"So just what are you going to do with that degree?"
If you're planning to enter university or college in a month or so, or maybe even just graduated this past spring and are on the hunt for gainful employment, you've probably heard a form of this question at least a dozen times from well-intentioned parents and friends. Now if you're going into the sciences, any of the tech fields, or engineering, the question is usually accompanied with a look slyly acknowledging the oyster-ness of your world. If you're going into the liberal arts—or God forbid, the fine arts—the question is usually accompanied with a look suggesting you've just told them about some terminal diagnosis.
Whatever the tone, though, the question persists: just WHAT are you going to do now with your education? I mean, education is for something right?
It is, but maybe not in the way so many of us have been taught to think.
Now what I'm going to argue is likely to be written off as pie-in-the-sky idealism by many. That's fine. In a sense, if you want to throw out ideals that is your choice. But you'll have to sleep in the bed you'll make or, to mix my metaphors, you'll have to take aim at some other ideal. Of course, it's easy to hit the target if you aim at nothing, so why not take aim at the hardest target to hit?
The problem, though, is that for many the loftiest ideal for education is job creation. We want our students to find meaningful work where they can use their skills in order to make the best living possible. This isn't bad, it's just not big enough. Also, in terms of a target, not only are jobs small targets, they're also moving. It's quite difficult to determine just what jobs will be available (let alone exist) in the next decade or so. Even with the most advanced predictors, there are still factors that make recessions and redundancies almost impossible to forecast.
But it's hard to break free of this modern day obsession with job creation. It's a staple now of political platforms and we endlessly fuss over the statistics of where students end up and what kind of salaries they make. We have reams of numbers about other reams of numbers that can work us into some sort of frenzy. Why are so few young Christians becoming engineers? Where are the Christian poets and politicians? I'm not saying these are not valid questions that need asking; nor that tracking this is not interesting or important. I'm just saying this obsession often undergirds a wrong-headed understanding of education's purpose. Jobs and job training are part of education, for sure, but they are not the goal, nor should they ever be. They are merely a byproduct of something much bigger.
But what's bigger? Perhaps character formation gets closer. And it's almost becoming a bit of a semantic dead horse by now, but we do want (or pay lip service to) students not only learning their material and filling their heads with knowledge, but also learning to become industrious, kind, cooperative (or collaborative we'd likely say), and trustworthy. We want an education not just to create workers, but good citizens because the Nation is a bigger goal than the Economy. This is getting closer. And although less volatile than markets, empires, and nations have been known to collapse. Perhaps there's something our education can give us that might withstand the flux of markets and nations.
So what if we went even deeper or bigger? What if we could, in a move that might be so countercultural and subversive that it would blow even a few of our private Christian institutions away, recover the ideal that education is first and foremost about wisdom and holiness? What if those were our goals, and producing citizens and workers of the right type was just a wonderful accident?
This idea is terrifying in its demands, but also wonderfully liberating because it can free so many from the anxiety that they are defined solely by what they do and not by who they are. Your degree, whether it's in biochemistry or the bongos, is a small part of your bigger path to becoming one who is striving for wisdom and holiness above all else.
Because I think if we'll all agree it would be a tremendous good if our educational institutions, whether they are secondary or postsecondary, were formative in making CEOs or political leaders or Pulitzer Prize Winners, it would be vastly better if we could begin to form those who perhaps never end up doing more than bagging groceries or cleaning hallways, yet maintain the path and the desire to becoming sages and saints.