What I Learn From Students During Exam Week

I teach in a college whose students are, on the whole, rather impressive. They are without a doubt well above average in their self-discipline, their desire to learn the truth, and their maturity. I count myself fortunate for this, because as a professor I always hope to find students who are teachable, students who will be able to become, in their turn, the standard-bearers of a culture and civilization which is in many ways in decline.

Hence I am always disappointed at the end of each semester when exam time comes. Why is it that students whom I know to be mature, serious, interested in learning, and intelligent often demonstrate by their showing on exams that they cannot remember what their classes were for?

screen-shot-2013-04-13-at-5-10-05-pmThis question becomes all the more mysterious when one considers that the classes these students take are no ordinary classes. We do not allow our students to listen passively to lectures. They must come to class having studied the material beforehand – most of it from the original texts of great authors, such as Aristotle, Dostoyevsky or Einstein – and they must discuss it intelligently in class, with the help of the tutor. We call ourselves tutors instead of professors so that it will be understood that we are not the primary teachers. For indeed we recognize one great cause of the almost universal dullness of spirit — acedia, as it was once called –- that afflicts our schools and universities. Just as children, as they grow, come to desire real food instead of baby food, so students do not thrive if they are fed the thoughts of a professor, who has predigested them after receiving them from another professor. Students do best, instead, when they can grapple with the seminal thoughts of the greatest thinkers – the thinkers by whom our culture was formed.

But in spite of efforts and precautions such as these, exam time demonstrates with disheartening frequency that somehow we fail. For it is at exam time that students often revert to the mode they learned in the public schools. They stop wanting to think, to consider the real world in all of its splendor and mystery. They forget that they have spent an entire semester doing just that. Instead they want to know “what will be on the exam.” They ask for reviews, but what they really want is a preview, and nothing too deep, thank you.

It is helps but little to remind tpreparing-for-ap-examshem that we do not want exams to take center stage in their education, that the exam is but a final and brief exercise to get some sense of our progress over the course of the whole semester. But what is most disheartening is the result of the exam. Try as they might, students frequently cannot bring themselves to believe, when push comes to shove, that we, their teachers, will look for anything on the exam but a regurgitation of something we told them. They don’t believe that we might actually look for signs of intellectual life and vigor in how they go about answering the questions posed.

This is a somewhat fanciful description of what happens. Allow me to describe it more closely. What we witness is, in a word, a failure of judgment. I want to spend a moment describing what I mean by judgment, and in what way it fails. This is a topic which parents who want to educate their children need to meditate well upon. I believe that it constitutes one of the principal points on which home schoolers regularly demonstrate superiority over the public schools. And it will frequently make the difference between a successful home education and an unsuccessful one.

Here is one way to describe the person of good judgment: he or she knows when he knows, and when not; he can distinguish between what he knows, and what he has merely heard someone say. This may indeed sound rather odd; doesn’t everybody understand the difference between knowing and not knowing? Yet however odd it may seem, my experience as a college professor is that many, if not most, students are not good at distinguishing what they know from what they don’t know.  And the explanation for this, at least in outline, is fairly simple: our students have been taught not to distinguish.

They have been taught not to distinguish between what they know and what they are told. For many, the habit of identifying education, and even virtue itself, with the acceptance and retention of what one is told is so deeply ingrained from years of bad school education that there is little hope of overcoming it. Wittingly or unwittingly, we educate new generations in what amounts to slavery. Not long ago, I had a student who grew up in the former Soviet Bloc. She was among the most intelligent of our students. She had evidently distinguished herself in school during her teenage years. But it did notexams take long to discover how she had managed to distinguish herself during her grade school years. She had no desire but to please her teachers. She had no other thought, no other wish, than to find out what I wanted her to say. Consequently, she was morally incapable of forming her own judgments –- at least as long as she was in an academic environment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance, I tried to make it clear to her that I wanted her to have her own thoughts and exercise her own judgment. But to her this just amounted to an impossible paradox: how could a teacher desire anything in a student but to repeat the teacher’s thoughts? It was months before she began to believe that my desire was sincere, that this was even possible. (When she finally did understand it, she was filled with gratitude.) I have never witnessed a more striking example of how tyranny can ruin a person’s prospects for education; and yet, in truth, this was merely an extreme example of what I witness every day in American students. Our educational system in America has been, to an alarming degree, an education in this same sort of slavery: not the relatively innocuous slavery of the body, but a more degrading slavery of the soul. And the common failure to recognize this is merely a testimony to the success of this deformed sort of “education.”

The habits of tyranny just described are so universal that it will take no small effort, even on the part of many adults and teachers, to see clearly any alternative. I would like to take a few moments to describe an alternative. I have said that the failure is a failure of judgment. But this hides a rather complex matter. There are two poles, so to speak, of an excellent mind, and correspondingly two poles of a good education. Let us call them judgment and imagination. On the face of it, it appears that these are very different virtues, and indeed they are. Everyone recognizes, more or less, the person who has a good imagination. Imagination makes us good at storytelling, at indulging in flights of fancy. It makes us able to think about what is not immediately real, but could become real. People with good imaginations tend to not worry excessively about whether their thoughts correspond to something immediately real. People of good judgment, by contrast, know when what they consider is possible, or how it is or is not possible. Sometimes the person of good judgment tends to weigh thoughts quickly against what is real or possible, and dismiss what is impossible, whereas the imaginative person delights in flights of fancy and passion. The person of good judgment is not misled by appearances, by pretenses, nor by insupportable dogmas and ideologies. The person of good judgment maintains a steadfast grip on reality which is not easily disrupted. This is indeed a virtue, as precious as it is rare.

But what I want to emphasize here is this: judgment and imagination are not opposed: indeed our failure to educate students in judgment has gone hand in hand with our failure to let them cultivate their imagination. In a philosophy of physics class I recently taught, we discussed the nature of images produced by lenses. We discussed whether the images were something one actually sees, or whether they were simply a (distorted) view of the original object. Out of about thirty students, there was figure2026_06_13one student who stood far beyond his peers in his ability to make good judgments about the questions we discussed. And at one point in the conversation, he himself pointed out the reason why he was a better judge: he argued that one cannot be a good judge unless one possesses a lively enough imagination to represent the relevant experiences to one’s own mind. And indeed, he was one of the few who possessed such a lively imagination. Imagination – by which, here, I mean an ability to recall, with a certain vividness, vivacity, and even sometimes with passion, how things feel, look, smell, taste, sound, act, or work, provides the matter for good judgment, that upon which judgment is exercised. Without it there can be no judgment.

The imaginative power to which I am referring cannot itself be well cultivated unless at least three conditions are fulfilled. The first is a certain freedom, both to experience things at our own pace and in an innocent way suited to our nature. This freedom is important because the liveliness of recollected experience is to a great extent a function of enjoyment. We remember the things which delight us and which arouse our wonder. We also remember the solutions to natural, spontaneously arising questions, much more effectively than to questions which are imposed artificially. Freedom and enjoyment, then, are two indispensable conditions for a lively imagination. A third is art. By art, I mean doing things, rather than just being told about them. Human beings are naturally imitative creatures, and there could be little if any education if learning were not built on our ability to imitate, to reenact, to try out the things which excite our wonder.

These conditions are the things which make learning natural, and make it a fulfillment of our natural inclinations. It is a perverse though common mentality which wishes to pursue education as if it were a matter of technique and discipline as opposed to something natural. The failure to think well about these matters is also due, in part, to a faulty understanding of what imagination is. There are those (but mostly only in the unenlightened halls of academia) who identify imagination – especially natural imagination – with frivolousness or even with falsehood. But falsehood is not what defines imagination. Properly speaking, imagination is an ability to relive one’s experiences on a sensible level. It is this ability which makes the play of children, which is almost always imitative and imaginative, essentially contemplative and educative. Adults who over-identify education with school frequently presume that education and play are essentially distinct. They suppose that the seriousness of the enterprise of education precludes such enjoyment as play typically entails. They associate education with the distancing from real experience that school frequently entails, and they fail to see that the imagination involved in play generally puts children into closer contact with reality than the activities of a typical day in public school.

In one of his treatises on ethics, Aristotle lays out his well-known description of virtue as a habit of choosing moderately; but he goes on to note that the moderation which constitutes virtue cannot always be achieved by a direct aim. Sometimes the excesses of old bad habits can only be overcome by a willingness to experience something of the opposite. Someone, for instance, who is excessively habituated to seeing evil in others must deliberately cultivate the experience of looking for and finding good in others. In Aristotle’s metaphorical formulation, we must “bend the stick the other way.” Thus if we would overcome the tyranny of conventional schooling, a tyranny which paralyzes students’ minds by preventing them from cultivating experience, imagination, and judgment, we must let students cultivate their own experience and imagination to a degree which might seem excessive in happier circumstances. This is the only way to effectively set out on the long road of reconnecting education with real experience and real life. We must rediscover the naturalness of pled_discussion_group-_students_forum1_optayful contemplation. And we must start to remember that education is not school, regardless of how much education we may think we can get or give in school. We must give back to our children the confidence to recognize that their minds are naturally in touch with reality. If circumstances force us to use methods habitually associated with corrupted education, such as an overemphasis on exams and grades, we must be extremely wary of demeaning the souls and minds of our students and children in the process; as we do when we pretend, or let others pretend, that minds can be sized up by a set of short exam questions for which the answers are memorized temporarily and without conviction, and by a subsequent set of grades which have a corresponding degree of significance.

Doing these things may offend some who cannot turn away from what they have been accustomed to; but we must do them nonetheless. We do not have to become radical libertarians and skeptics. We do not have to advocate the empty “your opinion is as valid as mine” mentality, or the equally empty view that everyone is responsible for “creating” his own moral universe. Indeed, in claiming that the cultivation of judgment is what education should aim at, we imply just the contrary. But there will be no cultivation of judgment in those whose minds are fettered to shallowness of experience because of the artificialities of declining public education.




About Andrew Seeley

With over 30 years of immersion in a Great Books based, fully integrated curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College in California, I enjoy sharing the fruits of the discussions I have with students, colleagues and friends about authors and ideas. As the Director of Advanced Formation for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and a founding member of the Justin Martyr Fellows, I work to share my good fortune with Catholic educators and students around the country. As a lover of God, Church, family, America, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, I like to write about them in particular ways.
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3 Responses to What I Learn From Students During Exam Week

  1. Alvin J Wolf Jr says:

    Paraphrasing, “the design of my word is to set you free.” It seems we have been given the ability to know right from wrong. It also seems it takes a multitude of metaphors to know why right is right and wrong is wrong. Making those ‘why’ judgements has to make sense, therefore the need of the multiplicity of metaphors. The connection between ‘making sense’ and the reception of reality through senses must be nourished by something beyond a reception of senses, something that is true, something that is so rock solid that it permits a courageous, if not bold, confident wandering in that cavern that St. Augustine so lavishly describes, where not only memory is stored but where the imagination roams freely.

  2. Pingback: The Frenzy of Philosophy | When I Discovered Your Words

  3. Pingback: What Good Are Exams? | When I Discovered Your Words

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