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What is True Education?

August 03, 2020
By Memorial Lutheran School

What is True Education?

By Mr. Josh Brisby, M.Ed.

In the past we have discussed the differences between classical education and public education. Yet, it is one thing to think of differences between different types of education; it is another thing to ask, “What is true education?” The following proverb is attributed to my favorite philosopher, Socrates:

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.

Socrates was famous—or perhaps infamous—for always asking questions and seeking to define terms.  And, as Plato’s dialogues show, Socrates was never truly satisfied with the definitions that his philosophical quandaries produced. So, to continue in his legacy, let us ask how we would define the word 'education.'

Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘education’ as “the action or process of educating or of being educated.” This, of course, begs the question, what is it to be educated? Webster defines ‘educate’ as “to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession” and “to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically.”

As we can see, even what comes from a supposedly objective source, the dictionary, is quite vague as to what constitutes education. I teach my students to strive for seek the why of things. In this case, we need to seek which definition of education is correct—or perhaps none of them are—and then understand why we think so.

First, using the Socratic method of dialogue, we can seek to take a position and teem out its implications, drawing it to its logical conclusion. Take the above definitions. The first can be easily dismissed: “the action or process of educating or being educated.” This definition commits the logical fallacy of petitio principii, or “begging the question.” It defines nothing. It uses the same related word ‘educate’ so that it never defines education. I call this ‘the politician’s trick.’ Politicians are superb at this sleight-of-hand. “I’m going to fix the economy by making it better. And I’m going to make the economy better by fixing it.” Please notice, did the politician ever give the specifics of how he is going to fix the economy? Indeed, what does he even mean by fix? So we can easily do away with the first definition from Webster.

Let us now consider Webster’s second definition,  “to train by formal instruction and supervised practice.” To be honest, this is probably the accepted definition today, at least in most schools. We can see this by how they approach the rest of the definition, “especially in a skill, trade, or profession.” What does it mean to ‘train’ someone? Is it not to mold someone to be or become what the teacher desires? In this sense, is it not simply ‘filling with knowledge’ for the purpose of a trade or skill? This second definition is exactly what Socrates wishes to avoid when it comes to education. The one who is ‘educated’ in this definition simply “receives knowledge of a skill,” nothing more. The child or adult, in this sense, is merely passive, a vessel through which so-called knowledge is poured.

Let us now look at Webster’s other definition of education: “to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically.” This, I would argue, is what true education is. Why? Because we all, in our heart of hearts, know that an education is not merely training or the development of skills. When we think about people, we think about all the various qualities or characteristics that make up such a person. This even leads many to think of a good education as a well-rounded one. That person can only be made or formed if he or she is growing mentally, morally, and aesthetically. And that person cannot do that without all aspects of life, physical and spiritual. Further, that person is not merely passive in this education, but they participate actively. In this true education, the teacher is not only the facilitator, who ignites the spark. The teacher tends the spark and kindles the fire. The student participates in this education, fanning the flame, because the teacher instructs and piques the wonder and the curiosity of the student. As Socrates says, “I teach nothing. All I can do is teach them to wonder.” Socrates considered himself a “midwife,” merely giving birth to ideas. This is what true educators do and are. We teach our students how to think. We do not think for them. We inspire their wonder and curiosity of the universe, and we ignite that spark. We put the wind in their sails for them to navigate their ships.

This is true education. Why? The whole student continues to grow as a person, and we educate them not just for a forty-minute class period, but we inspire them for life. By the act of educating, students are inspired to begin and to continue with their education. This is why graduation is called “commencement”—which means “beginning.” Graduation is not the end. It is only the beginning. Now our students are ready to seek to always strive for education, to fan that spark into a flame, to strive to take their sails and navigate the vast ocean of wonder and curiosity that lies out there in God’s wonderful universe.

This is true education.