THE STANDARDS TRAP – iii. Soft Despotism from A to D


One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.[i]

Albert Einstein


Making grades and the tests that produce them the primary, self-perpetuating function of formal education is a radically transformative societal development in at least two ways. First of all, it effectively turns education into a labyrinthine game with its own peculiar rules that detach learning both from the proper educational goal of natural self-development, and from ordinary life outside of the school, thereby leaving the victim hopelessly unprepared for that life outside—and all too prepared, therefore, to submit to any authority that promises protection and assistance. Secondly, it prods a society toward an ever-greater uniformity of schooling methods, and eventually toward a single, unified system, which ultimately means a single, homogenized soul.

Regarding the first point, consider again the real world meaninglessness of grades. One thing everyone knows about grades, even without serious reflection, is that they measure testing skills, not understanding. (Think of the successful “cram” studier who is able to absorb substantial amounts of material in order to write the test, only to forget all of it after the examination period.) Thus, the Honor Roll will invariably be peopled with a more or less random mix of mediocre learners and genuinely bright students who all just happen to be good test-takers. The system rewards people who are good at the system, without regard for natural intelligence, seriousness of thought, or long-term potential for spiritual growth. And of course this problem is exacerbated over time, as intelligent and original minds are alienated by a school system increasingly focused on content, methods, and results unrelated to anything of great interest to a thoughtful young person. This is not a problem that can be corrected within the system of standardized schooling, any more than a factory assembly line can be recalibrated to begin producing ingenious new inventions at regular intervals. Design in, product out, without exception. And of course the chief creators and overseers of the system would have no desire to correct it, for accommodating oneself to the requirements of the vetting process dulls thought and trains the mind to a conformism of aspirations, which are the implicit aims of the process.

Furthermore, the cumulative element of grading punishes people for learning things at different rates, as though you are a less capable and less worthy person if you do not evolve in your thinking according to the manner, order, and pace prescribed by the universal standard, which thus becomes a substitute not only for a proper teacher-student relationship, but for Truth and Nature themselves. In the aggregate, learning at a different rate, or focusing on different interests or pursuits from those prescribed by the system, gets you branded as mentally inferior, and treated as a weaker student throughout the remainder of the process. (Or the reverse, if you succeed early, regardless of actual subsequent development.) Needless to say, this effectively codifies a societal rank-ordering based on nothing to do with real intellectual potential or genuine learning. In advanced education systems—meaning those in which the government schooling establishment is woven into the social fabric as it is throughout the nations of the developed world today—this rank follows you, and you know it, so that you either become even more immersed in the artificiality of the system in a demeaning attempt to save your official public record, reputation, and pride, or you learn to accept yourself as “not very smart”—i.e., you give up on your own mind, which means on your own spiritual life—and become resigned to life as a cog in the societal wheel.

(I cannot count the number of interesting and talented children and young adults I have discovered in Korea, products of the nation’s internationally admired education establishment, who are hardened into immobility under the volcanic ash of standardized testing and public ranking. Before long, like the victims of Pompeii, all that will be left of their individual existence will be their hollowed-out shapes in the rock, shapes contorted into permanent records of desperation. This is especially true of the most serious and mature among them, who know that Korea’s unsurpassed standardization “success” has left them lacking something at their cores. These young adults are some of the most lovable and pitiable people I know. The great secret of life has been systematically sealed off from them forever, but they have the innate intelligence to intuit this fact. They must therefore stare at that magic box for their whole lives, wishing they had been permitted a glimpse inside back when their mental processes and habits were being formed.)

In a universal compulsory schooling system, this permanently shrunken pride is the inevitable result for the majority of the population, and hence must be regarded as an ultimate goal of public education. The school-promulgated mass resignation to mediocrity—the self-belittlement that America, in her consubstantial optimism, has cheerfully represented to herself as the dream of the “white picket fence”—becomes fatal to representative government in the long run. For a nation whose majority reaches voting age persuaded that it has already attained its intellectual peak—or rather, run up against its limit—is a nation prepared to leave the deep thinking, including the political thinking, to the “experts.” Thus universal academic standardization, which some conservatives imagine will magically restore a failing society, actually undermines the only solid ground of representative government, namely popular adherence to the founding “self-evident truth” of a free republic, as enunciated in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal.” Natural equality, perhaps the modern political concept most susceptible to misrepresentation and misuse under the best of circumstances, is directly contradicted, in spirit and in purpose, by an allegedly scientific system of child-rearing which imposes a public rank on all children, thereby establishing an official, state-sanctioned social hierarchy based (supposedly) on intellectual capacity. The danger of such an entrenched public hierarchy, though almost self-explanatory, may be highlighted by considering the political meaning of natural equality, as indicated in Locke’s statement that in the state of nature,

there [is] nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection; unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.[ii]

One truth that, if not self-evident, is certainly easily deduced, is that when the government declares itself the official interpreter of the will of the lord and master of us all, claiming the authority to enforce a “manifest declaration” against natural equality by publicly ranking fellow citizens from earliest childhood, the foundations of practical freedom—the natural rights to self-ownership (non-subordination) and self-government (non-subjection)—are bound to crumble.

In short, a popular majority that is reared to see itself as objectively limited relative to others—that no longer finds practical merit in the idea of natural equality—will be less resistant to a government that sees itself as unlimited. Academic standardization therefore runs directly counter to the essence of modern liberty, namely limited, representative government. As with our example of communism, applying the progressive principle of abstract universalization to a naturally beneficial idea leads to the very opposite of the good results we get from applying that idea on the individual level. The universalization of “standards” leads, not to an educated public better prepared for self-determination, but to a majority consigned and resigned to second class humanity, and therefore condemned to a fate worse than being fundamentally unprepared to govern itself: a deep-seated feeling of being unworthy of self-government.

In the end, does standardization achieve a different goal from the leftists’ socialization, creativity, and whatnot? It may result in more absorption of factual information and the kinds of things that can be learned by rote, or by direct mimicry, such as manual or technical skills—precisely the things that can and will be learned elsewhere, as needed, by youngsters with adults prepared to train them, and which therefore require no formal schooling at all, let alone compulsory schooling. Beyond that, standardization is an impediment to the intellectual and character growth that is the heart and soul of anything worthy of the name education. At best, it produces competent but soulless citizens, men and women able to perform assigned tasks, but unable to conceive of a reason to live. That is, a compulsory schooling system built on a foundation of generic standards—standardized curriculum, age-grades, uniform scoring according to non-individualized methods of evaluation—will be most effective at producing good worker units for an authoritarian elite. In the process, it removes children ever further from their natural role as self-developing humans, and teachers ever further from their defining role as mentors and guides.

As evidence of the progressive-utilitarian essence of standardized schooling, as well as of the profundity of progressivism’s hold on the modern mind, I ask you to try to imagine the whole complex of standardized grading, from international comparisons of student outcomes to any given child’s report card, outside the context of compulsory government-regulated education. I suggest that you will find you cannot. In fact, a fully developed academic standardization—as opposed to genuine standards, which are by definition individual and unquantifiable—is inconceivable apart from overarching coercive control. Therefore, to defend the use of uniform grading systems, or to advocate ways of improving a nation’s performance on standardized tests, is to accept, wittingly or unwittingly, the principle of state-controlled child-rearing, and specifically child-rearing undertaken as a social engineering project. To the compulsory school advocate, the phrase “universal standards” may seem redundant. In real educational terms, it is self-contradictory.

One of the most common concerns these days among people who would be called educational conservatives is the issue of so-called grade inflation. There was a time when people worried, reasonably, that students were not learning as much of real practical and spiritual value as had their counterparts in previous generations. More and more, however, the problem of grade inflation is framed in terms of a lack of uniformity in grade distributions—“This course (or program or university) is producing too many A grades”—as though the grades themselves, rather than course content, were the concern.[iii] The issue of grade inflation, understood in this way, only demonstrates how much of an elephant in the room the notion of grading has become.

To clarify, please indulge me in a little thought experiment. Let us imagine I teach a course, “World History,” at the end of which I have distributed the entire class within the grade range A-plus to A-minus. The next semester, I teach the same course, to the same number of students, but this time, having been called on the mat for my inordinately high grades last semester, I squeeze all the students into the range from D-plus to D-minus. Am I a “hard marker” or an “easy marker”? Are my grades too high in one case and too low in the other? Shouldn’t I have a wider range of grades in each class? Should employers judge the quality of my students, or should the students judge themselves for that matter, as inadequate or unsatisfactory compared to classes with more typical grade distributions? In fact, there is no way to answer these questions based on the information I have provided—and this is, in most cases, all the information on which the people complaining of grade inflation are basing their judgments. For what is missing from the information I have provided is in fact the only thing that matters: What did I teach the students, and how much did they learn?

Now let us imagine, further, that in the first class, the “A” group, my only graded assignment was to perform the refrain of your favorite song on the kazoo, whereas in the second class, the “D” group, I assigned three eighty-page research papers about the relationship between economic conditions and political stability in various historical eras. Now, surely, you can answer the questions about my grade standards with more certainty, right? In fact, you cannot, because you still do not know anything about the two factors that ultimately determine the educational results of my class: the content and quality of my teaching, and the intellectual and motivational levels of my students.

A distribution of scores or grades, as such, means absolutely nothing, and tells the outside observer less than nothing, about how much students have learned, or how well they were taught. A disproportionate number of high (or low) grades, compared to other classes, other departments, or other schools, is meaningless as a yardstick for measuring quality or value of education, unless we have simply allowed the numbers to take over, and have lost all grounding in the relevant questions: Did the students learn anything worthwhile during the class, and did the teacher prepare and motivate them to take further steps in developing themselves beyond the class itself? Those who become fixated on achieving consistency of grade distributions, recommend target class averages, enforce bell curve grading, and so on, are losing the essence of education in their obsession with mere optics.[iv] In Yale College’s original evaluation system, there were only four categories of rank. Today’s typical grading system employs at least eight categories, and often twelve. Do Yale’s four ranks divide evenly into today’s eight (or twelve) letter grades? Is Yale’s Pejores class of 1785 equivalent to today’s D range student? That the two categories are equivalent in the abstract is easy enough to see; we can map them neatly onto one another and say with certainty that “Today’s D range is yesteryear’s Pejores. But that this entails any kind of equivalence or overlap between the human beings in those respective categories is far from obvious. Is the learning outcome represented by the two ranks equivalent? Equivalent in what sense? For example, I would guess that the content of their respective classes—even where the class titles are identical—would often be different to the point of seeming almost unrelated. The class assignments, instructors’ expectations, and presumed background knowledge would be vastly different. Certainly the criteria for determining whether the students understand what they have been taught would be extremely dissimilar, as would the specific practical means of evaluating students for placement in the various ranks. None of this matters, however, if all we are looking for is abstract consistency of grades, rather than of learning. The same, in fact, applies to my two hypothetical World History classes, the “all As” class and the “all Ds” class. In those two classes, it is perfectly obvious that the A-plusses of one class map easily onto the D-plusses of the other, and so on. And what does this prove, other than that consistency of grade distributions per se is strictly relative and abstract, and has no direct relation to student achievement?

Consider another example, this one quite common to the experience of many teachers. I regularly teach two sections of a course, which is to say two different groups of students studying the same material at the same level. I use the same textbook, present the material in roughly the same way, and set almost identical assignments and exams in the two classes. For the convenience of my teaching schedule, I even choose to teach these two classes on the same days of the week, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. And yet it may happen—it has happened—that one of these classes has a disproportionate number of exceedingly diligent and/or talented students, such that judging the two groups on the same generic standard naturally produces a much greater number of high grades in one class. I know, because I happen to be the teacher in both classes, that the disparity in their respective grade distributions is entirely attributable to a disparity in the students. If these same results appeared in two classes taught by different teachers, however, alarm bell curves would immediately be sounding throughout the land: “We need to bring these grade distributions into line!” In other words, the impulse would be to take remedial action that would in reality—granting our global adherence to the charade of standardized grading—undervalue the performance of the high achievers, and overvalue the performance of the low achievers, ostensibly in the name of fairness.

Let us look at this from yet another angle. The first time I taught in a government-accredited master’s degree program in education—that is, an advanced degree program for professional teachers—I was startled to learn how lax the school was in certain respects. I was confused, for example, during the first week of class, when students, some of whom I knew well, expressed surprise upon realizing that I planned to meet every week during the semester. Several classes, I learned, met only sporadically, had few real academic requirements, and were taught by people who did not really take the courses or the program seriously. The graduates of this program would nevertheless receive master’s degrees, and in some cases teaching certification, and would therefore be eligible for salary increases and professional advancement within the public education establishment, in addition to having won the prestige and bragging rights that a graduate degree confers.

Yet I have no reason to believe the average grades awarded in this program were out of line with the typical graduate school grades in any other program at the university, or with equivalent programs at other schools. In other words, on paper this program looked perfectly normal. People who examine the issue of grade inflation by hunting down anomalous class averages or red-flagging unusual grade distributions would notice nothing curious or troublesome about it.

The upshot of all this, in short, is that grades, class averages, and grade distributions tell us nothing at all about learning. They tell us only how a particular teacher ranks his students relative to one another—and nothing more. And to reiterate, this fact should represent no problem in education whatsoever. How I choose to differentiate my students’ performances from one another has no bearing on, and implies nothing at all about, any other teacher’s method of differentiating his students—unless we have arbitrarily agreed to distribute our grades identically. But even in that case all we have done is manufacture the optical illusion of uniformity by aligning our students relative to one another using the same letter grades (or numerical scores), and hoping that no one notices that our respective A grades, B grades, and so on, have no objective value to establish them as representing identical education. It is entirely possible, for example, that two students who receive A grades in their respective courses on World War I, taught by two teachers with different interpretations and biases regarding the events of the period, will have acquired very different factual and theoretical content, and possess completely inconsistent ideas about the causes and progression of the war, in spite of their “identical” grades. (The same basic scenario, incidentally, could easily be adapted to compare courses in the sciences, with similar results.)

People who consider inconsistent grade distributions an educational problem have fallen for the big lie that grades are, or should be, an objective means of determining intellectual achievement or ability. They implicitly assume that “A” and “B” represent cognitive measures as quantitatively accurate and true as the numbers on a blood pressure gauge, such that awarding an A for “B-level work” is equivalent to telling a man with low blood pressure that his pressure is in the healthy range.

And this is where disaster strikes. For, falsely perceiving an inconsistency in quantitative evaluation methods as a social problem, our economists of the mind set out to eradicate the appearance of irregularity, particularly in the vetting process leading up to post-secondary study, by universalizing educational standards, i.e., establishing, as far as possible, a uniformity of teaching content and method that, when tested for “outcomes,” should produce an inescapable identity of grades. That is, these experts become obsessed with eradicating the essential meaninglessness of grades—which is embarrassing to them, although, as I have explained, it is in truth the only saving grace of grades—by assessing all students according to universally standardized tests. This impulse to take the idiosyncrasy, personal style, local interests, and unquantifiability out of education only makes sense if uniformity of quantifiable outcomes has become the primary goal, which is to say if real learning and spiritual development have been discarded in favor of genuine education’s nemesis, the lowest common denominator. And I emphasize the equally essential adjectives in that phrase: lowest and common.

Standardization undermines proper intellectual development and human excellence more subtly than socialization, creativity, and the rest of the squishier elements of progressive schooling, but it does so nonetheless. And in any case, one principle remains operative: With universal result standards come, inevitably, universal teaching method standards. This is the meaning of teaching certification. Teacher’s college and teaching certification exams intentionally establish a vetting process to guarantee, as far as humanly possible, that no one gains access to a classroom without having been trained in, and having acquiesced to, the models of teaching approved by the self-proclaimed experts—the self-important university professors, power-hungry bureaucrats, and self-serving corporate “philanthropists” with the most influence over education policy. Conservative proposals to tie teachers’ salaries, or schools’ funding, to their students’ results on standardized tests merely reinforce the uniformity and utilitarian collectivism of the system. For, once again, they presume that we understand exactly what any student of a certain age should “know,” and what a teacher of such a student should be trying to accomplish, such that any accomplishment not encompassed by the standardized test is educationally worthless, superfluous, and a distraction from the pursuit of the results we have deemed necessary. Again I ask: Who is this “we,” exactly?

Once specific goals are set for each age group, and specific means of reaching and measuring those goals enforced as the rule, we have effectively tethered children to the mental life conceived of by the experts—the factory managers, if you will. That is what is so wrong with the logic of even the most innocently intended notion of academic standardization. Standards, in the misguided sense of uniform goals, teaching methods, and means of measuring success, are advocated as a way of assuring specific levels of achievement. And in a paradoxical sense, they are exactly that: They are a way of establishing a hard ceiling of achievement, one which in the name of pulling everyone up actually holds everyone down.

For a simple example, if we select The Old Man and the Sea as the most challenging reading material for the cohort of sixteen-year-olds, and furthermore set assignments, tests, and grading standards related to that novel according to our conception of the proper reading comprehension level of a sixteen-year-old—keeping in mind that it must be a standard any “normal” sixteen-year-old can meet—then, whatever we think we are doing, what we are actually doing is predetermining the level of seriousness and understanding to which we intend to take the students. In the process, we are implicitly restricting anyone from exceeding our conception of the “proper” or “realistic” level of thought for a sixteen-year-old. We are effectively declaring that our catch-all standard of reading comprehension is far enough. At the very least we are determining that anyone who does exceed our prescribed level is applying himself superfluously, and the sense of superfluity is a great barrier to effort in anyone, let alone in a sixteen-year-old who has been discouraged in myriad ways from imagining that any of his school work has any real world value. The only hope is that the student feels a passion to think and learn from somewhere beyond the realm of these stultifying “standards.” The likelihood of this, however, is inversely proportional to the extent to which the public school world and curriculum dominate his time and energy.

Is this last concern much ado about nothing? Will the really exceptional minds find their way to fruition regardless of the lowest common denominator standards of the schools? Education theorists since at least Rousseau have operated on the principle that methods of general education are required for the good of the ordinary citizenry, but that somehow innate greatness, the exceptional case, will take care of itself. In other words, so the hypothesis goes, natural intelligence, whether it excels in the education system or not, will inevitably find a way to fulfill its potential in spite of its unsuitability to the generic methods. Of course, there is no way to prove this, in as much as we can never know whether every exceptional talent in our midst has in fact actualized itself; this would require some sort of testing mechanism to determine where such talent may lie, and follow-up observation and testing to determine whether the potential was fully actualized—that is, a standardized method of finding and evaluating the non-standard.

(I know there are people who actually believe they are developing such methods, with their IQ tests and whatnot. To put it slightly impolitely, this is exactly how ordinary minds should be expected to try to categorize and quantify the extraordinary. “Oh look! I just got the same score as Einstein—let’s go out for dinner with some other geniuses to celebrate.”)

For what it’s worth, I would like to agree with Rousseau in assuming that the truly great mind will develop regardless of the manner of its upbringing. But I cannot help suspecting that this is wishful thinking in the extreme. Perhaps it would seem less so in the educational world of Rousseau’s time, where it still made sense for a philosopher to write Emile, an “idealistic” speculation about how a personal governor would educate a normal child if he had daily and exclusive access to the child for many years, could remove any undesirable influences, and was given complete authority to teach the boy in whatever manner he saw fit. The improperly educated child of great potential could, at that time, reasonably be expected to wend his way from natural curiosity to specific enthusiasms to general wonder, largely powered by his own innate energies, as long as no one was actively hindering such a private evolution. In today’s world of government-mandated schooling, however, with its years of imprisonment in state indoctrination centers, teachers trained and vetted according to anti-individual government specifications, and the constant psychological hammering of “standards”—both those of politically correct purity and those of academic achievement—wishful thinking becomes pure fantasy.

At an absolute minimum, untold numbers of boys and girls of exceptional ability are being restrained and stalled in their early development, just like everyone else, wasting valuable and irrecoverable time and energy studying for the test, trying to make the grade.

In fact, our crime is much worse than this. Let us return for a moment to 1808, and Benjamin Newton’s letter revealing the rival conceptions of fairness adhered to at Oxford and Cambridge. You will recall that fairness at Oxford consisted in assessing examination candidates according to their own talents and interests, even according to books on which they themselves had chosen to be examined, and without direct reference to anyone else’s skills or achievements. Meanwhile, at Cambridge fairness meant assessing everyone on the same prescribed material, according to a direct comparison of their scores on standardized examinations.

The latter concept of fairness, the Cambridge Principle, in addition to being consistent with education viewed as a scientific experiment, is also the notion typically associated with the plea for “equal opportunity,” in that it supposedly gives every student what we today call a fair chance or level playing field. Equal opportunity, however, is merely our euphemism for equalized achievement and uniform horizons. For consider what the Cambridge Principle means in practice: At the end of their university careers, everyone should have learned the same things as all others within their area of specialization, i.e., should have had the same intellectual influences and developed the same mental content, attitudes, and predilections, and then been permanently ranked against all other students according to this homogenizing standard. This “equality” of input in no way ensures equality of opportunity, or of anything else, from the student’s point of view. What it ensures is that every student will have a distinct and permanent position in a closed, relative ranking system as arbitrary as it is intellectually limiting.

Now apply this principle to the first eighteen years of life—as we do in fact apply it today—so that it includes not just advanced academic content (the world of theory and higher learning), but also the basic building block experiences in mental and emotional development. The Cambridge Principle applied to child-rearing from preschool to high school ensures that at age eighteen every person in a society will have had, in essence, the same intellectual experiences, encountered the same ideas, and had those ideas and experiences presented and interpreted to him in more or less the same way, in the same sequence, and at the same rate of progress as everyone else. Furthermore, everyone will have had his character development and understanding of himself guided and determined by his absorption of, and response to, the same emotional input and social experiences as everyone else. There will be no “choosing your own books,” so to speak; you will be a success or a failure according to the only standard, and regarding the only content, available. This only looks like fairness if you assume that there can be only one legitimate (and quantifiable) standard for evaluating growth, thought, and understanding for every human being, one intellectual context suitable for every person’s proper development—and that the current educational establishment knows what that standard is, and how to measure children correctly in accordance with it. But a standard entails a projection of ultimate purposes—in short, a theory of human nature and its proper completion. The great theorists of public education, Plato and Aristotle, offer detailed accounts of their (unquantifiable) educational standards—the wise man and the virtuous man, respectively. What kind of answer do you think you would get if you asked a modern school principal, administrator, education ministry bureaucrat, or professor of pedagogy what conception of human nature he is aiming to realize through his education model, and how the model is suited to realizing that conception? His answer is what you have tacitly agreed to universalize, coercively, as the method of child-rearing for your entire society.

Consider an analogy. Imagine that the state has determined that basketball is the only sport that is suited to the human body, or socially acceptable, and therefore that in the name of “fairness,” every child should have his physical activities standardized with success in basketball as the prescribed and exclusive goal. Every boy and girl will henceforth be taught how to shoot and dribble a basketball, and tested at predetermined intervals for vertical jumping, but no athletic or physical skills unrelated to basketball will be taught or rewarded. Children will be vetted only in accordance with the various positions required on a basketball team, and gradually streamed into the categories of “starters,” “bench players,” and those who fail to make the cut. Tall children and those who can jump high will be regarded as athletically inclined, and all others as unathletic.

In this condition, we could never know which children might have alternative physical talents, and the children themselves would never know, because no other skills would be cultivated—these would be discouraged by the practical fact that every child’s time and energy would be preoccupied with developing his basketball talent as far as possible. The sports world would be circumscribed as the basketball world—indeed, the words “sport” and “basketball” would be coextensive, until one of them disappeared from common usage altogether. All athletes would by definition be basketball players, good, bad, or indifferent. In this world, Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, Emil Zatopek and Sebastian Coe, Sonja Henie and Dick Button, Billie Jean King and Bjorn Borg would be dismissed as third-rate athletes, and either give up on sports, or spend their adult lives playing pick-up basketball games and wistfully reflecting on themselves as athletically untalented—as sporting failures. After all, weren’t they given the same opportunities as everyone else, and judged on the same standard as others? Wasn’t the system fair?

A world that systematically raises its children along such lines can never know what potential achievement it has thwarted or stifled through the arbitrary limitation of real opportunity, the artificial circumscription of life’s horizons, and the psychological ceiling of standardized, quantifiable expectations that weaken natural motivation and productive effort by declaring, “This is far enough.” That this world is stifling potential achievement is beyond question.

And so we return to where we began, with the so-called liberals and conservatives arguing over which form of collectivist degradation ought to be imposed on the general public, while alternative voices, who would dismantle the entire apparatus of this soft slavery a civilization has created to grease the wheels of its soft despotism, are dismissed by both sides as extremists or crackpots. We are extremists for wishing to return to education as it was pursued throughout most of the history of civilization before the progressives took over: the rough, slightly disorderly patchwork of alternative pursuits, with specific goals and methods set by various alliances of families, churches, private teachers, employers, and philosophers, and with the needs and well-being of individual children, rather than a utilitarian social ranking system, as its impetus. We are crackpots for hoping to return to the non-standardized, competing, malleable education “establishments” comprised, at heart, of man’s natural desire for knowledge and our natural impulse to show one another the way—the non-system, if you will, that produced Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, the Industrial Revolution, and modern liberty as embodied most fully in the American founding.

The liberal versus conservative quarrel actually unites the two factions in a happy tension. The liberals say we need more creative group work, gender experimentation, moral relativism, and interdependency training, along with lower academic standards; the conservatives say we need more “marketable skills” and “tougher standards,” leaving the field of positive spiritual development—education proper—to the progressive manipulators, the popular culture, and chance. Both factions are convinced that we need to universalize their respective goals; that parents are merely to be appealed to as voters, rather than as people who ultimately ought to have primary control over their children’s upbringing; and that state micromanagement of one sort or another is the only sure way to achieve “society’s,” i.e., the government’s, aims.

Neither faction has much time for the individual souls being extinguished in this process.


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[i] Albert Einstein, quoted in Leonard Mlodinow, Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 179.

[ii] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: C. and J. Rivington [etc.], 1824, originally published 1690), Bk. II §4, 132.

[iii] See, for example, Cory Koedel, “Grade inflation for education majors and low standards for teachers” (American Enterprise Institute, August 22, 2011),, and also Sita Slavov, “How to Fix College Grade Inflation” (U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 2013),

[iv] Even leading libertarians, who oppose public education, are susceptible to this “grades-as-fairness” delusion. For example:

The [progressive] plan is to abolish grades, by which better and worse children know the extent of their progress, and instead to grade “subjectively” or not at all. Subjective grading is a monstrous scheme to grade each student on the basis of what the teacher thinks the capacities of the child are, the grading to be rated on the extent to which the child fulfills these capacities. This places a terrible handicap on the bright students and grants special privileges to the moronic ones.… [Murray Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1999), 54.]

According to this account, the alternative to “subjective grading” would have the teacher scoring each student’s non-subjective “progress” on a scale set independently of the capacities of individual students, as is the norm today. Questions: Progress toward what? Determined by whom? Does this not make grades purely relative rankings? If so, and if their purpose is to allow children to “know the extent of their progress,” then how informative are they if the teacher alone determines the standard of rating for his small group of students? If the standard is to be made informative and meaningful, will it not have to be determined more broadly than the classroom level? If so, who will determine it? How broad will be broad enough to make the relative ranking system truly informative? How will uniformity in the application of this standard be enforced across teachers or schools? By whom?

At a more obvious level: If a child wants to know the extent of his “progress,” can’t he ask his teacher personally? If a parent, university administrator, or employer wants to know whether a particular student has a high intellectual capacity or is a “moron,” can’t he ask that student’s teacher directly? Has our obsession with the pseudoscience of “objective” grading killed our common sense? The dream of objective intellectual quantification through standardized grading is not the cure for our falling educational standards; it is one of the causes of those falling standards.

To be fair, I know what motivates Rothbard’s argument: He means “subjective grading” is unfair in a world that has come to rely on school grades as the chief determinant and measure of a graduating student’s socio-economic worth. Seen in that light, I couldn’t agree more. What he fails to ask, however, is, “How and why have we arrived at such a world?” and “Is such a world rational and just?”

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