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The True Purpose of Education

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I thought we should begin this lecture on the true purpose of education by making a simple declarative sentence. The true purpose of education is to teach people the purpose of their lives here on earth. This purpose is to use the creatures that enter their lives as a means of reaching their eternal destiny in the life to come. That destiny is nothing less than entering heaven and possessing God in the perfect satisfaction of all human desires.

Needless to say, not everyone accepts this statement on the purpose of education. This is especially true of the younger generation in our country.

The disturbing fact is that millions of young American Catholics have given up their faith. Recently I spoke with the father and mother of seven children. All seven were sent to nominally Catholic schools, through high school and college, and all seven have given up their faith.

We had better take a hard look at the true purpose of education if we want even to preserve the Catholic faith among the young in our nation.

In order to identify the true purpose of education, a person must believe there is one, living infinite God:

  • must believe that God created us out of nothing

  • must believe that we have an eternal destiny which is nothing less than being reunited with the God from whom we came

  • must believe that we have a rational intellect that can know the purpose of our existence and the means of obtaining it

  • must believe that we have a free will which can choose the proper means of reaching heaven: and finally

  • must believe the we need constant help from God, called divine grace, in order to understand why we exist here on earth and choose the necessary means of arriving at our heavenly home.

In the language of Christianity, all of this may be summarized in two words, principle and foundation. It is the principle of faith from which everything in Christianity finally derives. It is the foundation of morality on which everything in our lives ultimately depends.

We can distinguish four elementary truths in which everyone should be educated. They can be expressed in four questions: Why are we created? Why are other things created? How are we to use creatures to reach heaven? Why must we pray?

Why Are We Created?

God in whom we believe must have had a divinely wise purpose for bringing us into existence. He created us to know, love and serve Him here on earth, in order to reach Him in the heaven for which we were made. The absolute foundation of true education is to recognize that except for God, we would be what we were before we were created.

We would be nothing. True education builds on the unquestioning premise that only God must exist. He is the necessary being who cannot not exist. We further believe that God created us out of sheer selfless love. He gains nothing by bringing us into existence and He gains nothing by our obedience to His will. All the benefits of our being created are on our side. God wants us to be at peace in this life because we know why we are in this world and are confident of reaching perfect happiness in the life to come.

We are to have a foretaste already in this life of the happiness that awaits us in the life to come, provided we conform our wills to the will of God.

In plain English, our eternal future depends on our present behavior. If we honestly strive to please God here and now, He will reward us by satisfying our fondest desires for happiness in the life that will never end.

Why Are Other Things Created?

Our purpose for existence is to know the God from whom we came and how we are to return to our Creator. You might say this is the first premise of true education. All around us there is widespread confusion. Part of that confusion is because people do not really know why they are on earth at all. The key word in answering the question of what is true education is the word “eternity”. We are now living in time, but the goal of our existence is not time but eternity. As we approach our second question, “Why are other things created.” There can be only one rational answer. We cannot reach heaven without the necessary means of getting there. That is why the rest of the world exists, to enable us to achieve a happy eternity.

There is no limit to these other things on the face of the earth that are to help us reach our eternal destiny. They are literally every person, place, or thing; every pleasure and pain; every circumstance in which we find ourselves; every thought and desire; every sight and sound – all of these are intended by God to be so many graces leading us to eternal beatitude.

If there is one basic truth to education, it is the fact that nothing in our lives ever happens. There is no such thing as chance with God. What we call Divine Providence is the mysterious will of God by which He provides for us to reach Him, in whom alone our hearts can find the happiness for which we were made.

Let us be very clear in what we are saying. We believe that God not only created everything in our lives to enable us to reach heaven. He not only was our Creator. He is our Creator now. He is guiding every moment of our lives in such a way that everything is mysteriously part of His loving plan. The secret is to see God’s hand in every who, every which, every when, every thing that touches our lives. This is what St. Ignatius, my Father in God, tells us when he says, “There are few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves entirely into His hands, and let themselves be formed by His grace”. This grace is everything in our lives which God intends to enable us to reach our eternal home.

How Are We To Use Creatures?

We now ask the harder question: How are we to use the creatures in our lives in order to reach heaven? The answer can be stated in two adverbs. We are to use everything in our lives discriminately and dispassionately. Both adverbs belong to the essence of true education.

Discriminately. In the words of the great masters of spirituality, we are to use creatures in so far as they help us reach our eternal end and we are to remove them in so far as they prove an obstacle on our road to salvation.

In general we can distinguish four kinds of creatures in our lives. There are those that God wants us to enjoy. Others He wants us to endure. Still others He wants us to remove. Finally, there are those He wants us to sacrifice.

What is, therefore, our first responsibility? Our first responsibility is to discriminate or classify or make an inventory of the creatures in our lives. You might say we must learn what persons, places, and things God wants us to enjoy; what persons, places, and things He wants us to endure, what persons, places, and things He wants us to remove from our lives because they lead us into sin; and what persons, places, and things are not occasions of sin but God invites us to surrender them not because we have to, but because we want to sacrifice out of love for Him.

Dispassionately. The final quality of true education is to learn how to practice true liberty. We all have a fallen human nature, darkened in mind and weakened in will because of sin. What, then, is our duty? We must train ourselves to become internally free from enslavement by our passions. We must train ourselves to choose what will lead us to our eternal goal. In other words, we must become masters of our natural inclinations. We must not allow our spontaneous desires to be always satisfied, nor our spontaneous fears to prevent us from doing what God expects of us.

Needless to say, this is the bedrock of our struggle through life, to make ourselves free from yielding to our passions, and free from giving in to irrational fears.

The Need for Prayer

One more and most important element in true education. Authentic education must teach the students to pray.

All that we have said so far is impossible to achieve without the constant help of God’s grace. This means that all the academic knowledge that young people are taught; all the information they receive about how they are to conduct themselves in this world in order to reach the heavenly destiny - all of this will be useless unless they are taught to pray for the light they need for their minds to know God’s will, and all the strength they need for their wills to do the will of God.

But then comes an embarrassing question: Do we mean to say that, although God has destined us for heaven, He will not give us the means for getting there?

Well, yes and no. He will give us the means, but we do not have those means unless we ask for them. Asking for the means to reach heaven is another word for prayer.

We, therefore, affirm in God’s ordinary providence we shall not receive what we need, namely grace, unless we beg for what we need. This is a hard saying, but it is profoundly true. Of ourselves, not only as individuals, but even working together with other human beings, neither I can reach heaven nor can we reach heaven by ourselves.

I and we need divine grace. One of the most prophetic features of modern society is the foolish idea put into wide practice, that we can attain the purpose of our existence without constant help from God.

We need prayer, therefore, as individuals; we need prayer as social beings even to remain in God’s friendship. Without prayer we will loose divine life we possess and, more obviously, we shall not grow in the life we already have. In other words, no prayer, no salvation.

This is the basic reason why we see such tragedies among so many educated even supposedly believing people. Being a believer is no guarantee of remaining one. They do not pray, or pray enough, or pray with sufficient constancy or perseverance, so the inevitably happens. The more educated they are the more they need humility. They must recognize their impotence to keep God’s commandments by themselves. Either they have the humility to beg for divine help in prayer or they will not have the grace they constantly need to remain in the Lord’s friendship and to reach the heaven for which they were made.

Over the years, I have taught too many highly gifted people in too many universities not to know what I am saying. This conference was on the subject of, “The True Purpose of Education.” In one declarative sentence, this purpose is to teach the students why they exist here on earth. It is to reach their heavenly home.

When God became man He taught us many things, but nothing more important than that, “Without me you can do nothing.” In other words, the purpose of education is indeed to teach us the purpose of our life on earth. But we must also be taught how to reach our eternal destiny. In one word, we must “Pray.”

Any education which does not train people to see everything in this life as only a means of reaching heaven is not education. It is mental perversion, which has mesmerized whole nations into living in a dream world.

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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