The Right Thing

While meandering through the University of Pennsylvania campus this past summer I came across this plaque that is mounted on the exterior of College Hall.

The Greek inscription reads, “Not in word, but in deed.”

This resonated with me. What a striking reminder that the goal of education, properly understood, is not merely to develop the intellectual capacities of our students, but to develop their character as well. To put it more plainly, the goal of education is not just to enable students to know the right answers, but to also enable students to do the right thing.

Both of these goals — right thinking and right actions — must be pursued together, because neither can rightly exist without the other. They are two sides of the same coin. To truly know something requires us to know when, where, and how to put it to proper use. For example, what use is a merely intellectual knowledge of a hammer if I don’t know which end of the hammer to hold or if I don’t know what a nail is? Can it be said that someone knows the pythagorean theorem, if he doesn’t know how to use it to find the length of the sides of a right triangle? No, for knowledge and application go together.

This is easy to see with what might be categorized as “practical” knowledge like calculating a perimeter or using a hammer, because knowledge and application are clearly defined and closely associated. It is far more difficult to see with something that does not have a clearly defined use or the distance between knowledge and application is further removed. For example, what moral imperative is there for us within Great Expectations by Charles Dickens? Or, what does it mean to put to good use a knowledge of the Civil Rights movement? These questions are more difficult to answer, but they must not be overlooked. It is in wrestling with these difficult questions that character virtues are developed.

All of this is to say that an education that is worthy of its students moves beyond information input, or even information synthesis, and seeks to show students how to rightly apply what they are learning with the goal of developing good character within them. That is, a proper education seeks to ground students in what is true, so that they might do what is right and good and, in so doing express beauty in their character. In short, the education that we seek for our children should train them in both word and deed.