[This article first appeared on the Classical Conversations blog.]
If there is a question that just begs for both a “yes” and a “no” answer it is this question: Will a classical education get your child a job?”
We homeschooling parents worry about the future of our children. We want them to be successful and get married and make a difference. We imagine them with flourishing lives buoyed by a Christ-centered, classically formed educational foundation. And then we stare into the high school years and think maybe now is a good time to switch back to something more predictable, more familiar, more status quo. We want to make sure they get into a good college so they get a good job. Right? Regardless of the increasingly exorbitant cost of college and the increasingly dubious value of a college degree we still see that treadmill as the ticket to the golden fleece. But college or no college, what value does a classical education offer for the young man or woman looking for employment?
We have all heard that a classical education will help our children think better. We know that thinking well is a good thing. But truth be told, we may not fully trust that sentiment enough. Perhaps it is because we are Americans, and therefore place a high value on doing over thinking, and perhaps because we tend to believe thinking is cheap. Compared to the so-called practicality of our society’s belief in a causal relationship between education and job-getting, the seven liberal arts seem fanciful. Describing the first three (or trivium) of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, leave most people nonplussed. The last four (or quadrivium) of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy seem a bit more practical, at least two of them do━arithmetic and geometry. But is that all? Isn’t that rather narrow? We look at that list and don’t see computer science, economics, architecture, marketing, chemistry, biology, English lit, international relations, or even basket weaving. So we get nervous.
But let’s be honest in what questions we are asking, and honest in our answers. If we are truly asking whether a classical education will get our children jobs, then the answer is no. So let’s ask another question: Will a non-classical education get our children jobs? Again, the answer is no. No education automatically guarantees anyone a job. Getting a job is a much more complex process based on what one knows, what skills one can demonstrate, how readily one can adapt to changing situations, and who one knows━plus God’s providence. (Truly, it’s all God’s providence.) We often assume, as a given, that the typical method of education (non-classical, secular, state-run) is designed to guarantee the graduate a job. We have this belief that one specializes in a particularly narrow field of study that corresponds to a specific job, and we believe that job is just sitting there waiting for the student to graduate. By implication, we think a classical education must, therefore, be a risk. This is a false assumption. Reality (and a little sanity) tells us otherwise.
Perhaps you can relate to my experience. When I finished my formal schooling I worked several entry-level jobs at very low pay that were somewhat related to my area of study. And yet, from the moment I first walked through the door of each of my employers I discovered I really didn’t know much and had to be trained from the ground up. After a few years I found I no longer worked in anything I could call “my field” or area of study. My formal education did little in terms of preparing me for the specific tasks required in the many jobs I’ve had since graduation, and eventually my education ceased to be specifically relevant at all. This is a common experience. But is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, I would argue that a good liberal arts education (of which I got a little), and ideally a classical education, is the best foundation one can have for “getting a job” and, more importantly, forging a career.
What is a job? Let’s assume that everyone might say a job is a way to earn money so one can pay bills and buy basic necessities. And let’s assume that some will say that a job is a way to fulfill one’s desires or gifts or talents. And let’s assume that even some might say a job is a way to stay out of trouble. But let’s cut to the chase and declare that a job is first (and finally) a means of serving and worshiping God. If this sounds somewhat vague it is, but only because to serve and worship God can include a lot of activities. A short list of those activities would include, but not limited to, the following:
- Providing for the needs of self, family, and others
- Meeting obligations, such as paying bills and keeping promises
- Benefiting others by serving them, improving their lives, and helping them flourish
- Creating community by living consistently according to patterns of right action
- Communicating truth by acting in accordance with Christ’s example
- Loving others by doing all the above (while knowing that any job is contingent on God’s providence and subject to taking up our cross every day)
We must never think of “work” as a thing by itself, but as a part of living and thus being human. Education is not for merely getting a job. Education is for glorifying God, and so is work. At this point it should be stated what we desire for our children, and why we choose a Christian, classical education, is not that they will grow up and get a job, but that they will grow up into adults who love God, and live into that love through responsible and irrepressibly good actions that show God’s love for the world. Much of the time this love will take the form of work or labor. For a Christian, then, a “mere” job is not the goal. Rather, we should seek to train up our children for their vocation.
What is a vocation? The word comes from the Latin vocātiō, which has several interesting, intertwining meanings. It can mean a summons, an invitation, a bidding, and a calling. All of these can imply the idea of following the voice that calls to us, drawing us down a path towards a journey. Perhaps that voice is God’s. We are used to attaching these kinds of meanings to religious vocations like pastoring or mission work. But a vocation can be running a landscaping business, or creating computer programs, or teaching children, or building houses, or being a nurse. A vocation can be just about anything, but a vocation is deeper than a job. On the surface the two might look similar for a while. However, beneath the surface we discover a key difference: One “gets” a job, but one “gets got” by a vocation. A vocation enters one’s soul and changes a person. Our labors, in the end, are not about what we get, rather they are about what we become. A Christian, classical education prepares the student to hear the call of vocation and be ready for where it may lead.
So what about a classical education? Will it “pay off?” The answer is yes. The two most valuable skills that a person can have in pursuing a vocation is the willingness to work hard and the ability to think well. One cannot become classically educated without hard work. Good thinking is the result of pursuing virtue, of training the mind in the pursuit of the truth. The person who can think well knows how to learn, how to educate himself, how to figure out the world around him. The good thinker also understands what it means to be human and can see the image of God in others. Specific job-related skills are important, but jobs constantly change, demands shift, technology gets updated or replaced. One must be able to grasp new ideas, take hold of new demands, and fashion workable solutions. One of the ironies of a classical education is that the student studies the past in order to be better prepared for the future. A Christian classical education prepares the student for the present as well, for it is in the present that we love our neighbor.
Finally, what about specialization? What about the child who wants to grow up and become a doctor or lawyer or software engineer? The same principles apply for these vocations as well. The doctor, lawyer, and engineer must be able to think well, be able to self-educate, and serve God by loving others. The proper path to these professions includes the preparation for specialization. The student needs a solid foundation on which to then focus within their field. Much of that focusing will come later at the required training or post-graduate college level. What will carry the student through those years will be the years previously spent learning to work hard and learning to think well. A Christian, classical education is the best kind of preparation for any vocation.