Why Education is Important to Pursuing Justice

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This statement is attributed to Nelson Mandela, and it describes why, in 2008, we founded Kilns College in Bend, Oregon.

Kilns is a unique startup—a community of learners united around a single purpose: understanding and teaching how to live out God’s call to justice. What we’re about is an educational experience that is laser-focused on building students’ capacity and equipping them to give their lives away. Some schools define success by how many graduates they place in jobs at Fortune 500 companies; we want to place our graduates wherever God is calling them.

My vision of an excellent educational experience is this:

  • An affordable college whose faculty are devoted to inspiring and equipping its students through educational excellence, dialogue, service, and identifying and developing gifts and talents.
  • A welcoming community in which fellow students mutually support each other and live life together as friends and confidantes.
  • A creative collaboration between individual passions and God’s wisdom and calling.

We started small: just four night classes to allow people with nine-to-five jobs to enroll, and a handful of part-time students. As I write this, however, Kilns offers a Master of Arts in Social Justice and is launching a Master of Arts in Innovation & Leadership this fall! Both programs are available in person in Bend, Oregon and online.

Education is a vital piece of pursuing justice over a lifetime. As our engagement with justice deepens, we begin to see that further schooling is often needed to be further equipped.

Sometimes the most urgent problems are the ones requiring the most study.

We are challenged constantly by what’s been called the “fierce urgency of now.” Statistics are batted around. Celebrities take up causes and jet to all corners of the globe. Every new injustice we hear about is billed as the one cause we should act on.

Can we really say that education or learning is valuable when presented with a list of emergencies? I’d be troubled if I saw a paramedic open a medical book at the scene of a head-on collision. Isn’t the time for learning behind us, and the time for action at hand?

One of the first things we want in a professional—whether a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or plumber—is education and experience. Yet one of the first things we expect from ourselves is action.

The professions I listed are all complex, and we agree that training and education are critical to their success. How equally complex is fighting injustice in our communities and across the world! Shouldn’t we expect to need education if we attempt such a complicated and messy undertaking?

Many people striving to give their lives away understand this and have chosen to educate and train themselves. Doctors, agricultural scientists, policy lobbyists, police officers, immigration lawyers, trauma therapists—all of these have invested time and money and considerable energy into preparing themselves to serve.

Education can do more than teach us to care about injustice—it can equip us to do something about it.

During World War I, C. S. Lewis left Oxford University to join the British Army. Universities faced the very real question of why students would stay in school and study while their friends fought in the trenches.

Years later, on October 22, 1939, Lewis lectured at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Oxford, on the necessity of education in wartime. This lecture later became an essay titled “Learning in Wartime.”

In this essay, Lewis suggested that we misunderstand present wars, injustices, national debts, and other crises as new situations that make the pursuit of education less worthy or important, while in reality there are always situations that seem to be urgent and that battle for the focus of our souls. A literal war—or the felt need of a particular injustice—will simply make this ongoing reality feel more pressing.

In that context, he diagnosed three impediments to education:

  • Excitement: we can feel the need to respond to the latest crisis, but Christians are called to pursue the task at hand to the glory of God and to be fully present with what is set before us. Sometimes that task is education.
  • Frustration: we live in awareness of time’s constraint, but refusing to start for fear we won’t have time to finish is not the right response. Instead we are to focus our energy on today, since that is all we are promised.
  • Fear: war reminds us of our mortality and our ability to suffer — and this is proper. War should sober us to the work at hand and prepare us to pursue our calling with courage instead of cowardice, even if that calling is education.

Education is a means, not an end. We don’t enroll in formal education ad nauseam as a way of escaping life. Rather, we educate ourselves in order to become equipped to respond wisely to God’s calling. As French theologian Bernard of Clairvaux said, “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”

Partially excerpted from Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things.

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