by Jay Johansen | Feb 27, 2002
Surely most school children know that the reason why they are in school is to prepare them for adult life. Indeed, they reveal this understanding in the classic school child's wail about abstract subjects: "When am I ever going to use algebra [or physics, or ancient history, or whatever] after I get out of school?!"
And yet, as this complaint also illustrates, the realities of adult life often seem remote from a child's studies. The relevance of any particular lesson to the child's future is rarely discussed. Surely a child can be forgiven for wondering exactly when in adult life he is going to need to know set theory or to recall the taxonomic names of extinct species of worms. (In many cases the teacher may be hard-pressed to give a plausible answer, but that's another subject.)
I sincerely doubt that most school children often find themselves thinking, "Wow, if I don't master basic math, how will I calculate what a home mortgage will really cost me when I buy a house someday?", or "Hmm, when I'm old enough to vote, I sure hope I remember all this information about the failings of democracy in ancient Greece so I don't vote for a candidate who would pursue similarly flawed policies". It was very rare that I thought in such terms when I was in school. No, for the most part school children think things like: "I'd better get this report done because it's due the day after tomorrow", and "What's it going to take to pass this class?". And of course, they often think things like, "Ah, I'm tired of studying, I'm going out and play ball with my friends. Who needs this algebra junk anyway?"
That is, while school children are aware that the purpose of school is to prepare them for adult life, this knowledge is very general and abstract. Adulthood is something very far away. They have little comprehension of what adult life is really like. School becomes an end in itself. They spend their time thinking, not about the ultimate goals of school, but rather about getting through it day to day. They worry about getting good grades, having fun with their friends, and what it will take to fix that broken bicycle.
And that's very much how we are about Earth and Eternity. Most people are aware that this life is just a brief time of preparation for Eternity, but this knowledge is very general and abstract. We have little comprehension of what Eternity is really like. Life on Earth becomes an end in itself. We spend our time thinking, not about the ultimate goal of this life, but rather about getting through it day to day. We worry about making money, having fun with our friends, and what it will take to fix that broken water heater.
This is not bad of itself. To a child, the idea that in ten or fifteen years he'll have to get a job and support himself is a very far-away concern, not likely to generate much motivation now. So it makes sense to worry about the shorter-term problem: getting a good grade in this class. In the same way, to an adult the idea that in forty or fifty years he'll enter Eternity is a very far-away concern, not likely to generate much motivation now. So it makes sense to worry about the shorter-term problem: holding down a job, keeping your marriage together, helping your neighbor.
There is nothing wrong with a child getting involved in activities that do not directly advance his academic career, like sports or clubs or play in general. While we want school to prepare children for adulthood, it doesn't have to be a tedious exercise with the only benefits far off in the future. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with getting involved in activities that do not directly advance our relationship with God, like sports and hobbies and entertainment in general. While we want Earth to prepare us for Eternity, it doesn't have to be a tedious exercise with the only benefits far off in the future.
But the ultimate goal must be kept in mind. When a school child really forgets the purpose of his schooling, or cannot see its relevance, he loses interest in even the short term goals: school becomes a meaningless time waster. I have often heard kids say that they see no point in bothering to work very hard in this or that class -- in some cases they see no point in bothering to even show up for class -- because they don't see how it will have any value in their future lives. "Why do I need this stuff? I ain't goin' to college." Or, "I'm gonna be a rock star when I grow up. Why should I study French? You don't need to speak French to play a guitar." Etc
(Of course in some cases this may be true in at least some sense, any given subject may turn out to be of little direct value to a particular person. But I'd be very reluctant to encourage any young person in such thinking: Surely any subject that exercises the mind does some good. For example, as a boy I memorized a number of poems, and while I have never gotten a job reciting poetry, still, I think I benefited from learning the art of memorizing. And you never know what will prove useful in the future. Maybe your greatest ambition today is to be a truck driver, but perhaps twenty years from now you will find that boring and want to do something else.)
When a person forgets the purpose of this life, it too becomes a meaningless time waster. I have often heard people say, "What's the point in going to work every day and trying to be a good person? I'm just going to die in the end and it will all be for nothing." The school child fails to see the connection between, say, memorizing a poem today, and someday needing to remember the corporate policies on fiduciary responsibilities. Similarly, the adult fails to see the connection between what he learns in normal adult life and the responsibilities he will have in Eternity. Exactly what are those connections? In most cases I have very little idea, for the reality is that we probably know less about what we'll be doing in Eternity than school children know about what they'll be doing as adults.
If you're out of school, think about what you really knew about adult life when you were a kid. (If you're still in school, this is probably harder, because you can't compare the before and after.) Did you have much conception about what, to take a big example, a real job actually involves? Could you say what a typical adult really did hour by hour through the day? If my father told us kids a lot about his work, I missed it. He worked in a factory. I remember once he brought home a photograph of him standing beside the machine he worked. And once, years later, the company had an "open house" where families could come in and tour the place. By then he was no longer on the shop floor but had an office, and so I saw his desk and met a man he shared the office with. As far as I remember, that was all I ever knew about what his workplace even looked like. As to what he did all day? I don't think I had the vaguest idea.
That's how Eternity is. We have only a few glimpses of what Eternity is really like, a few tidbits that God has revealed to us. And even those are so far away from our everyday experience that we have have trouble grasping what he's talking about. Someday when we get there, we'll look back and say, "Oh!! That's what he meant!" And just as many school children eventually grow up to say, "Oh, so this is why my teachers made me study algebra", so when we get to Heaven we will find ourselves saying, "Oh, so this is why God made me work for a retail company".
I don't claim to understand all the details. But just as the intelligent child will trust his parents and teachers, accept that they know more than he does, and follow their lead, so the wise adult will trust God, accept that He knows more than we do, and follow his lead. Even if we don't see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together just yet.
© 2002 by Jay Johansen
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