“What’s the point of school?” It’s a question my son is doubtless the several-billionth schoolboy to ask when told to park his soccer ball and start his homework. There’s a stock set of responses parents tend to repeat at such moments. But the question remains unsettled, even two centuries after the Prussians invented compulsory education.

Schools are a mirror of our society as a whole; what we want for schools makes plain what and whom we value in our common life. For example, the Prussian idea of what a school is for – to mold the populace to serve the state – seems foreign to today’s liberal democracy. In vogue, instead, are slogans like acquiring marketable skills and realizing your full potential.

Photograph by Alexey Ruban

Such slogans reflect two main ideas. The first is that a school should prepare a child for the job market: the goal is “student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness,” in the words of the US Department of Education. The second is that a school should aid a child to become a self-fulfilled individualist – a “leader and catalyst” who is “empowered” to “pursue your passion” (to pick a few common catch phrases from university brochures).

These ideas powerfully shape our culture, thanks not least to their influence in the Silicon Valley worldview we live and breathe. Both boil down, ultimately, to pursuing one supreme value: individual success in a competitive world. What’s not said is that this kind of success comes at someone else’s expense. By definition, not everyone can be above average. Despite its invocations of creativity and diversity, for much of humanity the creed of Tech Age meritocracy is a bleak and merciless one.

Fortunately, these aren’t the only ideas out there, as a rewarding new book by Alan Jacobs reminds us. In The Year of Our Lord 1943 Jacobs describes how, during World War II, a network of Christian thinkers including Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain imagined what post-war society should look like. They focused especially on schools.

One of them, the poet W. H. Auden, was a schoolteacher himself. In his 1943 talk “Vocation and Society,” he appealed to his fellow educators to focus on the spiritual element of education. This meant helping students discover their vocation – a life-defining task they know they must do, even at the cost of suffering. Most people, distracted by earning and spending, never find such a vocation. But educators, said Auden, must strive to “make a sense of vocation the normal instead of the exceptional thing.”

In the Christian tradition, the life of discipleship is also a school. In this educational community, under the instruction of our one Teacher, we learn not to seek empowerment, but to find strength in weakness; not to out-achieve others, but to serve them; not to pursue our passion, but to obey a call. That, after all, is the message of Christ’s incarnation as a vulnerable human baby, the great mystery we celebrate each year at Christmas.