THE STANDARDS TRAP – ii. From Spiritual Development to Social Utility


The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all, it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.[i]

H.L. Mencken


A loving mother teaching her child to read would never be so foolish as to cordon off an arbitrary segment of time, and to assign the child a definite score or rating of ability based on the level of proficiency he had reached within that time. There are many educationally sound reasons why not. Let us note just three:

(1) Spiritual development is not a race, which is to say there is no finish line or end point in education, unless you are intending to lead the student to a certain predetermined level of thinking, and no further. No mother who cared about her child’s future prospects and happiness would ever place such an artificial limit on his intellectual horizons. Therefore, since getting to an arbitrarily selected “stage” of progress by a certain arbitrarily chosen point in time indicates absolutely nothing about a child’s ultimate ability, and bears no definable relation to any fixed end point, a score would be inherently meaningless.

(2) There is no objectively correct level of reading progress for any specific age or period of study that can be universalized as a standard for every child.[ii] Hence, there is no rational, i.e., reality-based, scale of quantification against which the mother could judge her child’s reading at this or that moment, so as to assign a definite score.

(3) The only conceivable way to quantify the child’s reading level meaningfully would be relatively—that is, to assign him an ordinal position in comparison with the reading levels of other children. However, given reason (2), there would be no way to define the appropriate group against which to compare him, so as to attain an informative rank. At the same time, there would be no value or relevance in judging him exclusively against other children his own age, without artificially circumscribing the comparison group to encompass only children who had been learning to read for approximately the same period of time, and under observably similar conditions. And given reason (1), this ranking, arbitrarily limited and artificial as it would have to be, would also be valueless as an assessment of long-term potential, seriousness, or dedication. Hence, this rank would only skew the child’s learning by detaching it from its proper purposes—self-development and the pursuit of happiness—and tying it instead to the meaningless pursuit of ephemeral prizes and accolades unrelated to real growth and living.

A mother who loved her child would never knowingly shrink his mind, aspirations, and potential in this way. That is, she would never deliberately reduce her child’s experience to something generic, quantifiable, and unindividuated. A cynical societal elite, by contrast, might be expected to attempt precisely such a forced shrinkage.

On their face, standardized methods and schedules of assessment, exemplified by the semi-annual report card or the Grade Point Average, serve only (a) expedience purchased at the price of any meaningful real world standards for measuring intellectual development, and (b) the illogical impulse toward universalization at the price of overlooking the vagaries of human nature, which are ineluctably individual and context-sensitive. There is, however, another less obvious reason for such methods—or rather one so ubiquitous today that its obviousness is obscured by over-familiarity. That reason, to anticipate, is the pursuit of an artificially imposed social stratification, which is to say the deliberate stifling of natural potential.

Let us return to our dialectic of standardization, and pick up where we left off. A teacher struggles to keep up with a number of students at the same time without completely sacrificing the basis of the teacher-student relationship, namely personal engagement with each individual, and learning materials, standards, and methods devised in accordance with each individual’s character, level of development, and idiosyncratic interests.[iii] He knows that anything less than this kind of personal engagement falls short of teaching in the proper sense. One may impart information to a crowd, but imparting information in itself is not teaching, any more than having one’s ears inundated with words is learning.

(As for genuine understanding—God forbid we should go as far as to talk about anything so quaint as wisdom—if it can arise at all from the mere generic dissemination of information, it will occur only accidentally, and entirely as a result of the student’s private effort. In such a case, then, any learning of the soul-improving sort is achieved in spite of the teacher, not because of him. In other words, the teacher in such conditions has become an impediment to be overcome, rather than a helper, guide, or mentor.)

This means that any attempt to squeeze multiple students into a generic mold, either in terms of temporal progress or of levels of learning, departs from education proper—which is individual by definition, insofar as minds are individuated—in favor of some other, non-educational goal. At first, that goal might be nothing more complicated or nefarious than the practical convenience or material advantage of the teacher. If, for instance, a teacher wished to spare himself the trouble of monitoring the progress—that is, the level of intellectual development—of a growing student body in the time-consuming, idiosyncratic manner required of the purest form of teaching (think again of the mother monitoring her child’s reading comprehension), then he might devise a system of testing tied to specific steps along the way in his lectures, and assign numerical value to the results as a shortcut means of providing something resembling a personal evaluation. It would be an ersatz evaluation, but it would allow him to teach more students than is strictly possible—thereby perhaps earning more money, a promotion, job security—while still maintaining some tenuous connection to his students qua students.

If this all seems too abstract and unrelated to any educational reality you can imagine, that may be because I am describing events that took place more than two centuries ago, when the West began its suicidal descent from Socrates—the archetypal teacher, and for that reason a definitive figure of the Western heritage—to “the education system.”

Corruption usually begins as a small error. It invariably begins at the top. Thus it was that in 1785, Yale College abandoned the age-old pass/fail evaluation method and initiated the practice of ranking its students’ examinations on a primitive version of a four-point scale: Optimi, Second Optimi, Inferiores and Pejores.[iv]

Let us stop right there for a moment, and consider one implication of this historical fact that might seem almost inconceivable today: Prior to 1785, Yale, like every other school, was teaching and examining its students without assigning them any official score or rank at all. Was this lack of formal, permanent ranking a shortcoming that needed correction? It may seem so now, after two centuries of development along these lines. An unreflective person would probably be inclined to answer, “If we don’t rank the exams, how can we know who is the best student?”

My reply: Why do we need to know who is the best student? More to the point: What principle shall we apply in determining which of the theoretically infinite ranking systems we shall use to stipulate what “best student” will mean for our purposes? Even more to the point: Who is meant by “we”?

Aside from the questionable justification for introducing this best-to-worst ranking system at Yale in the first place, remember that this system was, by necessity, completely internal. That is, being ranked Optimi on your Yale examination had no objective meaning or value outside of Yale, as no other school was using such an evaluation system. If Mom crazily decides to score little Johnny’s reading effort this year, and to award him a big blue A+ for his birthday, we might wonder what she was hoping to accomplish, or what standard she could possibly be applying, but it would never occur to us to conclude that this arbitrary, pseudo-objective evaluation had any real world value, or that it could be used to compare Johnny to other children. In case you are thinking that I am criticizing the inapplicability of Yale’s ranking system to the world beyond its walls as a shortcoming of the system, let me assure you that my point is exactly the opposite: The system’s complete lack of broader social utility was its only saving grace.

A few years after Yale began its four-category ranking system, legend has it that one William Farish, a chemist at Cambridge University, had a bright idea of his own. As a Cambridge instructor’s pay was dependent on his enrolment, there was an obvious incentive to invent practical methods of accommodating larger numbers of students. The story goes that in 1792 Farish devised a system of quantitative assessment—scores assigned for each answer on examinations—to substitute for individualized student evaluations, thus sparing himself some of the more challenging and time-consuming duties of a university instructor: personal engagement, mentoring, and judgment. This was the symbolic beginning of education transformed into a mass production industry, and hence of minds reconceived as artificial products.

In a fascinating article on that period of momentous transition at Cambridge, Oxford, and Trinity College, Christopher Stray disputes the common identification of this great leap in the development of grades with Farish in particular,[v] though he confirms that increasing student numbers were a major factor in the move toward generic standards.[vi] What is clear, however, is that up to the late eighteenth century, graduating examinations had been primarily oral (though perhaps including the public reading of written arguments), and that while they were feisty affairs involving “several participants, since students were disputing with one another and with any graduates who might choose to intervene,”[vii] nevertheless assessment was strictly pass or fail. Initially, all candidates were examined and assessed personally, and without any preliminary ranking into high and low groups. Even the later, questionable practice of assigning candidates to pre-ranked examination groups according to anticipated performance was still based on personal assessments of individual students, not on any generic quantitative system of measurement.[viii]

Cambridge’s growing fascination with Newtonian scientific method and quantifiability, however, along with the increasing, practically convenient emphasis on group examinations, seems to have spawned the first full-fledged model of standardized higher education. Stray unearths a letter written in 1808 in defense of the Cambridge reforms, by one Benjamin Newton, who assails rival Oxford’s method of examining students in a most telling fashion:

His main charges against Oxford are (1) that candidates are allowed to choose books on which to be examined—and so they direct the University, rather than the University directing them; (2) candidates are not examined all at the same time, but in separate groups in January, April and June, hence there is no chance to assess comparative merits; (3) candidates offering different numbers of books are examined according to different standards—again, proper comparison is impossible; and finally (4) ‘the not hanging up publicly the names of all who take their degrees, from the highest to the lowest, as is done in Cambridge, and greatly encourages the assiduity of the industrious, disgracing, at the same time, laziness, stupidity, and irregularity.’[ix]

In sum, the criticism was that Oxford lacked uniformity of study content, universality of target learning outcomes, and direct comparison and public rank-ordering of students evaluated under identical (i.e., impersonal) conditions. This was an early iteration of what is now a common refrain of standardization advocates: Individual teaching and assessment in the true sense are unfair. Stray astutely highlights the competing notions of fairness represented by the traditional method of assessment ascribed to Oxford and the new methods then being developed at Cambridge:

For the Oxonian examiners, fairness consisted in treating each candidate according to his own lights.… Comparison with other candidates was inevitable, but the ranking of an individual in relation to the whole body of candidates was unnecessary.…

[T]he competing conception of fairness [at Cambridge] was that all candidates received exactly the same treatment.… The contrast between the two conceptions is clearly closely linked to, though not identical with, the contrast between oral and written examinations.[x]

The aim of giving all students “exactly the same treatment,” out of a misapplied infatuation with scientific method, and in the name of fairness, signaled the conceptual shift toward the quantification of learning and mental development, and the universal rank-ordering of humans on the basis of this quantification system.

Is this a lot of concern about a mere streamlining of teaching and assessment methods forced upon educators by the desire to expand educational opportunities to a broader population? What is the fundamental difference, one might ask, between a quantitative evaluation such as the grades or categories of rank developed at Cambridge or Yale, and what teachers did before such simplifying methods were introduced? Is not the former merely a more objective, albeit perhaps less nuanced, version of the latter?

As I work on this chapter, I am interrupted by a knock at my office door. It is one of my students, a diligent young woman who transferred late to the English department from another major, and whose language skills are therefore a little behind those of some of her classmates, so much so that she has confessed that she often cannot understand my lectures very well. We recently exchanged e-mails about the Korean public school system, and now she has printed out her own half of the exchange—more than a page of writing—and wants me to check her grammar and vocabulary. Though her message’s meaning is quite comprehensible, there are significant errors of word order and verb form in most sentences. Rather than correcting the errors, and then showing her what I have done, I decide to use the opportunity to see how much English grammar she really knows, by challenging her to self-correct. Line by line, I show her the ungrammatical passages in her letter, sometimes reading a clause or sentence back to her to help her hear what she might not see. I ask leading questions such as, “What’s the complete subject of this sentence?” to cue her analytical skills. Occasionally, when she is unable to follow my lead, she asks for “a hint.” Each time she makes a correction, I ask her why, and she tries to explain. After editing the whole letter in this fashion, I emphasize to her that all I did was point out the problem areas, whereas she made all the actual corrections herself. We chat about the content of the e-mail for a few minutes, and about her plans for study during the vacation period. As she gets up to leave, after roughly an hour, she declares proudly, “I understood everything you said today.”

There is nothing inherently special about the episode I have just recounted, except precisely that: It is not a special episode. It exemplifies the normal and proper relationship between a teacher and a student as that relationship has existed throughout the history of civilization, from Socrates questioning Simmias about the immortality of the soul to every father who has invited his son to play catch. In short, this is teaching. Everything else that happens between teacher and student, including the classroom lectures, is a mere addendum to this essential educational experience.

And what is that essential experience? Through shared speech, a teacher coaxes a student’s soul into activation, into rummaging around inside herself in search of things she did not know she had, i.e., self-discovery. This is the experience that Socrates, in Plato’s Meno, offers in support of his claim that learning is recollection, and that he demonstrates by teaching geometry to Meno’s slave boy. This is a strikingly appealing account of learning, a subject on which Socrates is our most profound expert (with apologies to today’s theory-laden professors of education). Our loosely bound experiences of things always prefigure our understanding. To learn is to bring those experiences into a unity, to comprehend them at last under a principle, as it were—leaving us to wonder, if we are inclined to notice miracles, where this unity comes from. In any case, it is clear that a person who seeks this unifying experience is a student. A person who seeks to facilitate this effort in another, by guiding the process of gathering those bits of information strewn around the student’s mind, is a teacher. Socrates’ famous comparison of teaching to midwifery captures the point most aptly. The teacher will, at times, provide information; he does not provide understanding. The latter task is entirely up to the student, although a good teacher can help us through the process.

It is obvious how a personal evaluation or consultation may contribute to this process. How, on the other hand, does a grade contribute to it? The best defense, I suppose, would be that it serves as a kind of shorthand progress report. On this optimistic view, a grade would be a compromised approximation of what a teacher should be providing for his students by way of guidance. And that, in all likelihood, is exactly what the men popularly composited as “William Farish” were intending when they introduced examination and evaluation reforms at Cambridge. They were not trying to dispense with the proper duties of a teacher outright, but merely to “cheat” on those duties, by creating a shortcut method of evaluation that would allow them to teach—or rather lecture to—far more students than could properly be guided and evaluated on a truly individual basis.

Decades later, the father of America’s common school movement, Horace Mann, echoed this rationalization for uniformity most amusingly. Complaining of the fact that children were coming to the public schools with textbooks of their parents’ own choosing, produced by various writers and publishers not previously vetted and approved by the state, he demonstrates the result as follows:

Where a diversity of books prevails in a school, there will necessarily be unfitness and maladjustment in the classification of scholars. Those who ought to recite together are separated by a difference of books. If eight or ten scholars, in geography for instance, have eight or ten different books, as has sometimes happened, instead of one recitation for all, there must be eight or ten recitations. Thus the teacher’s time is crumbled into dust and dissipated. Put a question to a class of ten scholars, and wait a moment for each one to prepare an answer in his own mind, and then name the one to give the answer, and there are ten mental operations going on simultaneously; and each one of the scholars will profit more by this social recitation, than he would by a solitary one of the same length. But if there must be ten recitations, instead of one, the teacher is, as it were, divided by ten, and reduced to the tenth part of a teacher. Nine tenths of his usefulness is destroyed.[xi]

By “ten mental operations going on simultaneously,” Mann really means one mental operation mass produced in ten minds—“exactly the same treatment,” to use Benjamin Newton’s phraseology in defense of the Cambridge notion of fairness. How this uniform “social recitation” would be more profitable to the students than solitary recitations remains a bit of a mystery. By contrast, Mann is wonderfully exact concerning the calculation of the fraction of a teacher that remains when students’ minds are not subject to mass production. “Nine tenths of his usefulness is destroyed.” Even aside from its specious arithmetic, this claim most purely typifies the mentality of standardized schooling not in its details, but in its unstated presupposition: If teachers have less control over the students’ time and mental space, this means they are teaching less, which in turn means that students must be learning less. This is not the reasoning of a conscientious educator so much as of a control freak, a.k.a. a “benevolent despot.” The real concern Mann is voicing here is: How are students to be homogenized and classified (ranked) in a system that dilutes the control of the teacher and the uniformity of instruction?

The early experimenters with standardized evaluation were quite right, of course, from a purely practical perspective. Consider again my little consultation with the student who knocked on my door. The session lasted an hour, during which we were merely talking about the contents of a personal correspondence. Imagine if I tried to teach her that way—that is, really to teach her—regarding all of her actual class work and assignments on a regular weekly basis. How many hours would it take each week to do this properly? (But how much progress would she make in her understanding!) Now multiply that process by a hundred or more students. Utterly impossible—so much easier just to assign a grade, and give a few perfunctory written comments here and there. True, the grade is meaningless in real terms, as the scale of assessment is inherently arbitrary, and its application about as scientific as interrupting a conversation every ten minutes to assign a score to what has been said so far. But, given the number of students, it’s the closest thing to a real assessment that time permits, so it’s better than nothing, isn’t it?

Or is it? In fact, the difference between a grade and a personal consultation is more than a matter of degree; it is fundamental. Learning is not a series of discrete stages existing in isolation from one another. It is a continuum, one without a natural end point for all practical purposes. The purpose of teaching is to feed the engine that drives the student along on that continuum, at least until he has learned how to carry on fruitfully without further assistance or prodding. A personal consultation is, as I have explained, the true heart of teaching, and far more valuable to the student than any classroom lecture.

Teaching is a spiritual flight of stairs; a grade is an artificial ceiling. Teaching is encouragement to face up to what one lacks without false bravado, and an invitation to carry on without fear; a grade instills delusional pride or the illusion of defeat—hubris or premature surrender. Teaching is a (sometimes rough) wave that carries the student forward on his journey; a grade is a frozen judgment, a single frame of a motion picture captured in isolation from the ongoing film and treated as a complete story unto itself. That isolated judgment then follows the student throughout his subsequent education, giving a provisional achievement or a momentary “deficiency” exaggerated and thoroughly unproductive significance beyond the transitory context from which it was snatched.

Let us reconsider, then, why this cheat, the grade, seemed attractive in the first place. It allowed an instructor to lecture to increasing numbers of students—so many that he would never be able to know, assess, and guide each of them personally as a teacher should. If we are honest, then, we may dispense right off the bat with the argument for grades as an enhancement of education; grades in the modern sense were developed as a workable compromise for the practical (non-educational) benefit of teachers and schools, and nothing more. That is, grades were an acknowledgment that the ratio of teachers to students had been allowed to get out of hand, such that the instructor could no longer confidently vouch for his students, or the university for its degrees. A mechanism was needed to judge the students’ efforts impersonally, thereby allowing the instructor to focus on his lectures, rather than on the individual students. This mechanism, by being inherently generic (“objective”), propelled the historic transition toward conceiving of students’ minds as measuring cups being filled with liquid and periodically checked to determine whether a certain measure has been reached on time, or as products from an assembly line passing through Quality Control. In other words, it was a brave and momentous step away from education, and toward schooling.

In the initial instantiations of academic grading, the standards were still, at least in principle, idiosyncratic to the teachers, rather than conforming to any broader generic protocols—although the Yale system, for example, being college-wide, was already tending away from such personal standards. However, the institution of formal grading upset the professional balance between teaching as many students as possible on the one hand, and teaching as well as possible on the other. Instructors could now accommodate far more students than before, while maintaining the illusion that those students were “getting what they paid for,” namely an education. Grades provided cover for an educational establishment that was itching to forsake its defining task—the improvement of souls, to state it plainly—in favor of the monetary, career, and prestige gains entailed by drawing more students. (Anyone who has ever taught in a classroom setting in which attendance was not compulsory has experienced this tug of war within himself: desiring small classes for the sake of education, but simultaneously desiring high enrolment, popularity, for the sake of job security and professional advancement.) The university’s turn toward the modern revival of Socrates’ old archrivals, the sophists, may be traced in part to this practical shift away from the teacher as personal guide, challenger, or even torturer, and toward the teacher as grade-dispenser.

The practical advantage of grading systems—larger classes, requiring less personal interaction with students—was bound to make the idea popular throughout the academic world quickly. The development is so logical that it is difficult to see how it could have been stopped once set in motion. Standardized grading allows for more students, and therefore more money, either in the form of direct class fees or of school funding, career development, and the like. Other instructors, and then other schools, will naturally wish to gain a piece of this action. Teachers or institutions that do not join the game risk branding themselves as failed or outdated.

Once the practice has spread to various competing institutions, however, allowing grade standards to remain observably idiosyncratic becomes more difficult. While it is not necessary to achieve absolute uniformity of standards horizontally—that is, between schools teaching at the same level—there is a natural impetus even here to produce at least an informal consistency of standards. If I am the only teacher assigning formal grades (like the early Cambridge experimenters, for example), then those grades may be understood as representing my peculiar opinion, based on my unique (albeit illegitimately generic) expectations. As soon as other teachers are implementing their own similar systems, a completely personal standard becomes a problem. That is, if my A grade in no way corresponds to the A grade offered for the equivalent course taught at another university, then both grade standards are exposed as objectively meaningless, or as the purely idiosyncratic assessments they really are, leaving the reasonable observer to wonder what educational function they serve. It therefore becomes desirable, and practically necessary, for competing schools to harmonize their standards, which in fact means merely to produce roughly the same proportion of high, middle, and low grades. If this standardization has never become complete at the university level, that is because universities have never been fully incorporated into an overarching system, although they have been, and remain, the chief source of such systems. Still, the broadly similar ranges and proportions of grades clearly indicate a conscious effort among schools to align their standards somewhat, at least optically. The latter-day prevalence of relative or “bell curve” grading policies only reinforces this.

The real catastrophe, however, begins when this new standardization of expectations and outcomes ceases to apply merely horizontally between competing institutions, and goes vertical. If universities are aiming to accept increasing numbers of students, and if they are increasingly assessing their students’ work on graded scales, then a standardized vetting system to determine who is suited to university study in the first place becomes just as important as the standardized system within the university, and for the same reason: There are too many students and applicants to be monitored and assessed personally. We need standardized scores to make this volume manageable. In other words, the quantification has now reached beyond the university itself, to infect the educational models and priorities of the institutions that feed students to the universities. This is trickle-down standardization.

Historically, this shift at the end of the eighteenth century toward making formal education a contest of skill-testing questions, with points for the winners, coincided with the growth of political movements advocating universal education, i.e., forced schooling for the “common man.” The new model of generic assessment was a perfect match for the new social policy impetus to make schooling universally accessible (read inescapable), not only in the sense that it made universal schooling practically manageable, but also in a politically expedient sense. The case for education as a public enterprise is immeasurably strengthened, rhetorically speaking, by the advent of schooling as an implicit societal ranking system. Put simply, if points are being awarded, and used as measures of men’s social value, is it just that only a minority of young men should be allowed to compete for these points? From a democratic point of view, the moral argument seems compelling, if we grant the desirability of this new model of formal education as ranking system. In ultimate effect, however, what these universal schooling advocates were striving for, wittingly or unwittingly, was not so much education for everyone, but rather social utility for everyone, which means education reconceived as a societal elite’s own personal tool, laboratory, and training facility—a goal which lined up perfectly with standardized grading. Genuine education for everyone is, in fact, exactly the dream that freedom and the Industrial Revolution might have provided, had that development not been intercepted and undone by universal schooling.[xii]

In its early stages, this enveloping standardization and quantification of learning would have been merely a superfluous and somewhat distorting adjunct to one of the traditional methods of prejudging incoming or outgoing students, namely by reference to the reputation and recommendation of their teachers. Prior to standardized grading, an accomplished teacher with a good track record of promoting well-rounded students was all the “qualification” you needed; a high score in some generic, arbitrary grading system is obviously a paltry substitute for having personally studied with a good teacher. Philip of Macedon did not enlist Aristotle as his son’s private tutor because he hoped young Alexander would get a good grade in math class. The Philosopher himself was the grade. And I doubt Alexander the Great ever wished he could have traded his personal instruction from the man who invented biology and formal logic in exchange for a perfect score on a government examination.

From the point of view of education’s progressive elite—two centuries of paternalistic busybodies—this informal reputation-and-word-of-mouth method of recommending teachers and their students has an insuperable and unconscionable flaw: It presumes that private citizens are competent to form their own judgments about the value of a teacher’s or school’s work and the trustworthiness of a teacher’s or school’s promotion of students, without any overarching, bureaucratically approved system of assessment. The ability of parents, higher educators, tradesmen seeking an apprentice, business owners seeking intelligent employees, and even students, to decide for themselves which teachers they should trust, just drives the busybodies crazy. We are back to the old canard about private education leaving us at the mercy of charlatans; in fact, the greatest charlatans in the history of education were the men most responsible for designing the modern paradigm of government schooling. It was formerly assumed that private citizens were, or bloody well should be, sufficiently intelligent and responsible to decide for themselves what constituted good teaching, based on their own personal standards regarding what they wanted their children to learn, or what background knowledge they wanted their incoming students or employees to have. Errant judgments are a perpetual risk, of course, in this as in every arena of life without a nanny state to decide for you. But in the realms of child-rearing, character development, and intellectual growth—in short, the arena of the soul and its care—history and common sense fall heavily on the side of risking an individualized (though possibly errant) judgment.

Numbers, however, have a way of taking over. Quantitative judgments have an air of objectivity, almost of science, about them that appeals to something in the modern mind. Natural science has displaced the science of being as our idea of the highest knowledge. Thus, all modernity feels ashamed of the irreducibility of human life to accurate mathematical formulae, as though this indicates something unworthy about our species, or at least something sloppy about our reasoning. As a result, we are endlessly concocting illusory ways of quantifying and collectivizing the mental realm, imagining that such pseudoscience, if pursued with sufficient fervor, will produce real knowledge.[xiii] This modern instantiation of alchemy, when applied to education theory, is exemplified by such seemingly disparate notions as Dewey’s Laboratory School, instituted more than a century ago, and the preprogrammed essay-grading computers of today.[xiv] It belongs to the same intellectual paradigm as eugenics, and has been very helpful in validating the most anti-human conceptions of education ever devised.

As for grades, they are less objective than traditional personal assessments, not more so, in part because they allow students to be judged and promoted without reference to the elements that are, and should be, essential: genuine understanding, potential to build on what has been learned, and seriousness of character. The appearance of objectivity represented by grades arises, once again, from the late modern taste for illegitimate universalization—universalization based on abstracting an object from its determining context, as a communist universalizes communal sharing after abstracting it from its proper context of family and friendship. The Cambridge notion of fairness—everyone receiving “exactly the same treatment”—was an early mission statement in the growth of what may be called intellectual communism, more commonly known as universal schooling.

The pseudoscientific quantitative assessment, once normalized, has its own logic. From the principle that a generic (non-individual) standard is needed to determine university student rankings proceeds the application of this principle to determining who belongs in university. Then comes the analogous application of the same reasoning with regard to each stage of schooling in relation to the preceding stage, right down to the nursery, in theory. The trajectory is toward standardized rank-ordering of the population from the earliest possible moment. Each stage of school is inexorably reduced to a mere vetting process for the next stage. And since grades are increasingly the exclusive means of vetting, it follows that the means to grades, namely tests (and to a lesser degree other methods of static assessment) become the main purpose and focus of schooling at each level. This is the dialectical self-revelation of the Absolute Idea of modernity’s corruption—the dialectic of the school system.

Generic academic standards, though inherently illusory, both in intentions and in results,[xv] need not entail the kind of uniformity that completely undermines the idiosyncratic thinking of real teachers in a proper teaching environment, as long as both the nature and goals of the community’s educational establishment are unspecified, beyond the broad notion of producing educated citizens—that is, as long as the educational establishment is a loose, informal entity, rather than a unified, bureaucratized one.[xvi] Once these idiosyncratic, practically convenient grades become socially useful, in the sense of being subsumed within the mission of a centralized, hierarchical grading system, the nexus of teaching and learning—the complex intimacy between teacher and student grounded in the shared aim of the student’s self-development, the satisfaction of matter’s innate desire for form—is more deeply compromised, if not mortally wounded. And do not be fooled by apparent exceptions. Instances of the victim (the teacher-student relationship) sometimes managing to struggle on in a contorted, pain-ridden approximation of its natural glory cannot be adduced as evidence against the damage that has been done. These are rather a melancholy reminder of the human spirit’s capacity to fight for breath against even the most powerful pair of hands squeezing its throat.

For the teachers, this death struggle finds expression in John Taylor Gatto’s explanation of his decision to quit public school teaching after thirty years: “If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.” For the students, the expression is more involuntary: successive generations of increasing aimlessness, moral dependency, and abstraction from human nature, and of decreasing general knowledge, practical skills, and sense of mature preparedness for the risks and responsibilities of life as an adult.


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[i] From H.L. Mencken’s review of “The Goslings: A Study of American Schools” by Upton Sinclair, in The American Mercury (April, 1924), available online at

[ii] It is strange to me that education theorists who would laugh derisively at Descartes’ theory of innate ideas have no problem imagining that we can determine the precise age at which a normal child should know algebra or the periodic table of elements.

[iii] For an amusing but typical example of how all of these priorities have been abandoned, I recall my own tenth grade English teacher, a kindly middle-aged lady who, faced with the anomaly of a class comprised entirely of boys, bravely forged ahead with her predetermined choice of novel: Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, a gooey pop-psychological confection about a family’s emotional crisis. After weeks of rising anger at our snickers and sarcasm over the characters’ repressed feelings, suicide attempts, and haunted pasts, she finally exploded. She stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her, after screaming at us for not appreciating “one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century!” Even then, I couldn’t help wondering whether she had read any others. Today, I can only marvel at the thought processes of a teacher who, faced with a large group of teenage boys, would consider such a prototypical “girl book” appropriate fare. We may call this the human face of academic standardization.

[iv] Mark Durm, “An A Is Not An A Is Not An A: A History of Grading,” in The Educational Forum, vol. 57 (Spring 1993), available online at

[v] Christopher Stray, “From oral to written examinations: Cambridge, Oxford and Dublin 1700-1914,” History of Universities, October 2005, 20/2: 76-130, available online at

[vi] Ibid. 110.

[vii] Ibid. 80.

[viii] Ibid. 86-87.

[ix] Ibid. 90.

[x] Ibid. 90-91.

[xi] Horace Mann, “First Annual Report of the Secretary of the Board,” in Massachusetts Board of Education, Annual Report of the Board of Education (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 34.

[xii] This point is made quite eloquently by the General Education Board, which complains of the abundance of privately operated schools throughout the southern U.S., but gleefully notes that those numbers have quickly dwindled since the centralization of the states’ public systems. Cf. G.E.B., 74-75.

[xiii] Consider, for a pedestrian example, our historically unprecedented fascination with “Top Ten” lists, whereby we seek to establish relative rankings and quantifiable assessments of virtually everything in the human realm, from literature and music to physical beauty and romantic appeal. “You are the most beautiful woman in the world” is no longer an expression of love and devotion; it is an analyzable judgment subject to counterexample and re-evaluation based on empirical evidence or a poll of experts.

[xiv] Cf. David Perrin, “What Would Mark Twain Have Thought of Common Core Testing?” in The Atlantic (July 9, 2014),; and Michael Winerip, “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously,” The New York Times (April 22, 2012),

[xv] Cf. Marita Moll, “A Brief History of Grading,” in Teacher Newsmagazine (Vol. 11, No. 3, Nov.-Dec. 1998), a publication of the BC Teachers’ Federation, Moll notes:

In North America, as the population shift to large urban centers spelled the demise of the one-room schoolhouse in the early 1900s, one of the “efficiencies” created by the new administrative bureaucracies was the neatly printed, uniform report card. In 1911, researchers testing the reliability of the marks entered on the cards showed that the same material could be assigned widely different marks, depending on the markers. But those findings changed nothing because the graded report card had taken firm root.

[xvi] Cf. G.E.B. p. 105, where the problem with private education is identified as the lack of a “general purpose,” and the solution of this problem is expressed as the need for a “strong and symmetrical [i.e., nationalized] university as the crown of a public school system.” The lack of general purpose vs. the strong and symmetrical system: the shifting balance from the former condition to the latter may be traced historically in the gradual deterioration of literacy, general knowledge, practical skills acquisition, and sound character in late modern civilization.

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