“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

—Traditional Saying

Human babies are not like most animals when born.

They are far more dependent on their parents for far longer than most animals. The academic term is “under-socialized.” Human babies are highly dependent on their parents for life, nurture, and direction.

This is why responsible parents invest heavily in their children’s futures. Usually these investments fall into three areas: spiritual formation, character development, and academic preparation. Some parents see these three as highly interrelated. Others do not. Everyone is generally agreed, however, that education is highly important if a son or daughter is to achieve his or her full potential. A child without the ability to read and write is severely crippled in his or her prospects in the modern world. Reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive.

Compared to those in other parts of the world, American parents are generally lax. Leisure, entertainment, and sports are given a far higher priority in the United States than in other countries. Moreover, American individualism and child-centeredness parenting tend to undermine the influence parents have on pushing their children academically. The public controversy surrounding Yale law professor Amy Chua’s book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, largely proves this point. American readers saw the parenting practices advocated by Chua and largely taken-for-granted in India, Korea, Singapore, and China as draconian.

But a good education is not enough. A trained mind without character is a dangerous combination. Ernest Boyer writes,

To have people who are well informed but not constrained by conscience is, conceivably, the most dangerous outcome of education possible. Indeed, it could be argued that ignorance is better than unguided intelligence, for the most dangerous people are those who have knowledge without a moral framework. It is not the lack of technological information that threatens our society; it is the lack of wisdom, and we run the risk today of having our discoveries outdistance our moral compass.

Brilliance without morals is deadly.

So most parents acknowledge that it is far better to have educational rigor combined with concentrated character formation. Sadly, however, this is a task largely abandoned by many forms of education today where progressivism and relativism reign. The progressive emphasis is to allow the child to serve as his or her own authority. The relativism emphasis affirms that no one’s opinion is to be preferred over another’s, with the exception of a taboo against making any forms of judgment. Tolerance of individual whim is the logical consequence, and with it the death of character.

Abandoning one’s child to an educational system that undermines objective academic standards and moral absolutes is a choice facing many American parents. Ivy covered buildings with decades of inferred prestige mask the dangers lurking within their classrooms.

But intellectual and moral education does not float in a vacuum. The “why” behind the “what” must be itself grounded in a philosophical or religious tradition. T.S. Eliot wisely noted that all education is rooted in a “philosophy of life.” Religious instruction has historically been tied to educational aspiration.

If the root of all reality is spiritual and our flourishing is dependent on being rightly oriented to this spiritual reality, then the outright abandonment of a spiritual perspective in education, or its casual disregard by parents and teachers, is surely a problem. Author John Piper warns:

If you leave the infinite all-defining, all-controlling, all-pervasive God out of account, all understanding and all interpretations and all analyses are superficial. When the main thing is missing, what’s left is distorted and superficial, whatever it is.

Ideally, then, spiritual formation, character development, and intellectual preparation should be found together within a school. But it is not always the case. Consequently, conscientious parents have to seek carefully and make informed, individualized decisions about their children’s educational choices.

Dr. John Seel is a cultural critic and entrepreneur, an author of many articles and books, and is a sought after speaker.  He also happens to sit on St. Andrew’s National Advisory Board and serves on the faculty as the college counselor for our seniors.

Originally published in February, 2012 issue of The Standard, the newsletter of St. Andrew’s Academy.