has no transcendent telos.

But don't take my word for it. Sit at the feet of one of the wisest men in the history of the world: King Solomon. He'll tell you.

A Futile Pursuit: Human Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

Having reached the end of his life, Solomon experienced what could be considered a divinely inspired existential crisis, writing the book of Ecclesiastes as a result.[3] From the very beginning of Ecclesiastes, Solomon made it clear that life lived apart from faith in the Lord is nothing more than “vanity” (cf. Ecc. 1:2). People come and people go (cf. Ecc. 1:4). Days come and days go (cf. Ecc. 1:5). Nature runs its regular course (cf. Ecc. 1:6). Ultimately, everything winds up in the dustbin of history (cf. Ecc. 1:11). This was the conclusion of Solomon, one of the wisest men who, ironically, lived a life of folly. But, by God’s grace, he lived to talk about it.

In recounting his errors, Solomon identified several “vain” pursuits in life, such as wealth (cf. Ecc. 2:1-11), wise living (cf. Ecc. 2:12-29), and work (cf. Ecc. 2:18-26). Obviously, none of those things are inherently evil (and are actually important aspects of life)—but not as the telos. Giving yourself to the ultimate pursuit of accumulating money, being a model citizen, or building a thriving business will not prove to bring joy and a settled conscience when you’re on your death bed reflecting on the life you’ve lived. Trying to find transcendent meaning in those things is nothing more than “striving after the wind.”

But before considering those three vain pursuits, Solomon actually began his book of wisdom by considering the vain pursuit of human wisdom (cf. Ecc. 1:12-18).

As king over Israel, Solomon put his mind to the task of accumulating as much human understanding about the world as he could, saying, “I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven” (Ecc. 1:13). Unlike the common people, Solomon had the financial resources to pull it off, saying “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge” (Ecc. 1:16).[4] He had the means to search the ends of the earth, consult with whomever he pleased, and spend as much time as necessary in his education. It was as if he had access to any Ivy League school he wanted. Yet, what he found was that it was a “grievous task,” “vanity,” and “striving after the wind” (Ecc. 1:13-14). Education did not satisfy him.

But why?

The first reason is that Solomon realized the inability of education to correct what is wrong with the world. In Ecclesiastes 1:15, Solomon succinctly said, “What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.” Contrary to those who believe education is the key to societal bliss, Scripture makes it clear that “evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse” (2 Tim. 3:13). There is a reason the world is presently being reserved for fire (cf. 2 Pet. 2:7); it’s not going to get better by giving wicked men diplomas.

The second reason is that Solomon realized the inability of education to provide transcendent explanations for the world. In Ecclesiastes 1:18, Solomon stated, “Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” Apart from knowing God, greater knowledge of the world around us simply yields greater angst within us, because we simply end up discovering more things for which we cannot give a teleological account. In other words, science can answer questions concerning “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how,” but it cannot answer why. Why are we here? Why are we rational beings? Why is there something rather than nothing? Just like the principal who was questioned by R.C. Sproul in the aforementioned account, scientists who live according to an atheistic worldview end up discovering much about the world to which they cannot attribute any true purpose. This failure of education to offer meaning is precisely the “pain” described by Solomon.

In fact, so great was Solomon’s pain in looking for meaning in education (as well as other earthly pursuits) that he actually "hated life" (cf. Ecc. 2:17). The emptiness was overwhelming. Sadly, this conclusion (nihilism) is also reached by many in government educational settings today—and the pain ends up being just as real for them as it was for Solomon. Should we be shocked by any of this though? Students are taught that they are nothing but evolved animals, and then we're surprised when they act like it. Students are taught that the world began by an explosion, and then we're surprised when they set one off. Students are taught that there is no meaning to life, and then we're surprised when they end their own. It only makes sense, then, that a secular education system is no place for the children of Christian parents; it lacks a telos.

The True Telos

So, what is the point of education, then? Truth be told, the answer to that is so fundamental that it's described in the third question, out of over 100, in the 1840 Engles' Catechism for Young Children (a modified copy used by Expository Parenting can be found here): "Why did God make you and all things?" The answer: "For His own glory."

The purpose of education is for man to glorify his Creator. God is the transcendent Creator who gives meaning to all of life, including the pursuit of knowledge. The heavens declare the glory of God (cf. Psa. 19:1), and so should those studying astronomy. The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it (cf. Psa. 24:1), which is what those studying biology should affirm. Any school system that willfully suppresses these kinds of truths during its instruction is not only preparing its pupils for judgment (cf. Rom. 1:18-20), but also despair and emptiness. Solomon stated just as much at the end of Ecclesiastes: “The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecc. 12:13). The true and transcendent purpose in education is only found when it is understood simply to be one way, among many, of glorifying the Lord.

Of course, to glorify God, you must know Him. And to know Him, you must have fellowship with Him. And to have to fellowship with Him, you must be redeemed from your sin. And to be redeemed from your sin, you must be saved by the only one able to do it: the Lord Jesus Christ. May you repent and trust in Him today—if you haven’t already—and find joy in the true telos of education.


References:

[1] William Barrick, Ecclesiastes: The Philippians of the Old Testament (Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2015), 49.

[2] R.C. Sproul, "The Goal of Education," Renewing Your Mind, Ligonier Ministries, September 10, 2018.

[3] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 731.

[4] Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 62.