This past weekend I was watching the movie Polar Express with my wife and several friends. As you likely know, this film is a digitally animated 3D production that stars Tom Hanks as the conductor of a train (the Polar Express) that takes its passengers on a magical Christmas Eve trip to the North Pole. All along the way the children on the journey must decide if they “believe” in Christmas. One boy in particular has his doubts. The train ride represents his struggle. Is Christmas real or is it just make-believe?
At the end of the movie, the little boy is trying desperately to determine what to think of his adventure. What should he believe? What is true and what is false? The conductor (Tom Hanks) then turns to the boy and says, “The one thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where you’re going. What matters is deciding to get on”.
As I watched this movie, I thought of today’s academy. More specifically, I thought of the paradigm called “post-modern constructivism” that prevails on most of today’s campuses. This model asserts that reality is simply made up (i.e. constructed) by individuals in conversation with one another. There is no Truth with a capital “T” but only personal “truths” that are created uniquely by each individual as the culminating synthesis of tolerance and dialogue. It is the journey that matters, not the destination. The constructivist’s goal is to build a personal belief system, not to seek and discover immutable facts. There is no such thing as a final answer. It really doesn’t matter what worldview you choose as long as you choose one. To travel is better than to arrive. Just “get on” a train – any train.
Historically there has been a better way. Yes, education does involve dialogue and a discussion and, of course, we do build knowledge on the foundation of experiences. But a classical liberal arts education (one that is validated by nearly 1,500 years of tradition) is more than just the process of choosing from a smorgasbord of personal values and various worldviews.
A truly liberal education is one that indeed liberates. It liberates mankind from the consequences of those things that are wrong and frees us to live within the beauty of those things that are right. Education that is grounded in the pursuit of Truth as opposed the constructions of man will ultimately free you and me from the oppression of lies. Education at its best serves as a light to those who are in the dark. It is a map to those who are lost. It is a law to those who want order. When we are driven by the hunger for answers rather than the protection of opinions we are not afraid to put all ideas on the table because we have confidence that in the end we can embrace what is true and right and discard what is false and wrong. Confident in the existence of Truth we recognize that we should find the right “train” that is going in the “right” direction.
In the 1990s there was another movie: A historical drama that also featured a train ride. This train, however, was not leading to the magical snow filled skies of the North Pole but, instead, to the mysterious and ash laden winter of places such as Auschwitz and Dachau. The movie was Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and in this film we see it does, indeed, matter which train one chooses to get on. The obvious fallacy of post-modern constructivism comes alive before our eyes. Who can watch fellow human beings herded as cattle into box cars bound for the furnaces of the Nazi prison camps and argue that it doesn’t matter where the train is going? Who would dare tell the Jews that the joy is in the journey and that the destination is of little consequence? It is apparent that some “trains” lead to good and some “trains” lead to evil. It is painfully obvious that we all want to avoid getting on the wrong train. Hopefully our hearts cry out with Oscar Schindler’s as he weeps for those who have been forced to get on the wrong train headed to the wrong place.
As an educator I am passionate about learning and I am passionate about ideas. Ideas have tremendous potential and power. Ideas are always directional: They have consequences. Education, thus, is not stagnant and it definitely does represent a journey that will take us somewhere. With our ideas we are going in one of two directions: Either toward the forgiveness and freedom that only God’s revelation can offer or toward the bondage that always and inevitably results from man’s “constructions.” In this context, education represents the path we have chosen for eternity.
Perhaps the Psalmist says it best: “Teach me your ways O Lord and I will learn . . . to walk in your Truth.” Our ways always result in slavery, treachery, and oppression. God’s ways lead to liberation and freedom: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. Ideas matter. When we get on the right train and go in the right direction, we can celebrate and sing, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, I am free at last!”