“Education is a form of real wealth”
NSA Board Exhortation 10.7.16
by Toby Sumpter
I got to interview Charles Sykes recently. He’s the author of Fail U, which analyzes the failure of the modern college university system. One of the most striking (though painfully obvious) points he made when we spoke is that an education is only as valuable as the actual education offered and received. In other words, though try as our culture may, you can’t pretend something has value when it does not. Either a college or university delivers a good or service of real value or it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem accidental that simultaneously while the government has massively increased subsidies to apparently prop up the value of a college education, the last century has witnessed a colossal crisis of faith in the concept of real value. We’re not even sure real value exists anymore. Everything is so subjective and relative that education is necessarily a fragmented thing. There is not a core body of truth, goodness, and beauty to be entrusted to the next generation. What is valuable is whatever people decide to value. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Truth is whatever is true for me in my context, in my experience, in my minority studies department. Thus, on the one end, government subsidies have a corrosive effect on education because they effectively dilute the value of the education. If anyone and everyone can buy a diamond, the demand for diamonds is diluted. On the other end, the fragmentation of truth also corrodes the value because there is no way you can plan to provide an objectively valuable education if students get to determine what is valuable to them. This is the “customer is always right” gone to seed.
Now put this together with something Peter Berger points out in his book In Praise of Doubt. Berger, drawing off of a French sociologist, Arnold Gehlen, points out that every culture has a background and a foreground. The background is what the culture assumes; the foreground is what a culture leaves open to freedom of choice and possibility. Berger points out that a culture’s background is actually what makes the foreground possible. The fact that a culture has an agreed upon language in the background is what makes being a writer a live possibility in the foreground. The fact that a culture has agreed upon rules of civility and discourse (e.g. standing in lines, raising hands, taking turns, telling the truth, etc.) means that you can actually spend time working on other projects and problems. You can assume thousands of tiny things in the background and then build a sky scraper or work together in a medical lab or hospital. But this means that every generation must be given and therefore must receive that background in order for progress to be made. If every individual gets to decide what language (if any) they will use, what rules of discourse or civility or morality are right for them, you are essentially condemning a culture to death. This is what we might call cultural Babel. If you don’t speak the same language, if there isn’t widespread shared cultural assumptions, you can’t get anything done. In fact, that culture is stuck in a sort of perpetual primitivism, trying to invent language, trying to reinvent what it means to be a man or a woman, or what marriage is, etc.
In other words, and this brings me back to the beginning: education is a form of real wealth. It has real, objective value. We sometimes use the word inheritance, but I think we need to speak and act like that is precisely what we are doing. We are bestowing an inheritance, real wealth, with real generational value. It’s not as though a classical Christian education is “sort of like” wealth. No, it is the most basic form of wealth, the most basic form of real value. We are forming valuable persons, men and women that are dependable, thoughtful, industrious, creative, compassionate, gracious, bold, fearless. There is nothing more valuable in all the world than a competent, intelligent human being. He may be from a poor family or a rich family, it doesn’t matter. If he has been discipled into the Lordship of Christ in the Liberal Arts, he is a wealthy man and is an asset to society.
So the application is twofold. First, our rejection of government subsidies is not merely a pragmatic principle. It is not merely because we reject government encroachment, though it is that. It is also a deeper philosophical principle. And I mean “philosophical” in its most basic sense. We love wisdom too much. We prize understanding more than rubies, more than gold, more than silver. Nothing anyone desires can compare with Wisdom. To receive government subsidies is to dilute the price of wisdom. We refuse to do that. But second, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are overseeing the transfer of real wealth, real value, an inestimable inheritance. It’s challenging to measure that value, and surely it cannot be quantified in the usual ways. But we can’t let that discourage us in the slightest. Christian character is not measured, but it is unmistakable. The fruits of the Spirit are not neatly diagrammed, but they are lively and potent.