Ideas Matter

Modern society appears to care an awful lot about education. Every child born in America is mandated by law to spend at least twelve years in school. Most people think sixteen years is now the base for any kind of success and more than a few hold the position that a masters’ degree is the new bachelors. An increasingly popular argument is being made that formal education should begin much younger and all children should attend preschool. Sixteen years of formal education is the bare minimum. Twenty years or more may be required for real success.

The Value of Education

Sixteen to twenty years of education is a lot of time and expense. What is the result of all of this education? One of the great unquestioned ideas of our time is that education is inherently good. There is an often unexamined assumption in our culture and society that the more educated someone is the better that person will be. The better people are the better society will be. This is both foolish and dangerous. I used to work for a college and the president of that college was one of the few who did question that idea. He frequently reminded faculty, students, and potential new students that the German people were the most educated people on the planet in the early 20th century. Yet they did truly horrific things and had some really bad ideas.

It's About Ideas

Understanding what those really bad ideas were and are, and being able to understand the effect of good ideas, should be the very heart of education. Education is about ideas. Our culture is about ideas. Our society is built on ideas. Ideas are the fuel that powers cultures, countries and history and define the human experience. Let’s consider a few examples.


Science, and the technology that science produces, plays a defining role in our lives. Science was born in a worldview that had the idea that the world was created by a rational intelligence. Consequently the world should be rational and logical and make sense. If the world made sense, if it operated according to a set of laws, then those laws could be discovered and learned. These are all ideas. Powerful ideas that were and are world shaping. This worldview that proclaimed the ideas that the world was created and was rational and made sense was in opposition to another set of ideas that had proclaimed that the world was chaos, irrational, run by multiple warring gods, and impossible to figure out. Science is based on ideas.


The Declaration of Independence is famous because it is a document that articulates a set of powerful ideas. The idea that “all men are created equal” that they have “certain inalienable rights” and that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” were bombshell ideas that changed the course of history. It is on the foundation of these ideas that much of today’s political landscape rests.


Western culture is, in many ways, the dominant culture in the world today. In western culture the idea of human rights is the foundational moral assumption. Western culture sprang from the root of Christianity. Christianity proclaims that all people are made in the image of God. Consequently all people, regardless of social position, race, gender, age, or bloodline have equal worth. This was a revolutionary idea that fundamentally altered the moral landscape of the world.

The world that you live in is shaped and formed by ideas. You are reading this on some kind of computing device, connected to the internet, powered by electricity, built with metal and glass and plastic. All of this technology, formed by science, rests on a fundamental idea that there are rational, discoverable laws that govern the universe.

An Inheritance of Ideas

If you are reading this you likely live in a country where you assume it is your right to have a political voice and a say in how you are governed. You probably take for granted your right to read anything you want and say anything you want. If you expect armed government soldiers and police to stay out of your life unless you have done something criminal, then you should understand that all of those assumptions and rights are based on the a set of ideas about all men being created equal.

If you think that slavery is a great evil and women should be able to vote and hold property. If you believe nobody should be discriminated against because of the color of their skin. If you know that children should not be exploited by adults.  If you think how much money you have shouldn’t determine your inherent worth then you should know that these foundational moral understandings rest on the core ideas of Christianity.

We would likely agree that the ideas that power science, democracy, and human right are good ideas that benefit society and lead to human flourishing. There are also very bad ideas that lead to human suffering.

Bad Ideas

The holocaust was powered by ideas. Untold millions have been murdered and tortured as a result of a package of ideas called communism. Every jihadi that embarks on a suicide mission is being powered by an idea.  Racism is fueled by a set of ideas. Every evil that afflicts the planet has a bad idea that powers it.

Ideas Fuel Progress

The better a scientist understands the laws that govern the physical world the better she will be at using that understanding to create new technology.

The politician who completely understands the implications and manifestations of “all men being created equal” will write laws, and vote for laws, that are based on that idea.

The person who fully understands that every single person has unique worth will be motivated by that idea to volunteer his time and donate his money to help orphans, provide food for the poor, and fight sex trafficking.

Pursue an Understanding of Ideas

Education and being fully educated is all about understanding ideas. The more you understand what ideas power our world the better you are able to identify those ideas at work. The more you are able to see and participate in moving good ideas forward, and work to halt the spread of bad ideas then the more effective and influential you will be. You will make a bigger difference in the world. Your life will have more meaning.

If you are still in the sixteen to twenty years of your formal education make sure that you look past the tests, textbooks, and papers that are due and focus on the ideas that form the foundation of what you are learning. If you are past your years of formal education commit to constantly learn, which means constantly looking to develop a better understanding of the ideas that power our world.

This is what education, and being educated, should be about.