Pursuing Education, or Just Credentials?

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The digital age has led to an explosion of educational opportunities. You can stream online courses, attend all your classes in short bursts of time, join a seminary’s extension center, work through a program with a cohort, do an independent study, or attend all your classes on campus and become part of the school’s community. These approaches have strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve experienced all of them at one point or another in my educational journey.

In an era with so many choices, the temptation is to think of one’s education in terms of checking off boxes on the way to a degree. You need a particular set of credentials on your résumé, and so you fulfill the requirements the school gives you and eventually, you receive the degree you want. According to a recent study by Barna, most evangelicals view education in terms of career:

  • Evangelicals are more likely than people of no faith to say main purpose of education is career prep and increased financial opportunity.
  • Only 10 percent of evangelicals see college in terms of development of moral character—3 percent lower than those of “no faith.” Only 9 percent believe college should encourage spiritual growth.

Not surprisingly, when people ask me about furthering their education, they’re wondering about how to get the credentials they need in a short amount of time, with as little disruption to their lives as possible. They’re looking for answers, but I give them different questions.

Heart of Wisdom

An approach to education that focuses primarily on credentials and convenience is superficial and, let’s face it, boring. It’s all about hoops to jump through to pass classes and get a degree.

The oft-asked question concerning credentials is: What degree do I need so I can do what I want to do? That’s the wrong question. The better question is, What kind of person do I want to become? It’s not about your résumé, but your heart. It’s not about knowledge alone, but wisdom.

Education, rightly understood, shouldn’t start with the end goal of a degree in mind. It should start with the vision of who you want to become and how your educational journey will form you into a particular kind of person. It’s about truth, goodness, beauty. It’s about cultivating a heart of wisdom, not just a mind that can pass the tests or turn in the reports. It’s about the passionate pursuit of truth, not the convenient road to a degree.

Education Is More Than Information

The problem with starting at the superficial level of degrees and majors is that it turns education into mere information-transfer. You put in the time, pay the dime, and get your degree.

Unfortunately, it’s not only students who approach education this way. Many professors do, too. The result is a classroom—online or in a room, and no nobody really wants to be there. It’s a boring routine where someone delivers information, assigns books and projects, gives little if any feedback on what’s turned in, and shows no interest in the pursuit of truth or the cultivation of virtue. No wonder students and professors alike see education as an ordeal. The finish line is the only enticing aspect of the journey!

Contrast that kind of educational approach with a deeper vision of education, one that focuses not so much on transferring information from an expert to a novice, but on cultivating habits of heart and mind that lead to further exploration and learning. Focusing primarily on a degree, and seeing courses as hoops to jump through, is soul-crushing. It stifles our imaginations and deadens our senses. The drudgery of a credentials-focused education thwarts the impulse of the heart that desires to come alive at the thrilling discovery of truth. It sets up a blockade on the path toward wisdom.

We Are the Project

In his classic on the intellectual life, Sertillanges makes clear that the finished work of the scholar is not the papers he hands in or the books she writes. “The man is the finished work,” he says. We don’t just do projects; we are the project. We may think we are working on readings and assignments and debates, but in reality, they are working on us.

Education is formation, not just information. For the Christian, formation takes place through worship. As David Dockery writes: “Healthy theological education, founded on good theology, should always lead to doxology.”

Education without worship is not Christian. That’s why, last month when I was teaching at Wheaton, we incorporated times of prayer and singing. Your educational experience should lead to deep emotions, whether they come in the form of lament for past wrongs, or moments of exultation and praise at the discovery of ancient truths renewed. The most intellectually challenging of Paul’s letters (Romans) runs from the deepest wells of analysis to the highest heights of praise: Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!

So, if you’re considering educational opportunities and plans, don’t look for answers to questions about credentials alone. Embrace a different set of questions altogether.

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