What is the Purpose of Education?

Tim Van SoelenThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

Tim finalAs you enjoy reading this summer, I would like to recommend the book, Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith (2009), Baker Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI.

I would venture a guess that every philosophy of education class, at one point during the semester, asks the question, “What is the purpose of education?” The answer to this question will reveal a great deal about the core value system of the institution. Eleanor Roosevelt, in a 1930 article in Pictorial Review, was quoted as saying that “This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.” And, in my opinion, it should agitate us.

Historically, the answer to this question, the purpose of our “public” (but please note that Christian education is public education!) education has evolved, mostly based on the needs of society. Our country’s history has shown that in our government run school systems, education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing our youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democratic society, to preparing workers for industry.

And here is where there lies an important contrast between our Christian schools and the government-run schools. I believe that our purpose of Christian education does not fluctuate based on the needs of society in the way that government-run schools tend to do. We have been oriented for something different, an aim that does not change based on the culture or society that surrounds us. Dr. James K.A. Smith states. “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? That is actually the wager of this book: It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” (pp.17-18).

What if the purpose of education was not a pursuit of the information needed to prepare workers for industry or to develop good citizens. What if Christian education was a formational process, developing a love and pursuit of the good life, a Christian social imaginary as it is embedded in the practices of worship. Smith’s hope is that the “the shift of focus from ideas to practices, from beliefs to liturgy, will function as a methodological jolt that gets us into a position to see cultural practices and institutions in ways we’ve never seen them before” (pp.92-93).  He offers three liturgical analyses of cultural institutions, versions of the good life, by examining the mall, the stadium, and the modern university demonstrating that “implicit in their liturgies are visions of the kingdom–visions of human flourishing–that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom” (p.121).

Desiring the Kingdom is a challenging read, one that I would recommend you do with a partner or in a small group within your professional learning community. It will require you to re-examine some of the practices within your school, identifying which ones are truly aligned with the mission and vision you are called to fulfill. This book goes beyond worldview, an overused phrase which has lost some of its impact, to worship where Smith claims worldview is born. We are more than “thinking things”, a Christian education must be primarily concerned with formation. Can we become a Desiring the Kingdom school?


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

One Comment on “What is the Purpose of Education?”

  1. Smith’s book sis excellent in challenging some of our existing paradigms. Even in Christian schools where we can pay lip service to higher aims for education our practice often does not align with our words. Smith presents a great challenge to us to do more than just develop a theory of Christian schooling but to work at actually putting it into practice.

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