We need to teach our children that a good life means much more than having a great job.
The Common Core standards, which most states have implemented, aim to prepare a student, starting with kindergarten, for the career he or she will eventually have — whether that starts after high school, or after higher education.
These standards are by no means unique to the Common Core. The vast majority of schools, public or private, secular or Catholic, have similar goals. Education today is for the sake of eventually landing the best possible career.
I want my kids to have great careers, too, but not because having a stable job means anything in itself. No, I just want my kids to be happy. My grandmother used to say, “Money can’t make you happy, but not having money can sure make you miserable!” I’d like to guard them from that particular kind of unhappiness, if I can. A good career isn’t a bad goal at all and schools and parents are right to want to give their students all the practical advantages they can.
Unfortunately, all the success in the world is no guarantee of happiness, so what if we could do better? What if we could educate our children towards becoming happy, not just towards a great career that, we hope, will contribute to their happiness?
Educator Karen Landry, writing for the Cardinal Newman Society, says education can do just that, and it’s called the liberal arts. To a Christian, she explains, “True happiness is found in God. Made in His image and likeness, our souls are meant to reflect His divine order. The soul, oriented to God, in love with God, and subject to His will, is happy.” She goes on, “A liberal arts education is a means of teaching the student to be happy by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. God is the Origin of all goodness, truth, and beauty — and that means loving Him and ordering one’s life accordingly.”
You can see why most schools aren’t able (even if they were willing) to teach to this understanding of happiness. And certainly, I’m glad students are being taught practical, concrete skills which will help support them in their adult lives. But we, as parents, need to keep in mind that the schools aren’t offering an education in happiness; they’re offering an education in career success, and crossing their fingers, hoping that success will offer the student a happy life.
We don’t have to just cross our fingers and hope. Parents, writes St. John Paul II, are the “first and foremost educators of their children,” even when they’ve delegated that task to other teachers. That makes it our job to teach our children that living a good life means much more than just working a good job.
How do we do that? It’s daunting, especially when our kids’ energy is taken up with their ordinary school day already. Luckily, the liberal arts, being ordered toward human flourishing, have a way of fitting in anywhere that goodness, truth, and beauty, are found.
Landry writes, “At the heart of a liberal arts education lies the student’s engagement … with personal experience of truth, goodness, and beauty in countless ways: music, poetry, dance, drama, and sports, to name a few. On a daily basis, these encounters shape their affections, order their souls, and encourage self-reflection.”
It’s the experience of these fundamental three aspects of the world which is the real education. Even if you can’t send your kids to a liberal arts oriented school, nothing can stop them from accessing truth, beauty, and goodness. As much as you can, expose your children to beauty. Encounter truth with them, experience goodness, and talk about all of it; never stop having that all-important conversation about the central place that these three things ought to occupy in our lives. Teach them who they are, and who God made them to be, and model those values in your own life.
This is at the heart of what the liberal arts emphasizes, and it can be a constant reminder to you and your children of life’s real priorities — to find happiness in God, and develop an understanding of who you are and who you’re made to be.