Education: What’s the minimum?

No, my question is not “What’s the minimum amount of education you can possibly get, and how do you avoid getting any more?”! My question has to do with what must surely be one of the silliest debates in education history – the debate over what everybody should be taught. A very modern concern, one that arises only in the context of a totally schooled population, and one that should never have existed. There is no answer to a question that shouldn’t be asked, and there will never be an answer to the question of what everyone should be taught, unless whole populations can be schooled to the point where there is no longer personality or individuality or talent or initiative.

My question is, is there a certain minimum set of things that everyone does need to know? I would suggest that there is, but it would not all be universal. In every culture and society there is a great deal that a person needs to know in order to participate fully in that culture and society. In the modern West, that would include a high level of literacy and a knowledge of information technology. Also, everyone needs to know basic maths, at least enough to understand a timetable or take measurements or figure out when to put things in the oven. Beyond that, I would see it as an individual matter of what parents consider it important to teach their children.

But I’m racing ahead without having asked the prior question. What we consider important, surely, depends entirely on what we’re trying to achieve. What we think education is for depends on what we think people are for. It is terrifying to think that we can rush blindly along, doing education and commerce and this, that and the other without ever asking the earth-shattering question of what it’s all about. It’s astonishing that people can spend their whole lives seriously, earnestly, devotedly carrying out procedures that have no actual meaning or purpose that they know of. No wonder poets and philosophers have gazed with bleary eyes on the scurrying anthill of humanity and sought for words to express the meaninglessness of it all.

Christians, at least, should be able to answer this prior question. We know that we are here to know God and to make him known. The Bible should therefore have the first place in all our educational endeavours, for we have a God who communicates, who made us for communication, and who desires us to communicate his message to others. To me, although I may be revealing a personal bias, this suggests that we should place a high priority on the verbal. I certainly can’t say that all my children share my passion for spelling and grammar, but spelling and grammar they will learn if it kills me, because unless we pay attention to these vehicles of our message, we cannot expect others to pay attention to the content.

But now let me try to look beyond my own bias. We are here also, just as surely, to serve. That we can only learn by doing, indeed by doing until it becomes a habit. Word and deed must go hand in hand; either is empty and meaningless without the other. Even if these things are only the bare minimum, we should be doing them to the maximum.


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