Ethos and Education

Almost ten years ago, John Milbank wrote a very challenging article on education called ‘Ethos and Education: Beyond Romanticism and Enlightenment.’ Ecclesiology 9 (2013) 347-366. He explores the philosophy of modern mass education, of our thinking about education in relation to politics and of the hope of the church in offering a unique angle on education based on the transcendent God. The following is a reflection I wrote for the staff chapel service and is heavily dependent on Milbank’s ideas.

In 1995 Tony Blair said ‘Education is the best economic policy there is.’ 15 years later, Barak Obama said something similar, in more wordy but no less engaging words. He said, ‘The most important thing we do is to make sure we’ve got a world-class education system for everybody. This is a prerequisite for prosperity.’

Both influential world leaders capture there the very modern idea that education exists as a function or arm of the state. It is subordinate to politics and its sole purpose is to service the vision of the state.

But why? Why does the state have such an interest in education? The two people I quoted believe that education serves economics. If we have more highly educated people, we will have people who are better able to compete on a global scale, run better companies, develop better products, and sell more goods to the rest of the world. “Education is a prerequisite for prosperity.”

But do you notice what has been smuggled into this logic? Not just a view of education but a view of the purpose of politics and society too. Why is prosperity so important? Why is economics so important for society? Because for much of modern politics the goal of humanity is happiness and happiness comes through material wealth. Money makes us happy. Education helps us our nation to get richer. And riches are the goal of human politics. 

Most of us can see the problem with this immediately. Money doesn’t make people happy. Community and purpose does. That is all over the psychological research – community and purpose results in greater happiness. And of course it does. To know we are loved, and love others, to know we are wanted and needed, to know we contribute something good to the world, that’s what gives us satisfaction. The successful scammer billionaire who sits in her mansion alone, knowing that she has destroyed the lives of thousands, despite all her riches, is unlikely to be very happy at all.

Why is it that politics prioritises economic growth over all other things? Why is GDP our god? Is it really true that a transaction involving cash and a bag of meth is really more worthwhile than a person who volunteers to regenerate the local bushland? Because that is what this obsession with GDP seems to indicate.

And if education is all about creating those whose life seeks and serves the economy, then surely we can’t discount that, in our endeavours here, we also create some very successful criminals.

Well, if we successfully dismantle the economic growth fiction of politics, then we also free education from being the slave of this political vision.

The truth is that it was not always so. In the Classical world, education was sometimes seen as an arm of politics, but it was equally seen in reverse. Education was seen as a process that formed people to participate in friendly and political relationships within the area of the polis – the city, politics. It saw education as creating people of virtue, contemplation and eternity. Education was the lifeblood of the politics.

But during the Enlightenment, self-interest was seen as a social good. Modern economics is built on this idea – on Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Education collapsed into the servant of politics, and politics to economics. The alternative was the romantic idea that education was about the discovery of the inner self – of the true ‘Natural Man’ in Rousseau’s words. And so the individual become victorious over society. In reality today, our public talk about education is a strange collection of fragmented ideas from both worldviews.

The problem is that in our modern political, economic and educational discourse, virtue is subordinated.  So is a sense of meaning and purpose. Absolutely is a sense of the transcendent.

Educational scholarship is just beginning to rediscover the gap left by this, and some good work is coming out on student agency, and on the development of purpose in students.

Maybe education can become something more meaningful and more beautiful than a slave of economics. Maybe we can learn something from the ancients who believed that education would help society progress morally and create citizens who would know their place and purpose in the world.

And these ancients, and those right through to the early-modern period, also had the audacity to argue that virtue depended on a sense of the transcendent. The divine. This is why you need a chaplain in this school. Did I ever tell you that? It’s ok I will now. The chaplain isn’t a kind of poorer reflection of a school psychologist or a Wellbeing coach – one of the chaplain’s main functions is to remind us to look to the transcendent to anchor our purpose, meaning and virtues.

Because as the anti-religion, Enlightenment philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said

 ‘When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.’

He’s right. Virtue depends on a sense of the transcendent. Purpose often does too.

Our reading today urged us to look up. To set our minds on things above. On the transcendent and the divine, so that we would find happiness not in wealth or big houses, but in something deeper and far more fulfilling.

For Jesus, human flourishing was discovered in loving God and loving people. In community. And purpose and the transcendent.

You all contribute to this institution that is Christ Church Grammar School. You contribute to how the students here see their learning. You contribute to the kind of character they will develop. You contribute to how they see their sense of purpose in the world.

My purpose today has been to encourage us to break free from the fiction that prosperity makes happiness, and instead to renew our vision for virtue, for meaning and for the transcendent. May God bless you on that journey.

Nicholas Russell Written by:

Nicholas came to know the beauty of Christ during high school. Several years later, he trained as and worked as a History and English teacher. Shortly after he studied Theology and was ordained. Nicholas spent a few years in parish ministry and then returned to school life as Chaplain at Tara Anglican School for Girls in North Parramatta, NSW. He then moved to Western Australia and is now Chaplain at Christ Church Grammar School, a large and historic Anglican boys’ school in the Western Suburbs or Perth. Nicholas is married to Penelope and has three boys. They love going camping and exploring WA. Nicholas plays guitar and harmonica and loves folk, country, and blues music, as well as brewing beer.

One Comment

  1. Andrew Mintern
    October 5, 2022

    Thanks Nick. Very thought provoking and topical. I Hadn’t heard the Nietzsche quote before. Very interesting in schools where people want the values but not the beliefs.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.