Virtue as the Purpose of Education



What is the purpose of education?  

Every educational system and every school has an implicit answer to this question, whether it’s consciously stated or not. Some have proposed that education is solely for the acquisition of knowledge. Others suggest that the purpose of education is for equipping one for a successful career or for specialized training in a particular vocation.

While knowledge and skills for success are good things, they should not be education’s final end. Instead, classical Christian schools like Covenant are recovering the old idea that the formation of virtue ought to be the primary purpose of education.

After all, knowledge itself without virtue can be pernicious or even evil. Knowledge of medicine, for instance, might seem like a good thing, but such knowledge is evil if employed to produce chemical weapons with the goal of the mass destruction of human life. And training in a specialized vocation might help one secure a job in the short-term, but it has often left graduates without a sense of meaningful direction and purpose to their lives.

If we believe instead that the formation of virtue should be the purpose of education, then it’s worth reflecting further and defining the nature of virtue.

In the classical tradition, virtues are the habits that dispose an agent toward its proper purpose. So then we must ask ourselves, ‘what is the proper purpose of a human being?’ The human being is made in the image of God and endowed by God with a rational mind, heart, and soul. A virtuous human being, then, is one who habitually acts according to its purpose and who is perfecting proper habits of the mind, heart, and soul.

And this brings us to an often misunderstood point on the nature of virtue: Virtue is more than morality. In other words, virtues are not only actions of the heart, but include habits of the mind and soul. On such an understanding we could even make a distinction between three kinds of virtues: (1) Intellectual, (2) Moral, and (3) Spiritual. Therefore, a virtuous person is not only good in the moral sense but also in an intellectual and spiritual sense.

Here, then, is an incomplete list of these virtues, which defines more precisely the kind of student we strive to form at Covenant School. These definitions are partially my own, but I have also borrowed elements from the school handbook of our friends at Veritas School and from Karen Prior’s On Reading Well:

I. Intellectual Virtues

    1. Love of Learning—demonstrates an eagerness and passion for learning through engagement in class discussion and unprompted learning outside of class.
    2. Wonder—finds delight in mysteries of God’s creation and a joy in learning truth. Has a natural curiosity toward learning.
    3. Imaginative—engages creatively with the world around them
    4. Attentiveness—attends to classroom discussion and practices self-control in thought, word, and deed.
    5. Orderliness—produces neat work that reflects the best of their ability
    6. Teachable spirit—open to instruction and correction without defensiveness and makes intentional application of lessons to future assignments or situations.

II. Moral Virtues

    1. Kindness—seeks and celebrates the good for others and treats them like family.
    2. Courage—responds well to adversity and takes appropriate risks.
    3. Diligence—preserves to the completion of a given task with minimal distraction or redirection.
    4. Humility—modestly defers to others, rejoices in the accomplishments of others, and does not draw undo attention to themselves.
    5. Self-control—maintains appropriate decorum in body, action, and speech in the face of difficult emotions or challenging stimuli.

III. Theological Virtues

    1. Faith—believes in God, expresses curiosity and joy in the reading of Scripture,
    2. Hope—a joyful attitude toward the future, expects God to bring about their ultimate good.
    3. Love of God and Neighbor—desires the good of others and of themselves, desires to know more and to commune with God through Christ.

With the cultivation of virtue as the primary purpose of education, we are not setting aside the worthy goals of the acquisition of knowledge or vocational training. In fact, a virtuous student will acquire all kinds of knowledge because they are the kind of person who is teachable and loves to learn. These students become lifelong learners. And a virtuous student will be prepared for any vocation, but more importantly they will also have a deep and Christian sense of meaning and purpose to their lives and work.

The formation of virtue is the purpose of education, and this orders all that we do at Covenant School.

Dr. Craig Hefner has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Wheaton College, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a B.A. in pre-seminary with a minor in Greek from Cedarville University. Prior to coming to Covenant, Craig taught at the collegiate level and worked in church and campus ministries. He lives in Huntington with his wife, Rachel, who is an occupational therapist and a family/newborn photographer. In his free-time, Craig enjoys reading great books, CrossFit, playing piano, and walking his dog. Email Dr. Hefner.

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