What’s the point of all the schooling?

» Posted by on Dec 23, 2011 in Education History, Mission-Type Stuff | Comments Off on What’s the point of all the schooling?

Why be educated?  Why study?  What is the purpose of academic learning, at home or elsewhere?  In response to these questions, we might say “a good career,” or more vaguely, “a successful life.”  It might even be “to make the world a better place.”  In circles of classical education, we try to get down closer to the root of it, and so the purpose is often “to be a good thinker.”  Dorothy Sayers, in her insightful essay that has helped to generate much of the classical ed revival today, stresses the importance of gaining “the tools of learning” so that one can then tackle any subject.  Indeed, this gets more at the root of it, because if you are a thinker, you can often obtain that “good career” or “successful life.”  Or if you don’t care about money and success, you will at least be clever.  You will at least be able to do many different things, and also, you will not be suckered by media, faulty logic, etc.  But is that the reason for it all?  Just being smart? (not to say that this was Sayers’ intent)

Yes, that is it– being smart– but only if we are not stupid about it.  We have seen that some of the most hideous people in the history of the world have been some of the brainiest.  Much learning by the wrong type of people is not a good thing.  But the most thorough knowledge knows what it is all for, as well as where it comes from and where it should take us.  Christian scholars and educators in certain times past knew this especially well, and they never tired of talking about it.  They would have agreed that having the “tools of learning” is great, but they tended to have a much more potent end use in view for those tools than we do.  If we hope to cultivate true learning in classical education for our day, then we must continue to draw from our forbears who really dug deep into the “why we do this” sort of questions (Sayers touched upon this in her comments about theology as queen of the sciences, and of course Doug Wilson’s important work, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, pursues it further).  Looking centuries back, Augustine of Hippo and Hugh of St. Victor are among those who really unpack it.  We will take a brief look at them here, and take note of John Milton as well.  Hugh’s writings are especially interesting because his era is that of the first universities (12th century).

In the prologue to his major work of theology, De Sacramentis, Hugh places academic learning within a grander theological scheme when he writes that “it is clear that all the natural arts serve divine science, and that the lower wisdom, rightly ordered, leads to the higher.”  This lower wisdom, he explains, basically consists of the seven liberal arts plus physics, all of which serve to aid us in understanding the historical, allegorical, and tropological meanings of divine Scripture.  To clarify these three more specifically, this history that we learn in the Bible is served by the study of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (i.e. the trivium study of words and language).  Scriptural allegory, he clarifies in a definition that we might today use for “typology,” is what we have “when, through what is said to have been done, something else is signified as done either in the past or in the present or in the future.”  Tropology, then, is “when through what is said to have been done, it is signified that something ought to be done,” and these last two of allegory and tropology, interestingly, are served by arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy (i.e. the quadrivium), and physics.  Hugh summarizes allegory as that which “teaches right faith” and tropology as that which “teaches good work” (pp. 5-6).

In just this one example, without examining how Hugh makes the connection between the study of the quadrivium and a better understanding of the allegorical and tropological meanings of Scripture, we can observe his insistence that the disciplines of learning must ultimately be for no end other than better knowing God and living according to his purposes.  They are not simply to acquire academic greatness, nor are they for the sole end of impressive intellectual dialectic such as was seen in other circles of Hugh’s day (see Leithart, pp. 153-155).  Hugh’s understanding of this telos for the arts follows Augustine’s, both of them approaching worldly and pagan knowledge carefully and purposefully, asserting that if we pursue it, it is only in order to have tools for doing greater things, namely, interpreting and living the Word of God.  (See here for a bit more on this tradition of healthy concern about how to properly interact with pagan learning.)

So within this thoroughly Christian framework, Augustine and Hugh both claim the arts.  Augustine, however, actually takes a lower view of them than Hugh, declaring various aspects of pagan learning–areas which Hugh finds necessary–as inappropriate for Christians.  Augustine sees only certain branches of knowledge as useful for giving us immediate help in reading Scripture, while Hugh, although working toward the same end goal of scriptural exegesis, sees all philosophical learning as being a sort of base of preparation from which to better do the task (Taylor, p. 32).  Indeed, Hugh is known for his admonition to “learn everything.”  And as outlined above in Hugh’s description of the lower wisdom and its purpose, he even categorizes the arts according to how they can help us read the different levels of meaning in the sacred text.  Still, however, Hugh’s words to “learn everything” have apparently been misunderstood too often, not being taken in the necessary context of his “exhortation to learn perfectly the letter or historia of Scripture and the arts that will make that letter clear” (Taylor, p. 18).

Ultimately for both Augustine and Hugh, the end in view, along with the interpretation of Scripture, is the restoration of fallen man to the divine likeness.  Both agree on a basic level that this is what education is about, but there is a difference in their views about which of the arts play a part and the degree to which the arts actually help that process of restoration occur.  Taylor describes this difference: “For Augustine, the restoration of the divine likeness in man is altogether reserved to the perfect vision of God in glory to come; it is not, as in Hugh, a process which begins with a study of the arts in this life” (p. 30).  This restoration to the divine likeness in intellectual development, for Augustine, is also more about love than it is about wisdom (On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, ch. 35, and see Taylor, p. 30), although, as we will point out, Augustine does talk of our ascent to the divine Wisdom with certain of the arts being helpful for that purpose.

The conversation between these saints centuries apart anticipates John Milton’s well-known words another span of centuries later: “The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection” (from “Of Education,” 1644).  This opening line of Milton’s, along with the essay’s general display of his appreciation of the arts, seems to contain something of both Augustine’s and Hugh’s vision for human learning as restoration, plus the important articulation of God’s “grace” and our “faith” in the process.

So on a spectrum ranging from Tertullian’s complete disapproval of pagan learning to others’ (such as perhaps Origen’s and Clement of Alexandria’s) fuller embrace of it, Hugh may fall closer to the latter than does Augustine, though with both somewhere in the middle.  However, a fundamental concept about human learning that Hugh shares with Augustine, as Taylor notes, is regarding the rational creature’s relation to the divine Wisdom (p. 32), the one Wisdom who is the second person of the Trinity.  Men think and learn and are made wise as they participate in this one Wisdom, and as Augustine’s doctrine asserts, this is not by way of many wisdoms (Taylor, p. 14).  Hugh writes that the “philosophers of the Gentiles” peer toward this Wisdom with “an alien love” at a great distance (as cited in Taylor, p. 21), while it is the true love of God and restoration of fallen man that results from the right pursuit of knowledge and all other human activity oriented toward the one Wisdom.

So as we can see in this brief comparison, Augustine and Hugh both lay the same stress upon godliness as the end purpose of all learning, but Hugh tends more toward the arts as instrumental to that end.  It seems that Hugh’s vision for the arts connects more to a vision for sanctification.

In Hugh’s preface to the Didascalicon, he exhorts not just some, but all men to the task of seeking knowledge and truth (pp. 44-45).  His understanding of the universal fall of mankind and the need for all to be restored to the divine likeness leaves no room for the education of an elite few.  His view is expressed elsewhere in a noteworthy metaphor:

Let no man excuse himself.  Let no man say, ‘I am not able to build a house for the Lord; my poverty does not suffice for such an expensive project; I have no place in which to build it.’ …You shall build a house for the Lord out of your own self.  He himself will be the builder; your heart will be the place; your thoughts will supply the material (as cited in Taylor’s endnotes to Hugh’s Didascalicon, p. 171).

His clarification that the Lord “will be the builder” ties back to Milton’s words, “heavenly grace,” and adds an important qualification to this “astonishingly ambitious agenda” (Leithart, p. 152) of restoring man from the fall: It is not about building a tower to heaven by the intellectual power of our own learning, but rather about God’s building his temple within us as we open ourselves to meditate on his creation and on his nature, the divine Wisdom.  Taylor also observes that Hugh understood his aims to be “in cooperation with grace” (p. 24).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10)


Deferrari, R. J. (trans.) (2007).  Hugh of St. Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis).  Wipf & Stock Publishers: Eugene.

Leithart, P. J. (2007). “Medieval Theology and the Roots of Modernity,” in Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker, pp. 140-177.  P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg.

Taylor, J. (1991).  The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor (translated with an introduction and notes). Columbia University Press: New York.