What is classical Christian education? It is the passing on of the rich cultural heritage of the Christian West to the next generation and the formation of human souls. Do modern numerical and letter-grade systems aid or inhibit these goals? In short, they can easily inhibit the goals of classical Christian education. I’ll explain.
Parents and college admissions departments often define academic success today by elements such as high GPAs and high standardized test scores. “Why is my child’s grade so low?” or “Can I do some extra credit to increase my grade?” are common questions from parents and students. While these questions deserve a legitimate response regarding the status that numerical grades hold within a particular educational model, they also betray an underlying philosophy of education that is often at odds with liberal arts training.
The purpose of this blog entry is not to convince parents and educators to turn the classroom into a safe space devoid of objective standards. The purpose is to get parents to evaluate the modern emphasis on numerical grades and grow in their understanding of classical Christian goals. Specifically, classical Christian schools are far more interested in partnering with God as co-laborers in the formation of children’s character than they are in supplying children with a form of currency called “grades.”
“Grades” in Relation to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
When placed on a timeline in the history of education, grading is a new phenomenon. It was not until the mid-19th century that grades started to become a classroom commonplace. How, then, did Homer, Boethius, Jane Austen, and a host of other intellectual and literary giants of the Christian West assess the quality of their pupils? They assessed them by the transcendental standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. What, then, are truth, goodness, and beauty?
Pilate, that pitiable Roman official, once quipped to Christ, “What is truth?” The classical Christian tradition answers this question by asserting that truth is God’s revelation of His ordered, reasonable, objective world, and that man has the capacity to discover said truth. Goodness is the excellence or virtue of a thing or person and can be found in both the most expected places (e.g., The Bible) and the unexpected (e.g., pagan literature). Beauty is that which rightly captures our gaze, arrests our attention, inspires our awe. It is the loveliness of and a desire for the true and the good. Together, these transcendentals are the foundation of not only what is means to assess classically, but also what it means to assess that which is truly human.
Armed with a proper understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, one can more easily discover something false, vicious, and ugly. Dr. Brian Williams, dean of Templeton Honors College, said in the ClassicalU course, Assessing Students Classically, “[I]f we habituate students to get good grades, we nurture them towards curiositas and we undermine attempts to cultivate their intellectual, affective, and moral, and spiritual formation.” What is curiositas? Meaning “curiosity” in Latin, curiositas is a vice that misuses the intellect to pursue knowledge for unsavory purposes. Such unsavory purposes include pursuing knowledge as a means of exerting power over others or as a means of getting good grades.
Knowledge can easily become idolatrous when it is pursued merely for utilitarian purposes. Grades then become a cash cow whose sole purpose is to be exchanged for such goods and services as financial aid and college acceptance letters. In contrast, classical educators want knowledge to be utilized in the daily effort of habituating students to love learning, be virtuous, and learn the arts that liberate them to be free men and women. Grades do not aid those pursuits because, historically, they only reflect academic mastery, not character development.
It is as commonplace as an easterly sunrise to observe students stressing out over receiving a certain grade on a particular assessment. Once they’ve assimilated the knowledge, they simply transmit it unto an assessment, leave the classroom, and move on. It’s quite possible that they may never again give thought to the content they laboriously poured over just the day before. This attitude toward grades is antithetical to fostering a love of learning and training in virtue. There must be better ways to assess students beyond the mere requirement of grades.
An illustration from the world of athletics helpfully captures the vision of what it means to assess students classically. You will never find a good basketball coach who gives his players grades on their jump shots. The very thought is absurd. Instead, the coach corrects the athletes’ footwork, the position of their body towards the basket, their release, and any other element of a jump shot in which they are deficient. The same kind of training ought to take place in the classroom. For example, students should receive more than the empty feedback of the letter “B” at the top of their essay. The classical Christian teacher delivers specific, detailed, and timely feedback regarding the students’ development as writers and critical thinkers. This feedback is what matters. Arguably, this feedback ought to be the only thing a student sees before a grade is even brought into the picture. The goal is not to make John Doe a 94% essay writer; the goal is to turn Joe into an eloquent young man who conveys his thoughts truthfully and beautifully with the written word.
Cumulative tests should never signal to students that the learning is over. Yes, tests can assess a student’s development and understanding of learned material. A test ought to perform those functions. A test is wasted, however, when it is viewed as a data dump rather than an opportunity to develop critical learning tools. For example, an essay on Shakespeare’s The Tempest should neither signal that a student’s time with Shakespeare has come to an end nor that writing essays on great pieces of literature should be regarded as invaluable. Rather, an essay becomes a tool when it develops the student’s writing skills and cultivates in students a desire to interact thoughtfully with great authors and great books.
I understand that I’m presenting something of the either/or fallacy with the title of this article. Of course, many good students will produce good grades. Diligence often results in mastery. Acquiring both excellence and diligence is doable. But, as C.S. Lewis points out in a letter published in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (Vol. III), when the “second things” become the “first things,” you lose both. Grades are an example of the “second things.” Virtuous young men and women who love Christ and speak eloquently are the “first things” for which classical educators strive.
The depth of this topic is beyond the scope of this article. I’ll close with a thought experiment meant to challenge underlying assumptions that one may have regarding education. If you were freed completely from grades and a grading system, what would you have your students and your children do, and how would you assess them? What would you want your son or daughter, or even yourself, to get out of their education if grades were no longer a part of the equation? Thoughtfully chewing on and answering these questions are worth their weight in gold.
Upper School Humanities Teacher