What was the most significant thought or skill that you learned in this study?
What was the least significant thought or skill that you learned in this study?
What did I do in presenting this that furthered your learning?
What did I do in presenting this that obstructed your learning?
What line or passage moved you the most in this reading?
What from this study do you want to remember?
What advice would you give next year’s students in studying this?
How can I teach this better next year?
This past week, as my students and I reached the end of several long-term studies, I asked them each of these questions—some in written form, some in dialogue. These questions (or others like them) are ones I have made a habit of asking, especially at transition points throughout the year. And each time I ask them, I wonder whether I ought to.
They are dangerous questions, and perhaps unclassical ones, for they seem to cede to students the authority we usually safeguard in teachers and texts. They bestow the burden of assessment and the power of judgment. They invite critique of authority. They open the option of dismissal. In response to them, students can vent their dislike of a teacher and claim that a great work had no significance, all without compunction.
And this seems to undermine the ethos of classical education, which cultivates submission to teachers and texts—a lost tool of learning as central as the trivium, if more implicit. In the face of modern culture’s dismissal of authority, tradition, and received wisdom, classical education teaches respect for what Chesterton dubbed “the democracy of the dead.” While not by any means proclaiming that these sources are infallible, we teach students that the endurance of the old books and the learning of the teacher merit respect and a long, long listen (perhaps a lifetime of listening) prior to judgment.
Even more insidiously, these questions seem to undermine classical education’s telos of nurturing students’ kinship to the Good. In classical education terms, the Good is that end for which persons are made but to which they are blinded and towards which they must be forcefully dragged—as analogously, in Christian terms, God is that end for which persons are made but from Whom they are severed, and to Whom they must be brought through violent grace. In light of this, we are wary of asking students to assess the content or progress of their learning, because they cannot yet recognize or desire its ultimate goal, and will base their assessment on the distorted desires that a classical education seeks to reorient.
So why do I ask these dangerous, mutinous questions?
My students and I have just finished reading Paradise Lost. In this great epic, one of the pillars of Milton’s theodicy is that God gave Adam and Eve the choice of obeying or disobeying in order that they might love Him—for, “Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith or love, / Where only what they needs must do, appeared, / Not what they would?” (III.103-106). As in Eden, where obedience to God was Adam and Eve’s great vocation, the classical student is called to proper submission towards teachers and texts; but just as Adam and Eve were created to obey in love, the student is called to learn in love.
Love also is the ethos and telos of classical education, and teachers who seek only regurgitation and assent strive after what God Himself abhorred. But the danger of the classroom is the danger of the garden: to be able to learn in love, we must give the chance of choice.
I can tell my students what they ought to find significant and what ought to move them, and I often do this, for telling is the first part of training affections. But telling is an action of the teacher, and ultimately, I want my students themselves to seek and to recognize and to love things that are significant and things that move them, and to do this long after they hear my voice in our classroom. So I ask them what they found significant and moving, or insignificant and unmoving, to plant these words and these questions in their minds—to practice the posture, as it were. I can decide how students will best learn the ideas I have to teach them, and I will probably decide well, because I am further along in learning how to learn than they are. But I want my students to learn how to learn, to ask themselves what they did well and what they should improve, what they want to remember and what they want to change. So again, I ask the dangerous questions, putting them in the posture I hope will become habit.
Paradoxically, besides putting students in a posture I hope they assume, I also put myself in another posture they must learn: the posture of humility. We as teachers want students to learn humble, grateful listening to criticism and correction (especially when we turn back their tests and essays)—but the world provides few models of this, and none so personal as their own teacher practicing it before them.
Whenever I ask these questions, I still question their wisdom. But then I think, in their design and in their danger, they are something like prayer. God, Who is our authority, and Who knows what is far better for us than our dearest desires, invites our questions and confusions, our wrongheaded requests. Could not this audacity breed insolence and self-righteousness? It could, and often does. But is it not also the very thing, often the only thing, that brings rest to the questions and redirects the requests? That causes Job to lay his hand over his mouth, brings the Psalmist into the sanctuary, resolves Christ to His Father’s will? That must be at the heart of the Christian’s life?
Then so too must the asking of dangerous questions be at the heart of learning to learn.