(This article was originally written for The McGuffey Reader blog at www.themcguffeyreader.com.)
It is an unsettling fact that motives are often invisible. In most cases, bad motives seem to accomplish the same results as good motives. Both fear and patriotism can make obedient citizens. Both pride and charity can make men philanthropists. Nevertheless, motives matter.
It makes a difference whether you run over the neighbor’s dog on purpose or by accident. It may not matter to the dog, but it matters both to the dog’s owner and your other neighbors. No one wants to live beside someone who intentionally makes pancakes out of pets. Motives reveal health and sickness of mind and soul, and wherever the mind is, the hand soon follows.
All those involved in schooling––teachers, parents, and students––should be supremely concerned with motives. Education is, after all, the cultivation of minds and souls. But too often schools and well-meaning legislators and lobbyists treat education like a cure-all for social or political ills. The reason we need good schools, they tell us, is because democratic society relies upon a well-informed public. The reason we need to fund literacy programs, they tell us, is because literacy reduces poverty. These declarations may be true, but they are not good reasons for students to study, and are even worse reasons for teachers to teach.
The inadequacy of these motives becomes evident when we consider what happens when parents and teachers also leap upon the bandwagon of pragmatism. Once aboard, they behave as though any reason for learning will do, so long as their students keep passing tests. But this is to regard education as a manufacturing process and schools as factories, and––worst of all––to unwittingly treat students like products rather than persons.
A consequence of educational pragmatism is that it births materialist motives. For instance, when students ask, “Why must I study?” we reply in true materialist fashion, “To get good grades so you can go to a good college so you can get a good job so you can live in a nice neighborhood and send your kids to a good school and retire early.” Then, to hammer the point home (once we recover our breath) we solemnly warn them that if they fail to study and make good grades, they’re doomed to a life of minimum wage––squalor! I’m hard pressed to think of more depressing reasons to study. It’s no wonder our schools suffer from an apathy pandemic.
Perhaps we should rethink motivation.
I propose that the correct place to begin rethinking is within ourselves. We should reexamine our own motives as parents, teachers, and students. We must carefully examine the principles and virtues that underlie our approach to education. We must identify the prime mover––the primum mobile––of our educational philosophy.
The only way I know to ensure a truly humane education is to build it upon love. Love ought to be our reigning principle and defining virtue. Without love, our best efforts are doomed to failure or distortion. We should engrave the apostle’s declaration on our minds: “though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” If we wish to be something and accomplish something, we must stop thinking about ourselves and our accomplishments. We must love.
If we teach because we wish to create an educated public, our motivation is not love; it is politics. If we teach because we wish to eliminate poverty, our foundation is not love; it is economics. If we teach because we wish to improve the world in any way, we are not driven by love; we are driven by either a romantic dream or a hidden vice. None of us can change the world. The mass of people who make up “the world” is too large to comprehend, too large to love, too large to know. However, anyone can change an individual’s life; we can love individual students. Thus, love-centered education will treat students as individuals rather than as a body of resources.
In other words, we must remember the student is an end in herself. That is, we educate children because they have inherent dignity and worth. We fail to do this if we educate to serve some political or ideological end. If we educate to make a good society or a good workforce, students are tools––or even weapons––in the hands of the school. This is to subvert the natural order of things. It is, by definition, inhumane education. We want a good society or good workforce because we want our children to live happy lives. Political and economic hopes exist for the sake of people, not the other way around. Thus, we succeed only when we educate for the good of the individual student. All political or economic or cultural hopes must first bow to the dignity of man.
There are other ways we fail to love students. We fail when we put the constraints of the curriculum above the needs of the student. We fail when we put the limits of scheduling above the needs of the student. We also fail when we put our own goals for the student above her actual needs. If we teachers do not love our students, we risk being ineffective and even harming them. We may unwittingly erode a passion for learning, or worse yet communicate that education is merely about the acquisition of power. Of course, none of this means that the student rules the teacher, but that we must be attuned to the real needs of our students. Love is, after all, putting someone else’s needs above your own.
There is, of course, a second “love” that ought to go into education. We might instead call it curiosity or interest or delight or passion. We are used to talking about making students excited about academic subjects; we all learn better when we’re intrigued. Delight, however, is not something one can learn. But if it cannot be taught, delight can at least be caught. Passion and curiosity are contagious.
This is not surprising. What may be surprising, however, is that love-centered education has as its goal, not a passionate and dedicated student, but a well-tempered individual. Education is not just the transmission of culture and of useful information; it is also the cultivation of right desire. This includes the formation of proper motives. Ideally, the well-educated person is like the soul who has reached the garden at the summit of Dante’s Mount Purgatory. She has been through the cleansing fire of painful trials, and emerges light enough to fly. The soul is light, not because she is empty, but because she is full of pure loves, and love pulls her heavenward. Likewise, the ideal well-educated person has all her loves and desires in order. She loves all that is lovely and hates all that is hateful. She loves nothing less than it deserves, and hates nothing more than it merits. She is motivated––moved––by love. Such a person will value all that is good and true and beautiful and will, as a result, serve all the ends that we are tempted to turn to idols: justice, altruism, peace.
This may seem a hopelessly romantic and idealized goal. I confess that I don’t have a practical and comprehensive plan to fix education. Education, I fear, is as broken as the people inside it. I fall short of the ideal well-educated person as much as do my students. I don’t love my students as well as I should. Many days I’m exhausted and fall short of all my own goals and standards––even with the help of coffee. In the end, however, it matters not whether the goal is romantic or idealistic. We should seek the highest standard, not the most attainable one. We judge the better by the good, the imperfect by the perfect. So although I may not know each turn along the path up Mount Education, I do know where we ought to arrive, where we must begin, and the motive to get us there. And that is a start.