And How to Stop Them

By Travis Copeland

Fixating on academic standards can reduce our effectiveness as educators. Here are two ways to keep that out of your classroom.

In college, I tutored several public school students who spoke English as a second language. Every week we read a half-page on some subject—social studies, literature, civics—and then answered questions on it. They were seeking to teach about the information while simultaneously providing bland platitudes on topics of morality. This same work was repeated for grades given by the teacher, based on the ability of the student to replicate the essay in blanks. The purpose was clear: to be educated was to be able to reproduce facts in sentence or paragraph form.

It was a safe way of educating; the grading was objective and quick, and the reason for the assignment was obvious. I need something to grade, the teacher might think, or, This will help prepare them for the test. It guarded the teacher from objections about the final grade, from student and parent alike. But this safe means of grading produced “men without chests,” to repeat C. S. Lewis’s phrase from The Abolition of Man: people with some command of information, and even some power to reason correctly, but with little or none of the emotional apparatus required to connect that reasoning with practical morals and self-mastery. 

While it was set down by the Department of Education, school administrators, and licensed teachers, it was not education: subjectivity makes the man, to paraphrase Chesterton. The absence of the creative pursuit of thinking with the end of wisdom in mind left a shell of practices that were deemed education. This has been driven in large part by the College Board. Nothing has changed education in the United States like the College Board’s ostensibly objective approach to testing; and nothing has so infiltrated or marred classical education as over-dependence on safe, reiterative, “objective” grading. To put it another way, the clearest mark of a classical school is not whether it reads old books, but whether it assesses and disciples students as “thinkers” or mere “repeaters” when it comes to grading and testing. 

A further problem affects the world of classical educators and their students. Graduating seniors generally want to go on to college, and this requires a communal language between institutions (namely, grades) that represents a student’s current intellectual acumen and readiness to advance. Grades are entrenched in modern education. Yet consider the great minds on which classical education is founded. Cicero received no grades; Livy would have laughed at a letter presenting the ideal scholar; what was Virgil’s GPA? Classical education is in a fix between the expectations of the community at large and the true telos of its tradition. In the present age, therefore, it is forced to compromise its inherent form with external expectations.

How can our actual testing and grading do justice to both these needs? I propose two main guidelines.

I agree as to the doubtful value of competitive examination. The qualities which you really want, viz., self-control, self-reliance, habits of accurate thought, integrity and what you generally call trustworthiness, are not decided by competitive examination, which test little else than the memory.

First, grade what you are already doing; do not invent busywork in order to have something to grade. The public school students mentioned above were being driven by the need for grades: having letters in a gradebook indicated, externally, that “learning” was going on in the classroom. This mentality has certainly affected classical schooling, too. I am not insisting grades must disappear; it is understandable to want a shared language. But we need to keep in mind the covert influence grades can have on our educational lives. Regularly re-evaluating the importance and use of grades is essential to maintaining the classical outlook. You can write Latin and read old books, yet still be educated in an extremely modern manner. The curriculum does not determine the kind of education our students receive, only the content about which they are educated.

Here are a few questions to help determine whether grades are unduly driving your classroom.

  1. If grades evaporated tomorrow, would you still be requiring this assignment or writing this test question? (Remember: grade what you are already doing.)
  2. If grades disappeared, how would your classroom change?
  3. Do you assign material that may require you to defend the grades you assign? If not, why not? Dates are hardly debatable, but a question about which sin is the deadliest is.

This brings us to the second guideline. We will make students “without chests” if we only grade objective material; grades that include some reasonable portion of subjectivity are usually far more formative and humane. By subjective here, I do not mean the merely personal or sentimental. Rather, I want to suggest that which is, and is presented as, open to discussion and argument. This provides students space to reflect on ideas, assess their implications, and defend them critically.

With that in mind, here is a sample ‘shell’ in three sections, designed for any assignment that needs grading but also retains a classical telos. This is how I typically structure my assignments—everything has a grammatical, logical, and rhetorical dimension. 

Section I: Grammar

This mainly covers data: formulas, dates, definitions. Common terms and rules give a community (the classroom) the ability to discuss things, while the data give us “grist for the mill,” things to discuss. They are not the end goal of the class, but they are still essential, and they are the part of education most amenable to modern-style assessment. 

Section II: Logic

This covers sequences, logical steps, and underlying structures—e.g., a timeline for a history class. This gives story to the common language that grammar provides, a shared narrative that takes the student beyond grammar (facts as such) and into dialectic (the arrangements of and relationships among facts). While more objective in nature, a student’s ability to reason through something can still be tested.

Section III: Rhetoric

This is the predominantly “subjective” portion of testing. It builds on the data of grammar and the structural support of dialectic; however, it is primarily concerned not with knowledge alone, but with wisdom. Rhetoric demands that the student go beyond filling the memory with facts and the intelligence with logical structures, and fully engage the will in the pursuit of the good. (This is why rhetoric has to do with persuasion: truth and beauty can in some degree remain abstract, but virtue is inherently practical, and we have to persuade not only others but ourselves to follow it.)

For example, my rhetoric-stage students have read the Mayflower Compact. In this assignment, employing the skills of all three stages, they need to draw on the facts they know about it (grammar) and its historic and philosophical structure and context (logic). But they were not asked simply to recount its importance or dissect a passage from it. Their rhetoric assignment reads:

Write a Charter modeled on the Mayflower Compact. Include a basis for sound government, construction of an honorable society, and defer to the government you have separated from with respect. You may name your new colony with a serious, realistic name. Keep in mind, you are exemplifying the ideal society and upholding the good.


Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like some of our other material here at the Journal, such as these profiles of mystical theologian Dame Julian of Norwich and human rights theorist Bartolomé de las Casas. You might also like our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.

Published on 14th September, 2022.

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