The Value of Education

Guest post by Caleb Griffin.
Recently, I listened to an interesting round table discussion from leaders of the Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ on the value of education. Throughout the course of the discussion and the post-discussion lecture, the speakers seemed to place the value of education on its ability to bless the lives of others, with a lesser emphasis on providing for one’s own family, and an even lesser emphasis on the fact that education has some sort of eternal value. Furthermore, one of the speakers, Elder D. Todd Christofferson said that we should be thinking of education as a means to an end, rather than an end itself.

Although I can understand the rationale laid out here, and thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, I found it somewhat surprising that the speakers (in appealing to some religious motivation as to the value of education) seemed to neglect the principal religious motivation for education that Latter-day Saints ought to give, which is simply learning. Not learning for the sake of what you can do with the learning, but for the sake of learning itself.

This “eternal” aspect of learning was mentioned a couple of times, to be fair, but I would argue that even in the times it was mentioned it tended to be framed more in terms of treating learning as a means rather than an end unto itself. Take the reference Elder Christofferson made to D&C 130:17-19:

“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”

In the context of the discussion and his talk, he seemed to be saying that we ought to be studying things like maths because God has to use maths, and hey–if you want to be like God someday, you’d better buckle down with that calculus textbook. I’ve never understood this view; it seems to ignore the eternity we’ve already existed and that we will continue to exist. Who cares about making sure you know some equations when you’re about to have nothing but time on your hands? You’ll have as long as you want to learn about how to find the hypotenuse of a triangle. Likely, of course, we’ve already learned all the academic subjects we think about on Earth–you’ve got to find some way of filling in trillions and trillions of years of existence before coming here. It makes me hope I’ve mastered calculus by this point and that I’ll get that knowledge back after the veil is removed.

The only way this verse makes sense to me is if the “principles of intelligence” referenced are referring to spiritual truths or truths we learn about ourselves. Things like: we can do hard things, trust in God, and obey him. We’re in the practicum portion of eternal learning; all the abstract scientific principles have surely been mastered by now. And if not, we have eternity to do it. From this more eternal perspective, it’s rather absurd to think that there is much value in learning about comparatively trivial things like maths or science; that’s not what we are here for. We’re here to learn about ourselves and our divine nature because this is the only chance we get to experience making choices in an environment where we are separated from our previous experience. There is no point wasting mortality trying to learn scientific principles because we think that will somehow help with shortening the learning curve to godhood. We’re learning for the sake of learning itself, because that is what divine beings do. The appropriate quotes from the Doctrine and Covenants here come from 93:36 and 88:40: “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth” and “intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence, wisdom receiveth wisdom, truth embraceth truth, virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light.” We want to learn not because of what we’ll do with that learning, but because we long to cleave unto the glory of God, which is pure intelligence itself.

I also wonder about the inherent logic behind this idea that the primary value of receiving an education is to help others. If you follow that logic, it suggests that if there were a better way to help others besides being educated, you wouldn’t need to bother being educated. I think education would be valuable even if it had no material benefit to others, suggesting that there is an implicit value to education that is beyond merely helping humanity. And if you believed the primary purpose of education was to help others (like they suggest in this devotional), wouldn’t that constrain your choice of major?

For example, If BYU followed this advice to its logical conclusion, they wouldn’t offer any humanities majors (not useful enough in a practical sense to humanity) or any of the majors that are designed to make money (accounting, business, and law). Surely you’d see a lot more Apostles who were social workers, medical doctors, fire fighters, construction workers, plumbers, and police officers than the current makeup of Apostles (lots of business people) if they actually believed that the purpose of education is to maximize your utility to society?

Just because I don’t think the humanities are the best way to be useful to others compared to more technical majors (like computer science for example) doesn’t mean I think we should abandon their study. Yes, one could argue that the humanities are helpful to others in some abstract way, but you have to think of it comparatively. If the point of education is to be useful to others, you have to show me that studying medieval bookbinding is as useful to humanity as computer science. I don’t think it is, and therefore this devotional would suggest we should study computer science not bookbinding, as that gives more scope to helping humanity. For the record, I think it would be a tragedy to abandon study of the humanities, but that is the logical fallout of this devotional if we were to accept the value of education they propose.

A counter-argument to the point I made about money-making majors is that the wealthy have more opportunity to be useful, and perhaps you could justify those majors that way, but only if that is the primary reason you signed up for them. I bet if you polled the students in those majors (or even the professors) that’s not what they would say was the primary reason they chose that major.

Coincidently enough, a few days after listening to this devotional, I happened to read this passage from Book VII of Plato’s Republic, that touches on this debate about learning being a means or an end. We’ll pick up in the part of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucos where Socrates is using the example of studying geometry as an example of a discipline that people think only in terms of its technical, Earthly application rather than because of the eternal truth it represents:

“The question relates rather to the greater and more advanced part of geometry–whether that tends in any degree to make more easy the vision of the idea of good; and thither, as I was saying, all things tend which compel the soul to turn her gaze towards that place, where is the full perfection of being, which she ought, by all means, to behold.

True, he said.

Then if geometry compels us to view being, it concerns us; if becoming only, it does not concern us?

Yes, that is what we assert.

Yet anybody who has the least acquaintance with geometry will not deny that such a conception of the science is in flat contradiction to the ordinary language of geometricians.

How so?

They have in view practice only, and are always speaking, in a narrow and ridiculous manner, of squaring and extending and applying and the like–they confuse the necessities of geometry with those of daily life; whereas knowledge is the real object of the whole science.

Certainly, he said.

Then must not a further admission be made?

What admission?

That the knowledge at which geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal…

That, he replied, may be readily allowed, and is true.

Then, my noble friend, geometry will draw the soul towards truth.”

From the devotional, we would think that someone ought to study geometry because it gives one the technical skills (the “squaring and extending and applying and the like”) necessary to help one’s fellowman (and to a lesser extent to provide for one’s family and because it’s stuff we’ll have to learn in eternity). From this exchange, however, I would think Plato would say that may be part of it, but the greater rationale for studying geometry is because it represents “knowledge of the eternal” which is useful to learn not because of what that knowledge can do (a means) but because knowledge is an end in of itself. Knowledge is the good. Or in other words, the good life is contemplating eternal truth and learning about it, not because of what we can do with it but because what it is.

I’ll end by throwing in a couple of caveats to what I’ve just written. I realize that this rather lofty view of the purpose of education I have mentioned here is an admittedly privileged one. Most people around the world cannot afford to study simply for the sake of learning itself; they are constrained by their financial circumstances to maximize their earning potential. I recognize that. Furthermore, the advice given in this devotional is probably meant as more of a practical kind and less of a theological kind. If that is the case, my critiques are unfair.  Whether unfair or not, I found myself profiting immensely from this excellent devotional, despite (or perhaps because of) my disagreement. It’s always worthwhile to consider the underlying assumptions behind why we want to learn (or at least why we tell ourselves we want to learn).

Caleb Griffin
Department of Political Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

10 comments for “The Value of Education

  1. I wouldn’t be too sure about what we learned in the pre-existence, or how we will spend our time in the hereafter, given our limited knowledge of them. The only kind of learning we know is embodied, and we might have been awful at learning without a body. If part of your earthly mission is learning calculus or physics, you probably shouldn’t waste the opportunity.

    BYU’s religious mission actually makes it easier for the humanities to make a case for their value, since quite a lot of what we do in church activity is more closely related to the humanities than to STEM fields: dealing with scripture and history, interacting with people in or from different cultural or language backgrounds, performing music, teaching and public speaking, and so on. Plenty of room for social sciences and other trades and disciplines too, of course. But if ‘helping people’ includes the bulk of our church activity, a lot of it is academically housed in the humanities.

    Besides, in a large, prosperous society with highly differentiated labor roles, it’s a question of how many specialists of each kind we need. I’ve occasionally interacted with experts on medieval bookbinding – when you need to consult one, they’re very helpful to have around! It’s hard to predict how many of them we need compared to the number of computer programmers, but the free market seems to be the most efficient way to sort that out.

    Recent polls of students suggest that most students are in fact in it for the money. Unfortunate it some ways, but understandable, as being rich is a lot more enjoyable than being not-rich.

  2. “Recent polls of students suggest that most students are in fact in it for the money. Unfortunate it some ways, but understandable, as being rich is a lot more enjoyable than being not-rich.”

    Most people have to make a living, so being “in it for the money” makes sense and is honorable, at least to some degree. Plus, haven’t we all heard that by making lots of money, we can find favor with God by helping others, paying tithing, and serving/advancing in the church hierarchy? I don’t fully embrace that message, but I have certainly heard it.

    That said, I agree that there is intrinsic and personal value in learning. I don’t know anything about the context of the roundtable discussion mentioned by the OP, but that context might have shaped the thoughts expressed by the speakers.

  3. A point in these types of discussions that seems highly relevant but rarely touched on is the distinction between humanities and social sciences as abstract endeavors and fields and Humanities/Social Sciences as formal institution in our universities. That the latter is a complete mess, but in some ways we are in a golden age for the former. While humanities departments are being cut, we have exponentially greater access to humanities curricula and more artistic content than ever before.

  4. In D&C 88:79 the School of the Prophets was positively commanded to study the physical sciences (“things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth”), the social sciences (“things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations…a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms”), and at least some humanities (“things which have been” and note that the School of the Prophets studied English grammar and foreign languages). But I interpret that verse as a list of examples rather than exclusive, with the bottom line that we are to study all human knowledge. As far as I know there were no “majors” in the School of the Prophets: they all studied everything. The question is why?

    Verse 80 suggests the purpose is to make them better missionaries, and it’s easy to see why frontier farmers would benefit from studying the geography, history, culture, etc. of the places they’d serve. Comparing Joseph Smith’s earliest writings to his later output suggests he definitely benefited from the grammar lessons! But it’s a lot harder to justify some of the other topics. It’s also hard to see how studying those topics would allow frontier farmers to better serve others. This was adults learning for the sake of learning, not professional development.

    I think it’s critical to observe that the School of the Prophets met in the Kirtland Temple, that D&C 88 focuses on the Kirtland Temple, and that the promise of the Kirtland Temple was that members would be endowed with power there before they were sent out as missionaries. The opportunity to learn was part of that endowment. That still leaves the question of whether it’s the content that’s important (I don’t think it’s obviously absurd to think that we need to learn that content and now is as good a time as any to get started) or the process of learning. Probably both. But we know we are commanded to learn.

    As for the utility of education for helping others, I’m with Jonathan Green that the OP sells short the variety of learning that’s useful. Take business, for example: ever since the industrial revolution it’s been most efficient for most people to work together in large organizations, and those organizations are more productive and efficient when the people in charge know what they’re doing. If we don’t associate skill in business with benefits to society, that’s because Milton Friedman convinced the business students that they should only consider the interests of shareholders. Thus one of the tasks they apply their formidable skills to is minimizing the amount of the pie that goes to workers and consumers. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    This highlights that helping others depends less on what you learn than how you use it. Computer science is certainly a useful field, but too many of our skilled programmers use their expertise to create products designed to manipulate people into wasting more and more time on them–and some have found they can do that most effectively by stirring people up to anger, to use the Book of Mormon phrase. That does not help others.

    I’m glad BYU teaches a full spectrum of fields, but I would love to see every major include some discussion of how the gospel applies to working in that field.

  5. Is education an end in itself or a means to an end?
    From a young age, I was inspired by the exhortations of proverbs to seek wisdom and understanding. Even today, I get excited when I read them because it reminds me of my youth and my eagerness to learn. Thirty years later, with a doctorate and working at a university, I feel happy to still have the same love for learning. I strive to apply my mind to science and understanding scriptures, and I realize that it’s one and the same. There are hidden patterns, there are truths and similarities. One can feel the Spirit when reflecting on the truths of science. For me, a byproduct of what I learn is that I can provide for my family and make ends meet, but for the soul, it amazes me to discover the patterns. It has allowed me to have a greater spiritual sensitivity.

    I know that when we pass to the other side, much of the knowledge I have acquired will become obsolete, but the ability to learn, to receive revelation, to understand and relate things will still be there. If mathematics, physics, or engineering change, well, I’ll adapt, but I’ll have the capacity to progress from the simplest to the most complex and integrate eternal truth into my soul. It encourages me to think that I’ll be able to read the brass plates and Zenos’ prophecies, that eventually, I’ll be able to converse with the authors of the books and ask them what they meant when we read what we read. But I know that not everyone sees things as I do, so in the myriad of spiritual gifts to His children, each one feels in a personal way what they receive from God.

  6. Thank you for these comments!

    Jonathan, you’re right that I’m in the realm of pure speculation when I suggest what we have learned in the pre-mortal life and what things will look hereafter. I’m thinking of Plato’s theory of terrestrial learning, where it is merely recollecting what we’ve already learned since we’ve existed for infinite time. I tend to sympathize with that general trend of though I acknowledge that it is unknowable.

    Interesting point about embodied versus disembodied learning. That seems possible that we were worse at learning, but then again, I can see it both ways. In any case, we would have had to have at least a decent ability to learn in order to make a choice to come to Earth or not (or not–maybe that’s what happened to the defecting third?). Furthermore, Jesus Christ had to create the world even though he did not have a body, and that would have required unimaginable learning.

    Point on specialization is well-taken. I think that’s an important omission here.

  7. As someone with a PhD in English, I wish the Humanities were doing better, but they really have no one but themselves to blame. Most humanities scholars I interact with really don’t believe in the humanities much and this fail to really make the case for their relevance (despite engaging in the boilerplate reasons often given – but when you don’t really believe the boilerplate, it falls flat). Enrollments have plummeted, which is why the departments are getting cut.

    Humanities could rally and make the case, but given the current state and make up of the profession, I am not optimistic.

    The one place that can and sometimes does make a good case for the humanities are religious schools. I think the BYUs could be a leader here.

  8. Ivan, what do you mean by believing in the humanities? I believe in the practical value of what I teach, and in the educational value of humanistic disciplines, but I don’t believe that poetry is a path to enlightenment, for example. Studying poems can reveal some interesting things, and creating poetry can accomplish some useful things, but it won’t necessarily make us better people (for many definitions of “better”).

    And I think there’s plenty of blame to go around for the current state of our disciplines – I don’t think we have to accept blame for what comes down to grim facts of economics or demographics or technological change, or for the actions of some unhelpful or antagonistic educational and political leaders (including some from the Obama administration).

    But I do agree that several decades of demonstrative alignment with progressive causes and activism come with an ugly price tag that was entirely predictable, and that has an outsized effect on people at public colleges and universities far from the elite institutions that make front page news.

  9. JG –

    Well, basically everything you said. I notice that when it comes time for funding requests or attempts to increase enrollment, the humanities admins tends to fall back on “the humanities help us learn what it means to be human; poetry and literature and art improve us as people and refine our moral sensibilities” etc. – and they don’t really believe it. It’s basically what they think the public wants to hear.

    And I agree with everything else in your comment, so aside from some very minor quibbles on wording, I could have written all that had I more time to go into more detail.

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