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To what end to we educate?

why is chemistry important?

On Doing and Being

I have loved school all my life. Except for three years in high school when I told myself I hated math and science, I enjoyed every single subject. I liked homework; I found tests exciting. And with a deep desire to please people, I happily jumped through the hoops of public school, much to my teachers’ delight. As a result, I was constantly told that I should be a teacher when I grew up. My mother was a teacher, people would point out; perhaps it was in my blood. But I resisted, in part because a little phrase had always bothered me: those who can’t do, teach.

Didn’t I want to do?

If school was easy for me, didn’t that mean I was supposed to achieve something important outside the four walls of a classroom? Wouldn’t it be sort of pathetic to stay in high school or middle school forever, glorying in my past successes? Even if I would enjoy it, wouldn’t it be better if I went off and did something with my life, leaving teaching for those who couldn’t hack it in the real world?

Sadly, there is a prevalent attitude toward the purpose of education that makes these questions seem like valid ones. If education is only done to reach external outcomes, then of course our best and brightest should graduate and then never darken the door of a classroom again. We need them to use their educations to become surgeons and research scientists and bankers and attorneys, not to while away the years wrangling third graders. A balance should be struck: teachers should be competent enough to pass the basics of their subject on to students, but not so talented that they would be better used elsewhere. The philosophy is one of utility and materialism, and my colleague Dr. Robert Stacey has done an excellent job of slaying that dragon here.

Here’s the biggest danger of this perception of education as I see it: It is not possible to end up a chemist without understanding chemistry, but it is possible to end up a chemist without understanding human nature and its failings. This should terrify us, and we see the consequences of this reality everywhere. Humanity is always in danger of falling into the hands of a leader who has power over other men, but does not wish to exercise power over themselves. Recorded history is rife with examples of those with technical know-how allowing appetites of cowardice, pride, and ambition to govern their work to disastrous effect.

How can a liberal arts education combat this human tendency? For one thing, perhaps the chemists of the next generation should study under a proficient and morally conscious chemistry teacher. Perhaps this chemistry teacher is both a master of the practical elements of their subject, and also able to lead students of all skill levels in conversations about implications of experiments they attempt. Perhaps this chemistry teacher instills the process of proving a hypothesis and engaging in rational problem solving in students who will become poets and chefs; perhaps this teacher also ignites a passion for the beauty and sanctity of the natural world in students who will become doctors and engineers. If this can truly be taught through one chemistry course, I think every student should take it, whether they go on to win a Nobel Prize or never heat a beaker again.

These must be teachers who are also doers, and good ones at that. But yet, the trappings and accomplishments often touted as the purpose of education still fall short. A liberal arts education doesn’t treat education like a means to an end. To paraphrase Stratford Caldecott in Beauty in the Word, the focus of education is not training students how to do—it is showing students how to be.

As Christians, we believe that it is the heart that God judges, not the number of professional accolades garnered. We are teachers who have chosen to teach because we deeply see and believe that each field of study has a place in the well-ordered soul. Our students must learn languages, math, history, literature, science, and music, not to merely develop well-rounded proficiencies, but because patient practice in all these things will teach a man to live abundantly. Down this path lie moderation, courage, wisdom, and justice—and that powerful trio; faith, hope, and charity. These are qualities of being; no distinguished career can overshadow them, and no season of unemployment can cheapen them.

The Saint Constantine School offers students an educational environment where everyone—including the Director of Operations and Development, me, who orders supplies and works with donors and manages this very blog—is first a teacher of this type. Every decision is made by these teachers; teachers who are paid a fair and living wage, and treated like the experts they are. Students are known and cared for by these teachers at every level, all the way up to the top; they might even take a class taught by the President, for crying out loud.

We must not educate merely for material success. We are shaping hearts and minds so that whether a student lives to cure cancer or is killed by it at twenty one, she may stand before the Throne and hear, “well done, good and faithful servant.” Those words, the words we so dearly wish to hear for ourselves and for our students, spur us ever onward toward excellent pursuit of wisdom, virtue, and joy.

At The Saint Constantine School, we do that we may be. And here—with God’s grace—your child may, too.

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