Motivation in Education

Fritz Hinrichs


Education must transfer from generation to generation the core of our culture’s accumulated body of knowledge. In our day, many think that to believe in an accepted body of knowledge that prioritizes what is important to learn and what is not smacks of elitism and exclusivity. In part, this charge cannot be denied because discernment often demands that we play the role of intellectual hatchet-men; however, if you will reject the notion of a “canon” of knowledge, you are faced with the task of creating a rational for your own curriculum that can give a convincing answer to that most awkward but ubiquitous question, “Why do we have to learn this?”

Having cut themselves free of the constraints that guide classical education, our large educational institutions have resorted to an ever increasingly frantic attempt to construct a convincing rational for their methodology out of the vacuum of their own errant psyches. Yet, whether they resort to ethnicity, technology, gender or the deviancy of pop culture, their attempts to give meaning to their teaching end up being mere exercises in personal assertiveness.

Even though our secular school system abandoned any true foundation for absolutes by rejecting God’s authority over all of life, academia has been able to keep a coherent system together by merely coasting on the inertia built up by our culture’s rich intellectual tradition. This has been especially true in Mathematics where a healthy regard for disciplined rigorous thinking and applied mental struggle were thought to guarantee mental fruit, but now, even this field seems vulnerable to the prevailing epistemological meltdown. The “new new math” curricula currently being promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics seems bent on destroying mathematical rigor in hopes of instilling students with such dubiously mathematical abilities as “group learning skills”, “guess and check techniques” and “awareness of diverse cultural approaches to mathematics”. By attempting to make math more “interesting” and “accessible”, they have removed precisely what makes Mathematics a joy to learn. No longer will students be able to savor the hard won pleasure of successfully working complex mathematical procedures. Even in the field of Mathematics where you think it would be nearly impossible for the mind to be led astray, our schools are abandoning rigor and sense for mere gimmicks and social agendas . What is the philosophical lesson from all this? The closer and closer man comes to pure epistemological autonomy (that is, the ability to accept only those ideas he finds within himself) the closer he comes to resigning himself to complete nonsense.

For students to be motivated in their studies, they need to know that what they are studying is indeed of real significance. They need to know that they are not being feed some new-sprung agenda or half-baked innovation that will simply go the way of the faddish educational chaff that, once having gleaned its profits, goes to the winds never to be seen or thought of again. Students need to know that they are being feed the best that our civilization has to offer- that they are studying something that is much, much larger than themselves. As I guide students through the study of the proofs in Euclid’s Elements, it is always a pleasure to point out to them the fact that their geometry book is the same that was used by Thomas Jefferson, James Garfield, Lewis Carroll and a host of other intellectual witnesses going back before 200 BC. Even though Euclid makes absolutely no attempt to show you how his system is “practical”, I do not find my students asking, “what will I ever us this for?” Because the Element’s is truly a classic work, the students come to see why mathematicians have admire Euclid’s beautifully constructed proofs through the ages.

When we climb out of the broad stream that comprises the wisdom of the ages, it is very easy to lose our educational bearings, being blown to and fro be the winds of opinion. Furthermore, without a good rational for our curriculum, we will be unable to resist the student’s desire to find the path of least exertion between now and breaktime. To be motivated to work, we need to instill in our children first godly character and then the conviction that their studies are indeed significant. Despite the mantras that are continually chanted around us, the motivation for pursuing an education does not come from looking at charts of the average salary levels of various degree recipients, or from following the educational atomism that reduces all educational accomplishment to a single GPA, or by explaining all labors as just steps in the great “ordu salutis” culminating in acceptance by that Ivy-league dream college. By putting before students these poor reasons for getting an education we are drumming into them the idea that education is a means and not an end. Until they understand that education is an end in itself, that indeed, the creation in which we dwell and the historical saga in which we take part are truly worthy of our interest and concentrated study, we will only see them labor with a slave’s reluctance.