Education as Idol

According to popular wisdom, knowledge is power. If this wisdom is sound, the avenue to knowledge is the avenue to power. As the supposed avenue to knowledge, then, education enjoys prestige as the avenue to power. It offers a gateway to a wide range of powers: powers of communication, career, income, reputation, social status, and so on. Given the central role of such powers in modern societies, people who lack education are at a real disadvantage regarding their potential "success." Modern education thus divides societies, between the haves (the "properly" educated) and the have-nots. In doing so, it risks social disintegration. Every society with an educated class of citizens manifests such disintegration to some degree. To the extent that modern education offers no remedy to social disintegration, it becomes harmfully exclusive and elitist. It thereby abandons the path of unselfish love (agape). What, if anything, can be done? Can modern education serve unselfish love? Can it be recast to obey the love commands of Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; see also Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18)?

Some people allegedly pursue education to get knowledge but not power. They report that they value knowledge in itself, regardless of its value as a means to other things. This may or may not be so, but it does not settle our question whether modern education can be recast to obey Jesus's love commands. Even if one pursues education to get knowledge for its own sake, it does not follow that such education conforms to Jesus's love commands. I can vigorously pursue knowledge in itself but steadfastly refuse to love God and others. Many people actually do this. Whether modern education pursues knowledge in itself or knowledge as a means to power, it can and often does ignore Jesus's love commands. As a result, modern education departs from, and even disobeys, the primary commands from God. If we value such education in a way that hinders our loving and trusting God, we make an idol of it. Modern education is, in fact, a highly esteemed idol for many people. Even Christian churches are typically in the grips of this idol. This is seen in their exaltation of academic degrees and titles as badges of honor and in their deference to things academic. The contrast with Jesus is striking (see John 7:15-17; Matt 11:25-27; Luke 10:21-22). Education is a wonderful gift when fitted to the love commands. When, however, we treat it in a way that obstructs our obeying those commands, it becomes an idol.

A potent myth is that modern education will provide its beneficiaries with a secure future, as if we can secure our future by hard work. One hallmark of idolatry is the attitude that something we achieve or acquire (rather than receive as a gift from God) will bring us lasting security, contentment, and power. This attitude is often directed toward education. If we just get enough good education, according to a modern myth, we will be able to have the life we want. We can be in charge of our own lives once we have a graduation degree in hand, and the more advanced the degree, the better. In addition, the myth continues, we can use educational achievement to place ourselves ahead of others, as if life is a grand competition where some people must be left behind.

We should develop and use the intellectual gifts God has given us, but only in keeping with Jesus's love commands. When education becomes a means to promoting our own ends over God's, it becomes a dangerous idol. Modern education is set up to promote competition and individual achievement in academic work. This is a recipe for selfish ambition that harmfully excludes some people, even God. We see the poisoned fruits of this system when a freshman college student feels the oppressive weight of the idol of education and, in despair, takes her own life upon failing to "succeed" before the idol. This tragedy is played out on college campuses every academic year. Instead of regarding this tragedy as a cost of doing business, we should deem it a reflection of the harsh exclusiveness of the idol of modern education. Something has gone very wrong. Correction will come only when education is changed from an idol to a servant of the living God.

The needed change will occur only when education redirects its focus to obey the One who gives us the gift of learning. The needed focus is summarized in the apostle Paul's maxim that in Jesus Christ "are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). Given this maxim, education will focus, above all, on obeying Jesus as Lord, particularly regarding his love commands. In that case, education will no longer be education as we know it. It will no longer be an idol. It will then prompt us to ask a simple question. Which is more important: loving to learn or learning to love as Jesus loves? When Jesus is Lord, the answer becomes obvious. Everything then changes. We too are changed, for the better, forever. As the apostle Paul observes, "if I have all knowledge ... but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2).