During a conversation with faculty from the Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences, a colleague observed that during times of social anxiety there is a noticeable decrease in the number of liberal arts and humanities majors and an increase in pre-professional majors, such as business, law, and medicine. Often the pressure to major in these areas comes from parents anxious that their daughters and sons will have jobs that both pay well and carry a social cache of which they can be proud. After all, unlike divinity students or English majors, med students rarely are asked incredulously, “Why [on earth] do you want to study medicine?” Then this colleague ended his remarks with a troubling conclusion: If young people are going into fields of law and medicine primarily to accommodate their parents’ ambitions and anxieties, it means that the doctor who is treating me may not really want to be practicing medicine and the lawyer representing me may not really want to be my advocate. One should not jump to the conclusion that simply because a person does not enjoy her work she is bad at it. After all, even a job that matches our greatest passion entails necessities that we do not enjoy and often loathe. In fact, few people are fortunate enough to have jobs that carry an intrinsic sense of satisfaction. Nevertheless, my colleague touched upon what should be an important issue: the problem with a purely instrumental view of education driven primarily by social ambition and the desire for economic prosperity.
This, however, is nothing new. As I listened to my colleague’s complaint about the dilemmas facing modern higher education, my mind instinctively jumped back to Book I of Confessions where St. Augustine gives a vivid and troubling picture of education in 4th century Roman Africa. Book I sets up a contrast between the end for which God made humanity and the ends for which boys of his social class were educated. It begins famously with a statement of Augustine’s doxological anthropology: Human beings were made to find their highest joy in knowing and praising their Creator. For, praise is an expression of holy pleasure found in our encounter with God’s goodness and mercy in our memory; that is, in the recollection of his work in our own individual lives and in the collective life of his people, the church. While our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving should also come in works of charity and compassion, here Augustine is primarily concerned with language as the medium by which we know and praise God. Since in this age man is not able to think about things without the aid of words, God has given us the capacity of language so that through verbal signs God may be the object of thought and thus the source of our highest pleasure.
Yet, our words ultimately fail us. After an early passage in which Augustine has enumerated God’s manifold perfections, he waves the white flag of surrender. The task is too great. “In these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say,” (Conf. 1.5.5; trans. Chadwick). Yet in the quixotic venture of naming the God who surpasses all categories of thought and speech that ends in a helpless silence, we have nevertheless offered praise. Our silence bears witness to God’s glorious transcendence. The real problem lies, not in our inability to speak adequately about God, but in not trying and instead filling our lives with words concerned with the vanities of the world.
Having established man’s proper telos and the role of language in pursuing that end, Augustine begins narrating his own life by describing both his acquisition of language and his early training in rhetoric. Only a few chapters in to the narrative, we see the tragic irony that is the punchline of Book I. Although human beings were endowed with language to praise God, his parents paid for him to study oratory so that he might grow up to be praised for his clever use of words in a law court and so rise to a higher rung on the social ladder. Whereas God intended that we use words to confess him who is Truth itself, the advocate he trained to be learned to craft his words so as to bend the jury to his will, often by deception (Conf. 3.3.6). This was his parents’ ambition. Their only immediate desire for him, Augustine says, was that he “should learn to speak as effectively as possible and carry conviction with [his] oratory,” (2.2.4). Augustine’s father, Patricius, was concerned about neither his son’s character nor conduct so long as he learned to be a persuasive and entertaining speaker (2.3.5). As his education progressed, Augustine distinguished himself as just that, an eloquent orator. Amid the many accolades, he became intoxicated with what, in retrospect, he would call gaudia vanitatis, namely delight in the praise and the hope of greater praise to come (3.3.7).
Indeed, Augustine was not so much in love with the beauty of words as he was with the honor and status they could bring to the speaker. The picture of Augustine’s life, from his days as a schoolboy to his early adulthood as a teacher of rhetoric in the Roman capital of Milan, is of a man who has made himself thoroughly unhappy in the pursuit of vain honors and social status through his exceptional oratory. He achieved his parents’ ambitions but at the cost of self-inflicted misery: “the goads of ambition impelled me to drag the burden of my unhappiness with me,” (6.6.9).
The ultimate irony of the narrative is that Augustine attained through his oratory and his writings as a preacher and theologian fame and glory far surpassing that which his father or mother or even the young Augustine could have imagined. He received glory more lasting than the honors he might have gained had he remained an orator renown only for mendacious panegyrics for the emperor. His boyhood and adolescent training in rhetoric made no minor contribution to this end. This education cultivated his skills as a wordsmith that enabled him to produce one of the greatest literary works of Western culture, Confessions. Yet his education in Classical literature and rhetoric enabled him to produce such literary fruit only when he had a subject worthy of his eloquence and a cause, guiding others in their study of God’s word, worthy of his intellectual energy.
Christ’s body is composed of many members who serve the many needs of the church and the world. Their different works bear witness to Christ’s kingdom on the factory floor and the corporate boardroom, in a chemical laboratory and an oncology clinic, in an elementary classroom or an overseas military base. Therefore, our education, whether it is in a high school vocational-technical program or a post-doc in astrophysics at MIT, acquires true meaning for us as Christians only when it is understood within a sense of Christian vocation. The sense that our work is an ongoing response to the call to discipleship we answered in baptism and confirmation. It lies in God’s calling us to use this time of formation, not for securing a job that promises financial security or climbing the social ladder or even attaining the modern equivalent of ancient glory and honor—i.e. celebrity status—but as an expression of praise that honors God by seeking first his kingdom. Such a vocation does not free one from the drudgery and frustration that accompanies all human endeavors; it may even lead to a cross. But more important than any worldly promise of ease and security and recognition, it liberates us from the self-imposed misery of carrying “the goads of ambition” or the totally inglorious Hobbesian experience of life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” On the contrary, in discovering liberation from vainglorious pursuits we may experience, even if only for a fleeting moment, a foretaste of eschatological peace and happiness when we lose ourselves in the service and praise of God who is infinitely more interesting and more important than ourselves.