More About Formation than Information

The kids are back to school and the bustle begins: schedule, curriculum, books, assignments, all the fantastic accoutrements of learning. As this process picks up speed and the details of life in a classroom come flying at students and parents, it’s important to remember what is actually happening in this thing we call education.

What did you learn in eleventh grade? What classes did you take? If you can remember half the classes you took that year, you would be better off than most. If you can remember and put into practice particular skills you may have acquired or facts you memorized–equations from physics or calculus–it’s almost certainly because you use them today in your vocation or you happen to have a photographic memory. Or you cheated and just looked them up on Wikipedia.

I think it was Dorothy Sayers who pointed out in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning that a student is expected to forget most of what he learned in school by the time he is an adult. I feel better already. Of course she wasn’t talking about the ability to read or do basic math, but rather the vast minutiae of information we acquired and dutifully divulged on tests. Three years of college French left alone for ten years will be as forgotten as a campaign promise, n’est ce pas? Okay, at least the French can be recovered with review. But the point is that more is going on in education than a transfer of data. More is being learned than information. 

Jesus says “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Does this mean every student will grow up to be a teacher, just like his teacher? Of course not. What it means is that students will imitate their teachers. Specific content will often be forgotten, but a student is irrevocably shaped by his teachers–their love for learning, for life, for the subject, or tragically, not. Cornelius Van Til said teachers labor in the dawn of everlasting results. They teach knowing the impact of what are doing is long lasting discipleship. Information is easily lost and recovered. Formation endures.

The apostle Paul lays this out in his charge to Ephesian fathers when he tells them “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The word for instruction is a curious one, the Greek word paideia that ancients used to indicate the education and upbringing a person would receive to make them ideal citizens. This isn’t a bit of information to be memorized or a pledge of allegiance. The Greeks wanted to give citizens a way of life, training that included what we would call “day school” and beyond. Paul isn’t interested in making good little Romans to serve the empire. And he isn’t talking about memorizing the Ten Commandments. He wants fathers to give their kids the paideia of God, an education and enculturation that  shapes them–heart, soul, mind and strength.

When you get formation, information follows. Give me a student who loves God, the world He made, and wants to work, and you can always teach him something, usually almost anything. When the vessel is formed, it’s easy to pour good stuff into it. But take a student who is really smart and has a terrible attitude. The information is unlikely to be of any use and may even do harm. Both formation and information happen at the same time. People are shaped by teachers even as information is given to them. This is the what is happening in education, and why it’s so important.


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