More Thoughts on Education for Slavery

My daughter, Larissa, my wife, Karen, and I were hanging out at Brian and Shannon Phillips tonight where we talked about Plato’s Republic with Josh and Rebekkah (sp?) Leland. It was an informal, casual conversation about important things like music, the formation of the soul, how to become a gentleman, stuff like that.

Driving home I asked Larissa for her thoughts and she made an interesting point. She said it was unlike a school discussion because at school all of your reading is driven by anxiety about the test. You read asking yourself, “Do I need to remember this? Is it going to be on the test?”

And of course that is what a student is going to do, because the book is long and detailed, and if you start following something because it interests you, you won’t do well on the means of assessment established by the teacher and the school. Teachers often ask me in teacher training workshops how to cure kids of this obsession. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only one way.

Don’t test them.

I heard that reaction and I understand it. I would only challenge you to think about it this way: how did the ancient Greeks and Romans and the medieval and Renaissance Europeans examine their students?

I heard that reaction too and I know perfectly well that we live in America today and that we can’t go back to that long lost era. But that doesn’t remove from us the responsibility to ask which way works better and whether we aren’t doing positive harm to many of our students.

Because we are.

So we at least need to come up with ways to undermine these defective ways of so-called teaching that we have had forced upon us. We at least need to resist them. We can’t just give ourselves up to them. Children do have souls and those souls matter.

There is a time, mode, and place for assessment, but when a child is distracted from contemplating a passage in a great work of philosophy, literature, theology, or history because she is worried about how she will do on a test, a classical education (or whatever) has been used to enslave her mind.

Let’s not call that education, please.

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5 Responses

  1. Exactly what I’ve thought for ages. Why not challenge people to pursue learning and wisdom? Are they required to take what we challenge them with? It irks me to have to publish grades for students. The best learners are often those who have no clue in the world what their gradebooks say.

    • The trouble is that everything in conventional education hangs up on numerical grading. That’s why I so appreciate Jamie Cain’s quotation from Postman. Here at CiRCE we are researching where the modern approach to assessement comes from and trying to develop some practical, real-world responses and alternatives. If any readers share that concern and have the means to sponsor that research, please let us know. We consider it urgent, but don’t delude ourselves into thinking their is any profit to make from it.

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Neil Postman has an interesting discussion of a related issue in his Technopoly. Grades, he points out, are a tool. And a recently developed one at that: Putting a mark at the top of a paper originated at Cambridge in 1792. I posted about it this morning, including the relevant passage from the book, at my Web site. The following quote sums it up:

    “And yet [William Farish’s] idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself… Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.”

    Since I believe classical education depends on a different construct of reality, and a different definition of “authentic knowledge,” what effect does using this tool have on the students? teachers? school culture?

    We’ve considered this quite a bit, working through our grading scale. It has proven challenging, to say the least, because the ideals of progressive education–and the mathematical construct of reality–pervade our fledgling school culture.

  3. Buck, I think you’re absolutely right.

    What a perfect analogy!

    Thank you!!!

  4. Amen.

    I wrote some thoughts on this in a post titled “marking readiness,” and I applied it to my background in training horses. Here is the main point I tried to make.

    “As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in their training and what they needed to learn. When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like. That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).

    The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test. In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if they had never learned a thing. Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally. We trained a horse both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” they were in their training. A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises. Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training. The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.

    Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness? Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?”

    Buck

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