Means and Ends in Education

In a fallen world, we confuse much—lust with love, pleasure with goodness, and even good with evil (Isaiah 5:20). Means and ends are often confused, and sometimes with dire results. Wise living requires clarity on this.

An end is what we want to achieve by our actions. It could be a job, a relationship, a political office, or an academic degree. In other words, it is our goal. We sometimes say, “The end goal is X.” If so, we consider means (or strategies) by which to reach this end (or outcome). If I want to write a book as my end, I consider the means by which to bring this about—research, writing, and rewriting. It is absurd to claim that one’s end is to write a first draft of a book and nothing more (unless one deems this therapeutic). Similarly, one sharpens a knife to make it better for its purpose—to cut or pare or penetrate. One does not sharpen it to simply have a sharp knife.

Put formally, this is the concept I am after:

X is a means to end Y if:

  1. X is necessary to achieve Y, but may not be sufficient.
  2. It is usually the case that X is one of several factors to achieve Y. These factors are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for achieving Y.

Consider some cases. The curriculum for a university is the means by which to achieve the end of being granted a degree. Thus, each class is designed and executed to contribute to the completion of a degree, which is itself a means of attaining knowledge, skill, and responsible citizenship. Thus, one attends classes as means to an end, which is to graduate; but one graduates in order to achieve the end of being a more educated and well-rounded individual. This means-ends chain was the vision of universities in the United States until about 1950. Few institutions of higher learning hold to this today. They have defected and become training mills and mere big businesses.

However, many students believe that passing the class is an end. When in college, I saw a student put his freshly-graded paper into a garbage can, much to the disgust of his friend, who quickly fished it out and began lecturing him. On that theme, at the end of my sophomore year in college, I saw a resident of my apartment complex slowly walking down the hall with a stack of books, which were secured by his two hands at the bottom and his chin at the top. There were over ten of them. He was headed for the garbage, since the term was over. (I can still see his clueless face forty years later.) I intercepted the literary crime in progress and commandeered several of the books for myself. (His trek to the trash was especially stupid, since our apartment complex was one block from a used bookstore.)

The end of all our being and acting should be human flourishing according to the principles, practices, and disciplines of the Kingdom of God. God is the original and originating good. All our goodness comes from him and rests in him. Concerning the cares of life, Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

Thus, the totality of our lives should be a means to the end of seeing God’s Kingdom manifest on earth and radiate into eternity. Paul affirms essentially the same truth:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The writer of Ecclesiastes sets our activities before our ultimate End.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

To sum up our three writers: Our duty to God is to seek the manifestation of God kingdom, so that God will be glorified. That grand vision and mission demands that we not confuse means and ends.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

One thought

  1. If the totality of our lives is a means of seeing God’s Kingdom manifest here and into eternity, then all of life can be lived as sacred. How wonderful!

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