The Purpose of Education – My Answers (for now)

On the final day of school, I asked my classes if, after all our discussion about the purpose of education, what, they wondered about my take on the purpose. A lot hadn’t but some had.

Here is what I told them. Of course, my answers change all the time, but I think these three ideas are pretty solid.

First I shared a few comic strips from my 2001 series where Rufus tries to cheat on his “Purpose of Education” essay by asking all the adults he can find on campus what they think the purpose is.

The last strip represents my 2001 answer to the question. And I still believe that students do need to try to find their own answers instead of copying other people’s or simply accepting what they’ve been told.

I then shared with them the following quote from theologian and pastor Howard Thurman, who was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentors: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” We worry – and rightly so, I suppose – about our students and our children finding jobs and financial security. But I think we need to also be encouraging our students to try to make the world better – not to just get what they can out of the world, but to give back to it. Author Frederick Buechner says that your vocation, your calling, is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I tell students that one purpose for education is to help you find your calling – the thing you most love to do that will also make the world better when you do it. Too often education contributes to making students (and often many teachers) feel less alive, a little deader inside. Education, at its best, should make you feel more alive: more curious, more wonder-filled, more enthusiastic, more caring – even more frustrated and worried, which are themselves forms of caring. Every day that I get to teach, draw, and write, I feel my deep joy and the world’s deep need meet. I feel alive.

Lastly, I show them my favorite Peanuts cartoon . Charlie Brown asks Linus if he ever thinks about the future. Linus replies in the affirmative. Charlie Brown then asks Linus what he would like to be when he grows up. Linus replies “Outrageously happy.” We so often think about careers, about income, about upwardly mobile lifestyle. But above a certain point, money doesn’t add to your happiness. But even with enough money, it is possible to work at a job you hate for decades – and to be extremely unhappy as a result.

I used to do my whole sixth grade year about happiness. What is it? How do we find it? Is it something that happens to us – or something we develop inside ourselves? Education at its best can help us lead better lives.

When I finished sharing those ideas – my cartoons, the Howard Thurman quote, and the Peanuts cartoon – some classes sat thoughtfully. Fifth period applauded. Maybe they were just happy I had finally stopped talking for the year.

But I got the sense it was more than that.