by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Every school-aged child asks questions like these: “Why do I have to learn this stuff?” Why should a person go to school? What use are all those endless facts?
Does education have a value from a biblical viewpoint? To answer such a question, we need to find its synonyms: knowledge (knowing facts), understand (the ability to reason or apply logic), and wisdom (the ability to apply knowledge and understanding to appropriate situations); and its antonyms: ignorance and foolishness. I can see some of you already squirming in your seats. The words ignorance and foolishness already tells you where this is going, but tell me what else describes an uneducated person?
Solomon once looked at the difference between being educated and uneducated and concluded, “I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13). But, of course, we want to know why this is the case.
The Impact of Ignorance
An uneducated or ignorant person doesn’t have much with which to work. The things he knows are only those things he has personally learned through his own experience. Being the prideful creatures that we often are, the ignorant person believes his way is best – mostly because he has nothing else with which to compare it. If he only knew what God had warned, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but whoever walks wisely will be delivered” (Proverbs 28:26). It is foolish not to look at alternatives or to question our personal assumptions. It becomes particularly dangerous when we deal with matters of morality. “Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame” (I Corinthians 15:34).
Because few people believe themselves to be wrong, it is easy to decide that everything I know must be good and if I don’t know it, then it must be bad. “But these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves” (Jude 10). The reason many people refuse to acknowledge certain actions are sinful is that these are the things they have chosen to do – obviously anything that I choose must be right. The very idea that something I do is sinful must be a joke (Proverbs 14:9).
The fact is, the ignorant person doesn’t know that he is ignorant. He doesn’t have enough information to prove to himself otherwise. “The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). Nothing shines a light on the uneducated person’s ignorance. For many, the lack of knowledge becomes a source of pride. In speaking about making plans for the future when we don’t know what the future holds, James states, “But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:16). To make plans without adequate knowledge is arrogance because we are assuming we have more control over the future than we do.
The arrogance of ignorance often leads to fights. “It is honorable for a man to stop striving, since any fool can start a quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3). An ignorant person doesn’t see things from another point of view. He assumes his point of view is the only correct one that exists. Put several such people in a room and it would not be long before a conflict arises.
The ignorant person focuses only on the present and doesn’t consider the future consequences of his actions. “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished” (Proverbs 22:3). He is unaware of possibilities beyond his own knowledge and, thus, never seeks out alternatives. Nor is he watchful for dangers since he is unaware that they might exist.
Solomon describes what happened to one naive young man in Proverbs 7:6-27. He was caught in the prostitute’s snare because he was unaware of the danger. “He did not know it would cost his life” (Proverbs 7:23). I have had parents tell me that they didn’t want certain matters, such as sexual sins, to be discussed with their children, even those past puberty. I can understand the desire to hang onto the past and strive to preserve the innocence of our children. But Satan isn’t stopped by ignorance. Ignorance will not keep a child out of his traps. Let me illustrate: suppose you are strolling through a field. Would you be grateful if a passerby shouted out, “Don’t you know you are walking through a minefield?” Or, would you rather not know and continue your stroll in ignorance? Knowledge can be a two-edged sword, but the lack of knowledge is far more dangerous. Parents need to protect their children from temptation, not information.
Finally, for the Christian, we must keep in mind that the Gospel cannot be spread through ignorance. “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (I Timothy 1:5-8). Christianity is spread by teaching (Matthew 28:18-20).
The Value of Learning
Rejecting instruction is plain foolishness. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother” (Proverbs 1:7-8). Solomon recorded the Proverbs for the very purpose of teaching those who read it (Proverbs 1:1-6). Much of the book is made up of short statements that seem to be mostly disconnected ideas, but those short statements are easy to recall and they are deeper than they first appear. As you read through them, pondering what is being said, suddenly you see something in a familiar proverb that you didn’t notice before. Not only are the proverbs giving you facts, but they are also training your mind to think.
Knowledge of the past gives you an appreciation of what you currently have. When Moses reviewed the laws with the Israelites in Deuteronomy, the people listening to him had been wandering the wilderness for forty years. They had not been born or were only children when Moses had gone up on Mount Sinai to receive the Law. Basically, these people had spent just about their entire lives living under the law. It is easy to take for granted the things you have always known. “For ask now concerning the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether any great thing like this has happened, or anything like it has been heard. Did any people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live? Or did God ever try to go and take for Himself a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD Himself is God; there is none other besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:32-35). Moses is telling the people to learn their history and to see what the other nations have in the way of laws. Only then will they fully appreciate the wonder of what they were so accustomed to having.
Through the knowledge of the past, the Christian also gains a better appreciation for what he has been given. “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). For example, we see from the past that God has always kept His promises. Thus, we gain greater confidence that God’s promise of a home with Him is waiting for us.
Knowledge of the past is also important in keeping us from repeating the mistakes of the past. The Israelites were told, “Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments; and may not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, and whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Psalms 78:1-8). The same is true today. Knowledge of the past is critical in keeping Christians from repeating past mistakes (I Corinthians 10:6-12).
I’ve noticed that major divisions have arisen in the churches today over issues that once were considered settled. Instrumental music is being reintroduced in some congregations and people are accepting it. Fifty years ago people could have cited the reasons why instrumental music doesn’t belong in the worship without a pause because they had heard the reasons so often. But that was because there was a major division around the turn of the twentieth century that involved instrumental music. It was so well argued that people stopped talking about it and now a generation has arisen, repeating the errors of the past, because the past hasn’t been taught. Another issue from that same era, missionary societies, is resurfacing as well, though in a slightly different form, and again people don’t recognize the problem. Nor do the proponents realize that they are using the same empty arguments used in the past.
Wisdom gives strength (Proverbs 24:5-6). It can be a pleasant treat to the learner as possibilities and hope are awakened (Proverbs 24:13-14). And when you know what you need to do, it shows on your face just like a school-age child whose face lights up when he knows the answer to the next question (Ecclesiastes 8:1). Wisdom is both a defense and a provider of life (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12).
While learning is a benefit to the student, it has limitations. First, the student must realize that you cannot learn everything. “And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). New information is constantly being produced, far faster than any one individual can consume.
Even if we limit our field of inquiry, there are things about this world that remain and will continue to remain beyond the grasp of man. Even the man the Bible said was the wisest on earth realized that some subjects were beyond his ability to understand. “All this I have proved by wisdom. I said, "I will be wise"; but it was far from me. As for that which is far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out?”(Ecclesiastes 7:23-24). But we would expect such from God. His works are both vast and deep. “When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17).
Wisdom opens your eyes to possibilities and possibilities give us hope, but our increased awareness can also make us more aware of the difficulties before us. “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). I could live my entire life knowing only about my immediate community and the friends in my area. But if I learn about the world at large, beyond my horizons, I become aware of the problems in the world – the poverty, the conflicts, the injustice – and I realize that the problems cannot be permanently solved. I was happy before, but wisdom shows me the weight of the world.
Paul mentions this in matters of religion. “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death” (Romans 7:7-10).
Still, to know the dangers and the potential sorrows is better than wandering through minefields unaware of the fact.
We must also realize that wisdom alone cannot change the ultimate outcome of our life. It is not a panacea for life. “The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I myself perceived that the same event happens to them all. So I said in my heart, "As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me, and why was I then more wise?" Then I said in my heart, "This also is vanity." For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come. And how does a wise man die? As the fool!” (Ecclesiastes 2:14-16).
So while learning has benefits, we cannot go overboard and claim that learning is everything to living (Ecclesiastes 7:16). We don’t want to fall in the trap Paul mentioned of some people who learn but never get to the point of applying what they have learned to their lives (II Timothy 3:7).
Finally, we must also realize that while learning has great benefits, it cannot be forced on anyone. Many parents should call to mind Solomon’s words when they are thinking about paying for their children’s college education: “Why is there in the hand of a fool the purchase price of wisdom, since he has no heart for it?” (Proverbs 17:16).
A Lack of Faith?
It was prevalent centuries ago to focus education on boys since they were expected to be the breadwinners in the family. Girls would be keeping their homes, so how much education could they need? The concept still floats around. College is expensive. Why send a child, boy or girl, any further than absolutely necessary if they will not be needing the additional education?
One answer is that none of us know what the future holds. While we might plan to live life one way, suddenly we find life changes. Our spouse might pass on, our job might end, the economy might take a sudden downturn. “As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:5-6). Even when we study fields we don’t immediately use, the ability to learn new concepts is itself a useful tool for the future.
Yet some feel that advance preparation for something that only might happen is an expression of doubt that God will take care of His people.
It is true that ultimately life is in the hands of God. “For I considered all this in my heart, so that I could declare it all: that the righteous and the wise and their works are in the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 9:1). No matter how well prepared we are, some things are out of our control. There is such a thing as chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Those things that do happen occur because God wills it and not because I will it (James 4:13-15).
But does this mean we should not put effort into learning and planning for possibilities? We’ve already shown that knowledge and wisdom have advantages. But look at the verse just before the warning that some things happen by chance. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Solomon is not speaking of only work. Whatever we do, whether it is work or knowledge, or wisdom, we are to do it with all our effort because this is the only time that we have to do these things. In other words, we should do everything that we can to the best of our abilities, and then understand that even the best sometimes fail.
God Wants Us to Use Our Effort
We understand that the food that appears on our tables is a gift from God (Matthew 6:11). Yet, it doesn’t appear without effort on our part. Rather, God commands that we exert effort before we receive food (II Thessalonians 3:10).
God wants us to learn, to use the minds He gave us, and to plan for the future. This in part is the lesson of the ant (Proverbs 6:6-11). We prepare to our best, but limited, ability and God controls the result. “The preparations of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:1).
It is especially important for the child of God to consider what he is obligating himself before committing himself to God (Luke 14:28-32). Thus, in all our plans we must first consider what God wants (Proverbs 19:21). It is because we do not know what the future holds that education can do us good.
Is a college education required? No. Some people are not interested in such a pursuit. Their personal interests and abilities may not lend itself toward such a pursuit. But similarly, higher education should not be discouraged, even when we might not have an idea of how that education will be immediately put to use.