Why School? Part 3: Wisdom and Virtue

My Dear Students,

I wrote last time that there are indeed some important and deep reasons for school–reasons that our society has largely forgotten, but that we desperately need to remember. I will do my best here to begin to present those reasons.

I should also say here at the beginning that what I will say today may not completely satisfy you, just yet, for two reasons: one, because the answer is not easy to explain and takes some patience to understand, and two, because the answer I’m going to give in this post doesn’t have much external appeal–at first glance, in fact, it is rather plain and almost off-putting.

However, I think you will see that upon thoughtful and sincere reflection, the answer begins to take on a pleasing radiance of something that is both true and lasting. I hope that you will be patient and thoughtful enough to wait for the glimmer to appear.

Enough caveats, however; let us begin.

Imagine, if you would, a child in the role of president. Perhaps the idea is amusing, or maybe even a little bit pleasing. We tend to like to think that children are the great innocent ones, and we like to make up superhuman stories about wild successes of which they would never realistically be capable. 

But let’s press past the humor and glamour and really think about what it would look like. 

It is time for the State of the Union address, and the child runs out of the room, too afraid to speak in front of the crowd.

The House and the Senate pass a bill, which arrives on the child’s desk for a signature. “Why do I have to sign this?” the child asks.

The child must negotiate with a foreign leader. “I’m sorry, where is your country again?”

A neighboring nation threatens war, and the child asks, “What does a nuclear weapon do?”

What I am trying to illustrate here with this rather silly example is that in many situations, in order to be able to know what is the right thing to do, we first need to have learned things and to have prepared for that situation. Wanting to do the right thing is not the same as knowing how. 

Sometimes knowing how to do the right thing is simple: we know that we should, for example, help our family when they need us. Sometimes knowing how to do the right thing requires more knowledge: if our family member needs counseling, for example, we might want to help them but not know exactly what to say or how to say it.

In the example with the child president, the child lacks the training to fill the position well. Without the proper knowledge and education, the child is likely not to make good choices at all.

In the same way, many responsibilities of adulthood will require us to have wisdom and knowledge in order to do the right thing.

Learning that knowledge and wisdom takes time and effort, and this is one of the reasons that we go to school.

I’ll give another illustration to help make this point clearer.

Take a look at the coronavirus crisis. It is evident that most sane and conscientious people want the right decisions to be made regarding the virus. No sane and conscientious person wants people to die; no sane and conscientious person wants people’s livelihoods to be taken away or their businesses to be shut down. People want the best outcome. (Of course there are some people who will want to manipulate this situation for evil, but that is a topic for another day.)

What is more difficult is the attaining of that best outcome, and here is where education and training are required. In order to know what is the best thing to do in this situation, we need to have learned to think logically. We need to understand how economies work. We need to understand how viruses work and how pandemics of the past have behaved. We need to understand the responsibilities of government as well as what good it can do and those things which it has the capacity to make worse. We need to understand what our responsibility is to our neighbor as well as what our responsibility is to care for ourselves. We need to know how to be healthy and how to manage our own finances in tough times. In short, knowledge and wisdom gained ahead of time is of great benefit to those seeking the best and most prudent choice in this situation. 

Some situations are simple, but others that we will face in life will require that we be prepared for them by learning ahead of time what is good and right and how to do those good and right things. Learning this wisdom is one key reason that we spend time in school.

When we begin to see that becoming virtuous and wise people does not just happen, but that it requires learning and preparation*, we begin to see that school is not simply about what we can get out of it, but rather who we can become as a result of it.** 

Suddenly all those “useless” assignments which we have complained about because they would never benefit us in our jobs or in our lives take on another level of meaning. Perhaps those assignments are helping us in our process of becoming. Perhaps they are teaching us virtue. Perhaps they are giving us wisdom. 

If you’re having trouble seeing exactly how your algebra problems or your English essay are helping you become virtuous and wise, you are not alone. This concept is not talked about very much, and it is not easy to see at first–if it were, there wouldn’t be so much dissatisfaction and confusion out there regarding the purpose of school.

In the next post, I will try to help explain some of those connections between your everyday schoolwork and growing in wisdom (connections that you may not yet believe exist, which I understand, but I think you may yet be persuaded). 


*It is extremely important to note that I am not saying that people can be perfected or made good by education! That is quite a different claim entirely! What I am saying is that in our humble and ever-failing attempts to live as God would have us live, we do well to prepare ourselves before we find ourselves in tough situations without knowing how to act. We will all have to make difficult decisions. We will not all be prepared to make those decisions. We will all have to choose what to do with our time daily. We will not all be prepared even for that.

**It is also extremely important to note that I am not saying that people must be highly educated in a formal sense in order to be virtuous and wise! Many great people have lacked what we would consider formal education. However, they have still had to learn about what is good and right and wise; they have just learned this through different means. I do not suggest that formal schooling is the exclusive way to wisdom, but I am saying that since formal schooling is one means by which we can grow in wisdom, that makes it worth our time.