Education opens doors. Education provides essential skills. Education can be an escape route from poverty. Education draws together people in one of our individualistic society’s most meaningful communities.
But none of this is very important, compared to the central point of education: the quest for knowledge.
I’ve heard teachers complaining that their pupils just want to know the answer. Progressive methods tend to put more emphasis on the process, and often assert that there is no one right answer anyway. Over the years, the hours of muddled discussion and unclear answers frustrate our pupils, and they conclude that school is not going to give them answers. So they look for answers elsewhere, usually in pop culture, which tells them that the answer is to follow their feelings, to do it if it feels good, to reject all authority. This is how the scowling adolescent is created. He wasn’t born that way, and he didn’t need to become that way. But he got tired of waiting for the answers.
The quest for knowledge means the quest for truth, for the absolute. It goes against the grain of our fashionable relativism, which avoids giving any definite answers in case, horror of horrors, we might have to disagree with someone or upset them. Giving offence has become the one mortal sin of our culture, and thus conformism to the dictatorship of relativism becomes the one cardinal virtue.
It amazes me that so many teachers happily spout politically correct slogans about valuing each other’s opinions, and fail to perceive how boring education becomes as a result. It becomes a journey without a destination, a pilgrimage without a shrine, desire without consummation. Our pupils might echo these bland statements themselves, talking about how they want their views to be heard and appreciated, their values respected, but really, underneath all the politically correct veneer, they want to know.
Many give up. They prove to be good students of relativism, and conclude that there is nothing more to life than conforming, making money, being respectable. The rainbow hair of the fifteen year old and the grey suit of the twenty-five year old both testify to the absence of reason and truth. They belong to the same world of dull conformity, in which the only options are the inarticulate anger of the rebel or the despairing submission of the defeated.
There are a few that won’t give up, however, and some of them find answers that shock us. They might even end up in Syria or Iraq. They found some websites which proclaimed absolute truth, and at last, here was something that wasn’t boring, something where it wasn’t just a matter of opinion and personal interpretation. Here were people who told them that their lives mattered. Because we never dared to discuss the big questions with them, they were unequipped intellectually to defend themselves against the crudest answers.
So let’s take our pupils seriously. We’re fellow travellers to the grave, and there are some important things to talk about before we get there. Every subject contains definite knowledge, substantial fare, and once we start to serve it up, our pupils might just start to see school as a place where they find answers, instead of a tedious exercise in social conformity.