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Academic Performance: Not What It’s All About

The hardest thing about being a classical teacher is that, since you are always oriented toward wisdom and virtue, you cannot be overly interested in mere “academic performance” even though that is what children are supposed to excel in.

Let me rephrase the problem: the hardest thing about being a classical teacher is that everything you do is so interesting, nourishing, and effective, but everybody wants you to do things that are uninteresting, often unhealthy, and ineffective.

The classical educator wants to comtemplate the truth of things, to think about things according to their nature. But those two phrases (truth of things, according to their nature) don’t come up a lot in our culture and are pretty much absent from teacher’s colleges.

Say, you are teaching literature. Being a classical educator, you believe that great literature is important and magical. You have watched it arouse students interest, nourish their souls, and help them think more effectively. You saw this because you used classical modes of teaching. You engaged your students with questions and activities like, “Was it a good idea for Frodo to let Gollum travel with him and Sam?” or, “Would you follow Antony or Brutus?” or, “Should St. Ambrose have prohibited Emperor Theodosius from celebrating the Eucharist?” and you found that, because you had prepared them for the discussion, they fell into it, formed opinions, challenged each other respectfully, and became better at making decisions in community.

Then the discussion took an unexpected turn when one of your students noticed something magical the author did and wondered why. “Why did Frost use this rhyme scheme for the first three verses and break it on the fourth?” Theodore the Thlug asks, shocking you into the realization that everybody really does have ears and a feel for verse. “Oh, that’s good,” you say, celebrating the first words he has volunteered in your class in six years.

“Do you think it was a good idea?” you ask, and he feels unable to offer an opinion. So you draw the insights out by guiding your students back into the poem, back into the world of the poem so that they see the world they live in through the poem. And they look and become what they behold. Because that’s what learning does.

You taught literature and history in a manner consistent with their natures and in light of the truth of things. But what parents want to know is, “How will this affect their SAT score? How will this help them get into college?”

In other words, “We’re charmed by the idea of classical education too, but we have to live in the real world. How will this help my children succeed there?”

The question is brilliant and correct and exactly what they ought to be asking. The assumptions behind it might not be, however. Therefore the greatest favor you can do for these parents is to help them better understand what you offer their children.

Now, it is true that the way the students are assessed distracts you from, and misleads everybody about, what is important. But that doesn’t mean you have to lose your way. After all, the song of the Sirens and the song of the Muses isn’t all that different.

Maybe this is the only difference: the sirens sing, “Come this way,” while the muses, being the daughters of Mnemosyne, sing, “Do not forget who you are, do not forget where you are going, do not forget the way.”

You can help your students and parents understand that the reason they put their children in a classical school is because conformist schools submit to those assessments because they have forgotten.

People who remember, don’t fail in the presence of those who have forgotten. If they contend with the cyclopes, they overcome him with craft. If they contend with the Sirens, they pass by with corporate discipline. If they contend with drugs that make you forget, they press-on with strong leadership.

People who are drawn away from classical education through fear or seduction (all of us) need to be reminded.

Cultivate wisdom and virtue, through geometry, history, literature, science, and every other God-given means. Teach the truth of things according to the nature of things. Let truth guide you. We have no more time to conform. We need wise and virtuous men and women more than we need academically successful ones.

2 thoughts on “Academic Performance: Not What It’s All About”

  1. ..Thanks. Is there an unnecessary and false dichotomy here? Is academic success not redefined in/by [sound] classical learning?

    1. Thank you for asking. The article is an attempt to address your question indirectly. The title was only a summary. I suppose what I’m trying to suggest is that by redefining academic performance after the Christian classical commitments we restore its value. But if we define it by the standards of the fragmented modern educational enterprise, then I would argue that the dichotomy is both necessary and true. How are you defining it in your question?

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