The Purpose of Education

From Issue: R&R Volume 27 #7

The present period of American history surely will be shown to be a tragic time for education. Sinister forces essentially have hijacked American schools in order to make converts to their immoral, anti-Christian ideologies. They wish to convince young minds to accept their agenda and embrace their values. For example, homosexual activists wish to persuade young people that homosexuality ought to be accepted as legitimate sexual behavior—and even something that the student ought to try (e.g., Kertscher, 2006). The atheistic evolutionists seek to promote the theory of evolution as the correct view of origins, thereby dispelling belief in God and the Creation account of the Bible (Lyons and Butt, 2007). A host of additional advocates are working actively to articulate their own reasons for education.

In contrast to this subversion, most parents see education simply as part of the process that will prepare their children for adulthood. Typically, that preparation consists primarily of a “good education.” But why do parents want their children to go to school and get a “good” education? Most would answer: “so my child will be able to make a good living.” In other words, parents want their children to be able to secure a suitable job that will, in turn, secure their financial future. They want their children to be able to support themselves and their families. No doubt you have seen the commercials that correlate number of years of education with annual income.

But what about the intentions of those who founded the schools of America? Did the founders of this country’s premiere institutions of higher learning share this same basic purpose for public education? Did they sacrifice their time, money, and effort to establish schools in America for the primary purpose of making it possible for students to “make a good living”? Did they understand the central objective of secular education to be to enable a person to secure a good-paying job? Allowing our educational forebears to speak for themselves in their own words reveals some startling realizations.

The first institution of higher education in the Colonies was Harvard College, founded in 1636. Named after its first benefactor, John Harvard, the 1636 rules of Harvard included the following declaration:

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17.3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of Him (Prov. 2,3). Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein (as quoted in Pierce, 1833, p. 5, emp. added; parenthetical items in orig.).

Over a century after the founding of Harvard, the state constitution of Massachusetts reiterated the original and continuing purpose of the institution:

Article I. Whereas our wise and pious ancestors, so early as the year one thousand six hundred and thirty-six, laid the foundation of Harvard College, in which university many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of God, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in church and state: and whereas the encouragement of arts and sciences, and all good literature, tends to the honor of God, the advantage of the Christian religion, and the great benefit of this and the other United States of America—it is declared, that the President and Fellows of Harvard College…shall have, hold, use, exercise and enjoy, all the powers…which they now have or are entitled to have (Constitution…, emp. added).

So according to the founders of Harvard, as well as the architects of the state constitution (themselves founders of the Republic), what was the purpose of education? To know God and Christ, to honor God, and to demonstrate the “advantage,” i.e., superiority of, the Christian religion to the benefit of the entire country. Based on that original purpose, it is evident that public education today is, to borrow a metaphor from Jesus, “like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

The founding of the other premiere institutions of higher learning in America followed this same all-consuming, quintessential principle. For example, the second college established in America was William and Mary, founded in 1693. In the 1758 volume, The Charter, Transfer and Statutes of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the purpose for its founding was explained:

There are three things which the founders of this college proposed to themselves, to which all its statutes should be directed. The first is that the youth of Virginia should be well educated to learning and good morals. The second is that the churches of America, especially Virginia, should be supplied with good ministers after the doctrine and government of the Church of England, and that the college should be a constant seminary for this purpose. The third is that the Indians of America should be instructed in the Christian religion, and that some of the Indian youth that are well behaved and well inclined, being first well prepared in the Divinity School, may be sent out to preach the gospel to their countrymen in their own tongue (as quoted in Adler, 1968, 1:371, emp. added).

Old campus building at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.

The third college established in America, Yale, was founded in 1701 and had as its stated purpose to be a school “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences [and] through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State” (“About Yale,” n.d.). The trustees stated the purpose on November 11, 1701 in the following words: “To plant, and under ye Divine blessing to propagate in this Wilderness, the blessed Reformed, Protestant Religion, in ye purity of its Order, and Worship” (Mode, 1921, p. 109). They further stated: “Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly, sober life” (Ringenberg, 1984, p. 38, emp. added). Regulations for students at Yale in 1754 included strong religious requirements: “All scholars shall live religious, godly, and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret” (as quoted in Adler, 1968, 1:464, emp. added).

The fourth college established in America was Princeton, founded in 1746. In 1752, one of the trustees of the school, Gilbert Tennent, and Samuel Davies, later president, prepared a brochure describing the college, which included the following explanations of its intended purpose:

Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

NOTHING has a more direct tendency to advance the happiness and glory of a community than the founding of public schools and seminaries of learning for education of youth, and adorning their minds with useful knowledge and virtue. Hereby, the rude and ignorant are civilized and rendered human; persons who would otherwise be useless members of society are qualified to sustain with honor the offices they may be invested with for the public service; reverence of the Deity, filial piety, and obedience to the laws are inculcated and promoted…. [S]everal gentlemen residing in and near the province of New Jersey, who were well-wishers to the felicity of their country and real friends of religion…first projected the scheme of a collegiate education in that province. The immediate motives to this generous design were: the great number of Christian societies then lately formed in various parts of the country, where many thousands of the inhabitants, ardently desirous of the administration of religious ordinances, were entirely destitute of the necessary means of instruction and incapable of being relieved…. [T]he great scarcity of candidates for the ministerial function to comply with these pious and Christian demands…. [T]hese considerations were the most urgent arguments for the immediate prosecution of the above mentioned scheme of education…. It will suffice to say that the two principal objects the trustees had in view were science and religion. Their first concern was to cultivate the minds of the pupils in all those branches of erudition which are generally taught in the universities abroad; and, to perfect their design, their next care was to rectify the heart by inculcating the great precepts of Christianity in order to make them good. Upon these views this society was founded…. But as religion ought to be the end of all instruction and gives it the last degree of perfection…[s]tated times are set apart for the study of the Holy Scriptures in the original languages, and stated hours daily consecrated to the service of religion. The utmost care is taken to discountenance vice and to encourage the practice of virtue and a manly, rational, and Christian behavior in the students (Davies and Tennent, 1754, emp. added).

Dartmouth was founded in 1769 by “Reverend Eleazar Wheelock” with a charter granted by King George III to spread Christianity—initially to Indian youths:

KNOW YE, THEREFORE that We, considering the premises and being willing to encourage the laudable and charitable design of spreading Christian knowledge among the savages of our American wilderness, and also that the best means of education be established in our province of New Hampshire, for the benefit of said province, do, of our special grace, certain knowledge and mere motion, by and with the advice of our counsel for said province, by these presents, will, ordain, grant and constitute that there be a college erected in our said province of New Hampshire by the name of Dartmouth College, for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land in reading, writing, and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing children of pagans, as well as in all liberal arts and sciences, and also of English youth and any others. And the trustees of said college may and shall be one body corporate and politic, in deed, action and name, and shall be called, named and distinguished by the name of the Trustees of Dartmouth College (Charter of…, emp. added).

Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Prince­ton, Dartmouth—this listing could be significantly expanded.

Even a brief glance at some of the original school mottos testifies to the purpose of education in America from the beginning (see “List of…,” n.d.). For example, Brown University, the seventh oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, founded by Baptist preachers in 1764 as Rhode Island College, has the motto In deo speramus, Latin for “In God We Hope.” Princeton’s motto is Dei sub numine viget, meaning “Under God’s Power She Flourishes.” Dartmouth’s motto is Vox clamantis in deserto, translated “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness,” a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy of John the Baptizer in Isaiah 40:3 (cf. Matthew 3:3). Another Ivy League school, founded in 1754 as King’s College, renamed Columbia College when it reopened in 1784 after the American Revolution, and now Columbia University, has the motto In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen, which means “In Thy Light Shall We See Light.”

George Washington University was chartered in 1821 (on land provided by George Washington) as Columbian College with the motto Deus Nobis Fiducia—“In God Our Trust.” Northwestern University was founded in 1851 by Methodists from Chicago to serve Americans in the Northwest Territory. The motto on Northwestern’s seal is Quaecumque sunt vera, meaning “Whatsoever things are true”—taken from Philippians 4:8. Also on the seal is a Greek phrase inscribed on the pages of an open book: ho logos pleres charitos kai aletheias, which translates as “The Word…full of grace and truth”—a reference to Jesus Christ taken from John 1:14. Even the University of California at Berkeley, a school known for its student activism, rebellion against America’s Christian heritage, and “hippie” counterculture in the 1960s, has a Bible-inspired motto, “Let There Be Light,” taken from Genesis 1:3.

American education has strayed far from its moorings. We have shifted from a nation that saw its very survival as dependent on the spread of Christian principles through the schools, to a nation that literally disdains, repudiates, and has ejected the teaching of Christian principles from the public school system. The Founders would be appalled. Physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, asserted: “[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments” (1798, p. 8, emp. added). Dr. Rush further stated:

We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible. For this Divine Book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism (pp. 93-94, emp. added).

Noah Webster echoed those sentiments: “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed” (1843, p. 291, emp. added). The words of God to Moses at Mt. Sinai ought to serve as the guiding star for America’s schools: “Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children” (Deuteronomy 4:10). “Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11). Without the fear of the Lord instilled in the nation’s youth, all will be lost (Deuteronomy 5:33; 6:1-18; Jeremiah 7:23).


“About Yale” (no date), Yale University, [On-line], URL:

Adler, Mortimer, ed. (1968), The Annals of America (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica).

Charter of Dartmouth College (no date), Dartmouth College Government Documents, [On-line], URL:

Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, [On-line], URL:

Davies, Samuel and Gilbert Tennent (1754 edition), The Value of the College at Princeton: From A General Account of the Rise and State of the College, Lately Established in the Province of New Jersey, [On-line], URL:

Kertscher, Tom (2006), “The Survey Says What?” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 15, [On-line], URL:

“List of University Mottos” (no date),, [On-line], URL:

Lyons, Eric and Kyle Butt (2007), “Militant Atheism,” Reason & Revelation, 27[1]:1-5, January, [On-line], URL:

Mode, Peter G. (1921), Sourcebook and Bibliographical Guide for American Church History (Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing).

Pierce, Benjamin (1833), A History of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA: Brown, Shattuck, & Co.).

Ringenberg, William C. (1984), The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Rush, Benjamin (1798), Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia, PA: Thomas & Samuel Bradford).

Webster, Noah (1843), A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (New York: Webster and Clark).


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→