There are few questions apt to get under the classical teacher’s skin quite like, “Will this be on the test?” It’s not a brazenly disrespectful question, but a subtle way of saying, “I don’t innately care about what you’re saying. Are you going to force me to care about this? If you are, fine. If not, I’m not going to waste my time.” The response to this question? Well, a classical education isn’t about things you have to do, though. It’s about things you get to do. It’s an aristocratic education, not a servile education. The uselessness of a classical education is its beauty. You see, beauty doesn’t really have a function…. and all that.
Because I don’t give multiple choice tests anymore, my students quit asking if certain material would “be on the test” years ago. There’s some sense in which everything is going to be on the test, another sense in which none of it will be. Still, in the last three years, I’ve begun rethinking my objections to, “Will this be on the test?” I think I was wrong to take umbrage over it. I don’t think it’s a subtle way of saying, “I don’t really care about this class.”
My reconsideration of the question is born of growing realizations about how high school students think. While I cut my teeth on “The Lost Tools of Learning,” the longer I taught, the more I found that Sayers’s description of the rhetoric stage didn’t often match what I saw in the classroom. She was entirely right about little children. They do like to repeat stuff. She was entirely right about middle schoolers. They do like to argue. But her claim that later high school students want to synthesize what they’ve learned in new ways and express themselves creatively rarely squared up with my own experiences. Maybe one in twenty high school students is like that.
Over the last several years, I’ve been in the habit of giving my students a range of assessment options. If I ask for a thousand words, I’m willing to take a story, a dialogue, or a conventional three-point essay. A great many of them choose the essay. I have also noted just how common it is for students to write essays which recall many true things from class, but which do not really respond to the prompt. They’re not slackers. They’re paying attention. It’s just that they’re still learning how to sort out what matters and what doesn’t. They’re still learning to make mental hierarchies.
I don’t think this is a generational thing, or that smart phones have brought this upon us. It’s how I reasoned when I was young, as well.
“Is this going to be on the test?” may reflect a slothful spirit, but I believe—more often than not—it is simply evidence that our ideas about “the rhetoric stage” need a little tinkering. At sixteen or seventeen, students still have the sponge-like quality of younger children. When I reflect on my own youth, this becomes quite obvious. I spoke in a language that was half-English and half-pop-culture. I incorporated lines from songs and movies into nearly everything I said. I omnivorously devoured everything new in front of me. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I actually began sorting it all out, editing it, compiling it, and synthesizing it all into something that was personal and unique. As a teenager, I couldn’t connect it all. If someone asked me to connect it all, I’d have to make up something on the spot.
I think Dorothy Sayers was quite brilliant. Her commentary on Dante’s Comedy is some of the best literary criticism of the 20th century. At the same time, in “The Lost Tools of Learning,” she forthrightly admits that her theory of child-developmental stages is neither conventional nor extensively well-researched but based largely on self-reflection. I think Sayers must have been an exceptional child, the one-in-twenty who was ready to start connecting the dots and expressing herself at a young age. And good teachers have to offer something to such students.
At the same time, I found the quality of student work (sophomores) rise significantly as I moved from demanding everyone connect the dots to allowing students to write summaries, if they preferred—and many do. I still enjoy giving students the option of writing an ambitious story that brings together, interprets, and sets in fresh motion all the themes of Paradise Lost, but I don’t require it.
Similarly, I’d say there are two ways of teaching a play like Hamlet. In the first way, students have many deep conversations about “the self,” but, by Act 5, half of them believe Laertes is married to Ophelia and they never remember or understand who (and what) Polonius is. In the second way, the students know the characters and the plot quite well and may have one conversation about “the self” at the very end. As someone who thinks conversations about “the self” are quite important, I nonetheless believe the second way is best. For the young, well-read, ambitious sophomore literature teacher or freshman theology teacher, it is vital to remind yourself on a regular basis, “They are high school students, not college students.” When the verve and zeal of your own college classroom experiences are still fresh—and when these experiences are what made you want to become a teacher—this reminder will require real sacrifice.
But that goes with the territory.