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Much Ado About Nothing

By Kelly M. Hanlon on Friday, Sep 17 2010

On September 14, 2010, President Obama delivered his annual back-to-school address at Masterman Middle-High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The city stopped to allow the presidential motorcade to pass through, closing roads, bridges, interstates, and air traffic.  Teachers in Philadelphia and across the nation stopped classes and tuned into to hear the President’s speech.  But, did anyone hear what the President actually said? 

President Obama tried to connect with the students before him as he described his own experiences from his school-aged years.  He reinforced the advice of parents across the nation by telling students to, “Show up to school on time. Pay attention in class. Do your homework. Study for exams. Stay out of trouble.”

It seems, however, President Obama missed the mark on a much more fundamental level.  What is the purpose of education?  Why ought students heed the President’s advice?  Or, their parents’ admonishments to do well in school?  Why should we expect our students to spend the first twenty-two or, increasingly, twenty-five years of their lives in our educational system?  For those who listened closely, the President made the case for student’s to stay in school in order to get a job.  He said, “…the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school. In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life.”

This attitude portends serious trouble for a Republic that has always depended upon an enlightened citizenry to carry out the responsibilities of self-government.  The education of one’s soul—the pursuit of truth and goodness— is not the same as training in the technical skills necessary to complete a “job.”  The former is perhaps most famously described in Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, while the latter is today’s standard. 

What does this mean for our educational system?  What is the difference between an education in technical matters and one that nurtures the soul?  Let’s consider an example.  On the one hand, medical doctors need to know human anatomy, physiology, and pathology among other things.  What is the function of each part of the body, how does the entire system function together, how can things go wrong, and how can they be made right?  At its most basic level, this is not much different than the training a mechanic receives to understand the separate parts of an engine and how the entire machine functions together.  These are technical skills that are absolutely necessary.  On the other hand—and, perhaps, more importantly—we want doctors who understand the difference between good and evil, who understand that just because we can do something does not mean that we should.  We want doctors who have a moral compass. We want doctors (and lawyers and politicians and educators and citizens, for that matter) who understand the sanctity of life and understand universal truths about human nature.  It may not be necessary for a mechanic to understand anything more than the technical components of an engine for him to successfully complete his job, but we want, we need, and we expect something more of someone trained as a doctor who will care for our loved ones.  And if we expect more than technical competence from our doctors, should we not expect the same and more from the citizens of our republic?

We should ask for more from our educational system than the production of mere technicians.  We should ask for institutions that cultivate an enlightened citizenry—one that understands its roots in the world, one that acknowledges its own history, and one that appreciates the very principles upon which a free and humane society can flourish.  President Obama could have called forth these noble purposes into the minds of our nation’s future leaders.  Instead, his back-to-school speech seemed to be “much ado about nothing.” 

Let us look to the past to call forth, then, Newman’s famous exhortation on the purpose of an university—or, for our more general purposes here, an education—“to form a philosophical habit of mind which lasts through life of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”