The Power of Holding Out an Ideal

At the moment my school’s faculty are discussing and shaping for ourselves to ideals.  We are gathering ideas to produce a portrait of an Ideal Graduate and defining what an Ideal Teacher at our school would be like.  These are powerful pursuits because they can lift every student and teacher to a higher plane of community and unity.

But not everyone in our day believes in ideals.  I often hear that ideals lead to idealism, meaning having a standard that is impractical makes those who pursue it impractical.  This is often argued in the area of assessment.  The argument goes something like, “If you place some arbitrary ideal in front of a student, one they can never reach, you are just going to frustrate them.”

I disagree.  Some of the argument is due to the shift from “teaching the father of the man” to a child centered pedagogy in modern theory.  I will blog more extensively on the old concept that makes truth, not the person, the center of education later.  But when education became more focused on how children feel in school than on what they are learning, we definitely stopped believing in ideals.

An ideal anything sets the normative basis for that thing.  The ideal basketball player (who cannot possibly exists) helps the coach set before his players not only a vision they can never attain, but it also reveals to the players and coach what portion less than that ideal is acceptable on the team.

In another way of approaching it, if there is no “100%” there can be nothing to measure a 90 or 80 or 70 against.  The truly great education calls a student to something beyond his reach.  It certainly has to help him rise up to that calling, but once he believes himself lifted up to a higher plateau, he realizes that from that vantage point, there is another, higher, goal calling him yet up and in.  I have solioquized often about how powerful I think David Hick’s Norms and Nobility is as a modern work on education.  Let me allow him to more fully develop this idea in ways that are beyond my skill.

“In his quest for the best education, the ancient schoolmaster possessed two advantages over the modern educator. First, he knew exactly what kind of a person he wished to produce…Second, he agreed in form upon an inquiry-based or knowledge-centered – as opposed to a child-centered – approach to education.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 39)

“The past instructs us that man has only understood himself and mastered himself in pursuit of a self-transcendent Ideal, a Golden Fleece, a Promised Land, a Holy Grail, a numinous windmill. He defines himself in the quest, not on Kalypso’s unblown isle, where he is only judged against himself, where all obstacles are removed, where the question of human significance seems insignificant, and where there are no moral restraints or binding ideals. On Kalypso’s idyllic estate, Odyssean man is a nobody. He languishes in egocentric frustration, self-doubt, and insecurity. In many ways, he is a portrait of the modern student, seated “on the vacant beach with a shattered heart, scanning the sea’s bare horizon with wet eyes.” Only Odysseus’ knowledge of the past- his longing for Ithaka, Penelope, and Telemakhos- keeps him alive; and only the responsibility he takes for that knowledge rescues him from Kalypso’s pointless life of pleasure.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 51)

Is There a Common Core?

I have been doing a lot of research and thinking about the Common Core standards that has so many up in arms these days.  That has led to much more general thinking about “standards” and standardization, and thus testing, which means I come back to the old bugaboo: assessment.


It’s a bugaboo (would never have guessed that SpellCheck would know how to spell bugaboo!) because much of what seems to be at issue in our current discussions on education is how to assess education.  The following are the disjointed but related thoughts I have had on this issue (chime in as you like):

As I understand them, “standards” in an educational manner refer to a set benchmark or “spot” in learning that can be in some ascertained to have been accomplished.  I have already discussed the modern confusion of arts and sciences and what that means to this issue: you can’t assess actions and facts in the same way.

So if we are going to have a common set of standards, it would seem that a number of things must be in place: an agreed upon goal for education (or everyone will have differing standards), some manner of ensuring that the standards are achievable by those they are set upon (can any student or only some students achieve this standard?), and finally a clear and standard means of determining (assessing) that the standard has been obtained.

As to goal, this seems very difficult above the local level – at the heart of the Common Core movement is the notion that a kid in 9th grade Algebra in Massachusetts and one in Louisiana would be aiming at the same standard because all kids everywhere should be called to the same standard.  I am not convinced that you can say this honestly, and then if you do succeed in arguing the theory of it, that you can actually pull it off in reality.  It seems to suffer from our modern fallacy of equality – that we can actually ensure that everyone is exactly the same and should be that way.

As to ensuring that all kids can achieve the same standard, that also seems to suffer from some delusional thinking based on the idea that a central “committee” can somehow know enough about “all kids” as to make such a standard and know that they have successfully addressed this issue.  There is a dangerous notion hidden in this idea of “democratized” learning.  Can any committee reach agreement without compromise, and when it is a compromised agreement, is it faithful to any real standard or has it been reduced to a lesser standard to achieve agreement?

And the last point, the big point, is very difficult in my mind at the national or “common” level:  who is going to determine the standards have been achieved and by what means?  Again, the committee aspect addressed above is staring us in the face.  And further, there is no way around the subjective aspects of any standard.  Who says what the standard is?  Who says what “percentage” of mastery is “passing”?  I am all for a discussion of mastery, but what constitutes such?

In the end I applaud an effort to articulate standards.  I believe highly in such.  But I am not convinced by the paltry discussion I have seen on the above issues.  I think the belief has been “let’s state the standards and then find a means to ensure that everyone meets them and we will be fine.”  I am not finding much in the way of robust discussion of these difficulties, or the many others that surround the topic of assessment.  There needs to be more discussion of assessment, including but limited to, standards.  And by the way, once we articulate a set of standards (either locally or nationally) we then have to discuss how to teach our students to those.