To grade or not to grade?

The hegemonic grading system in schools is an enemy to students appreciating that “knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward” (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University). The system generates laborers — not learners. As a teacher, I am trying to explore alternatives to a grading system that belongs to “Descartes’ dream of the mathematization of the world” (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology).

St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD) dares to challenge the grading system. Here are relevant excerpts from the student handbooks on grading.

Santa Fe Student Handbook

St. John’s College recognizes that grades often do not give a complete picture of student achievement. Emphasis on grades may also encourage thoughtless competitiveness among students, suggest an unexamined sense of success or failure, or imply wrongly that the teacher is in control of the student’s learning. Therefore, the primary assessment of student achievement is made in the don rag and in less formal communication between tutor and student during the course of the semester.

Nevertheless, in conformity with the common practice of American colleges and universities, the college requires a tutor to award letter grades to students at the end of each semester. Each tutor decides what elements are to be taken into consideration, and in what proportion, in assigning grades.

Other colleges, graduate and professional schools, grantors of scholarships, and employers expect to see the grade records of undergraduates and graduates. Students are not routinely informed of their grades and are not encouraged to be concerned about them. However, a student has the right to see his or her grades at any time convenient to the registrar. The assistant dean also welcomes the opportunity to talk with students about their grade records.

A student who believes a tutor has given an undeserved grade should speak with the tutor about it. In unusual cases the matter may be discussed with the dean, who may then consult the tutor. The tutor always has the right and the obligation to make the final decision.

Annapolis Student Handbook

St. John’s College tries to minimize the pernicious effect that the publication of grades can have on a community of learning. The college does require all tutors to award letter grades to their students at the end of each semester (A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Satisfactory, D=Passing, F=Failure, with pluses and minuses, and I=Incomplete) and authorizes them to decide what elements they will take into consideration and in what proportion. It also requires them to record these grades in the Office of the Registrar. But the college does this primarily because other colleges, graduate and professional schools, granters of scholarships, and employers insist on seeing the grade records of its students and graduates.

Students at the college are consequently not routinely informed of their grades. Indeed they are usually discouraged from having much concern about them. They are urged instead to talk to their tutors about their work, both informally and in don rags. Grades have some usefulness within the college, but in a limited way, and most often as a basis for conversation. Important information about the significance of grades is contained below under “Requirements for Graduation.” A student who thinks that his or her work has been judged unfairly by a tutor should speak to the tutor about this concern. Should the result of such a conversation prove unsatisfactory, the student should speak to the Assistant Dean or Dean. The tutor has the final word on the grade, though in rare cases the Assistant Dean or Dean may amplify the given grade with a letter of explanation.

Here are some essays that are worth reading:

The Atlantic: Why Grades Are Not Paramount to Achievement. The intrinsic love of learning supplants the drive for high marks in the long run.

The Atlantic: Letter Grades Deserve An “F”. The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

The Atlantic: When the Value of High School Is Exaggerated. It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.

The Atlantic: Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education. How software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms – but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.


What Christian education is NOT

From Calvin College philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith:

First, Christian education is not meant to be merely “safe” education. The impetus for Christian schooling is not a protectionist concern, driven by fear, to sequester children from the big, bad world. Christian schools are not meant to be moral bubbles or holy huddles where children are encouraged to stick their heads in the sand.

Rather, Christian schools are called to be like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: not safe, but good. Instead of antiseptic moral bubbles, Christian schools are moral incubators that help students not only to see the glories of God’s creation but also to discern and understand the brokenness of this fallen world.

While the Christian classroom makes room for appreciating the stunning complexity of cell biology and the rich diversity of world cultures, it’s also a place to understand the systemic injustices behind racism and the macroeconomics of poverty. Christian schools are not places for preserving a naive innocence; they are laboratories to form children who see that our broken world is full of widows, orphans, and strangers we are called to love and welcome.

In short, Christian schools are not a withdrawal from the world; they are a lens and microscope through which to see the world in all its broken beauty.

Second, Christian schools are not just about Bible classes. The curriculum of a Christian school is not the curriculum of a public school plus religion courses. While Christian education does deepen students’ knowledge of God’s Word, it’s not Bible class that makes a school Christian.

Rather, the Reformed vision of Christian education emphasizes that the entire curriculum is shaped and nourished by faith in Christ, “for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). Christian schools are not just extensions of Sunday school focused on learning religion; they are Christ-rooted educational institutions focused on religious learning.

Third, Christian education is not a merely “private” education. Christian schools are not meant to be elite enclaves for the wealthy. To the extent that Christian schools become pious renditions of “prep schools,” they fail to appreciate the radical, biblical calling of Christian education.

Source: James K. A. Smith, “The Case for Christian Education” in Banner (January 18, 2011).

Recommended colleges for traditional and religious students

As a secondary school teacher, I am helping my students make the first big transition of their lives from home to college. Few students, surprisingly, ever solicit my advice about which colleges I recommend, and even fewer apply to those colleges, let alone enroll. Year after year, I observe students, who have undergone classical Christian schooling, make decisions about higher education that strike me as inconsistent or contrary to their formation. Why? The major influencers in the decision-making are regional insularity, alumni bias, and, most disconcertingly, status anxiety. At secondary schools with less affluent families, I suspect economic security would factor heavily.

Because education is a formative project, I exhort my students to choose a college that will contribute to human flourishing (eudaimonia), mindful that institutions shape or misshape the person. Since my students already possess a consumerist mentality, which fixates on how a college develops “marketability” for the workforce, I encourage a different set of questions for their college search: What kind of human being is this college aiming for? How does this college cultivate humanity? What is the mission of this college, and are its stakeholders (students, faculty, administration, board, alumni) genuinely mission-focused? Put differently, start with the end (telos) of a college and then work backwards. At Wheaton College, for example, everything is done for the sake of making wise, loving, and faithful disciples in the kingdom of God. At Hillsdale College, by contrast, everything is done for the sake of making prudent, knowledgeable, and engaged citizens in the American republic. In the Middle Ages, when universities were first established, the end was piety. In the 19th century, the end was gentlemanliness. Nowadays, the end is economic advancement.

Traditional educators have a short list of praiseworthy colleges. For the undergraduate student, I favor a small liberal arts college with its teaching priority, core curriculum, and integrated community over a large public or private university with its research priority, specialized curriculum, and ghettoized community. Whereas the liberal arts college seeks to liberate the soul of a human being through habituation in various arts (or disciplines), the university strives to equip the the worker for a competitive market. It is the difference between a human enterprise and professional training. Admittedly, some universities have excellent liberal arts programs. Public universities, I am afraid, are at the whim of the state; political influence usually harms more than it helps.

My college recommendations are below with opinions about the respective advantages and drawbacks.

SECULAR (religious or traditional-friendly)

  • St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD & Santa Fe, NM). Advantages: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy. Drawbacks: secularism, substance abuse.
  • University of Chicago (Chicago, IL). Advantages: The Core, location. Drawbacks: left-of-center politics, secularism.
  • Columbia University – Columbia College (New York City, NY). Advantage: The Core Curriculum. Drawback: location.
  • Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI). Advantages: civic education, Western civilization curriculum. Drawbacks: location, ring-wing politics.
  • St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN). Advantage: The Great Conversation. Drawback: location.


  • Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). Advantages: top Christian scholars, academic rigor and excellence, integration of faith & learning, location.
  • Baylor University – Honors College (Waco, TX). Advantages: top Christian scholars, University ScholarsGreat Texts. Drawback: location.
  • Biola University – Torrey Honors Institute (La Mirada, CA). Advantages: great books program, integration of faith & learning.
  • Samford University (Birmingham, AL). Advantage: University Fellows Program.
  • Eastern University – Templeton Honors College (St. Davids, PA). Advantage: great books program, seminary pedagogy, integration of faith & learning. Drawback: location.

While I am not a Catholic, I applaud the culture of learning at the colleges below.


  • Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, NH). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • University of Dallas (Irving, TX). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum. Drawback: campus, location.
  • Christendom College (Front Royal, VA). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum, integration of faith & learning.

If I failed to mention a college that you think meets my criteria, then please leave a comment with the suggestion.


  • Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL)
  • Loren Pope, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
  • Loren Pope, Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right For You
  • John Zmirak (editor), Choosing the Right College: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known InstitutionsAll-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith
  • Howard Greene & Matthew W. Greene, The Hidden Ives: 63 of America’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities 
  • Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania


Visions of Higher Education

  • Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (written by a professor of humanities at Columbia University)
  • Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College
  • Todd C. Ream & Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University
  • John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Crisises in Higher Education

  • William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (written by a former Yale University professor)
  • Anthony T. Kronan, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (written by a professor of law and former Dean of the Law School at Yale University)
  • Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (written by a professor of computer science and former Dean of Harvard College)
  • Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
  • C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University
  • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul
  • Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education
  • Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
  • Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
  • Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Studies that serve life

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” in his work Untimely Meditations (1873-1876). What he says below articulates my own philosophy of education. If our studies do not augment or invigorate life, they are vain.

‘In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.’ These words are from Goethe, and they may stand as a sincere ceterum censeo* at the beginning of our meditation on the value of history. For its intention is to show why instruction without invigoration, why knowledge not attended by action, why history as a costly superfluity and luxury, must, to use Goethe’s word, be seriously hated by us – hated because we still lack even the things we need and the superfluous is the enemy of the necessary. We need history, certainly, but we need it for reasons different from those for which the idler in the garden of knowledge needs it, even though he may look nobly down on our rough and charmless needs and requirements. We need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and action, not so as to turn comfortably away from life and action, let alone for the purpose of extenuating the self-seeking life and the base and cowardly action. We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate.

Substitute any academic discipline for history when Nietzsche says, “We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life.” Too often, the educator is an “idler in the garden of knowledge,” turning students away from life rather than toward it. Educators need to show how literature, history, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and science all serve life. I regard my vocation as lying at the intersection of great books and human lives. Great books on their own are mummies; they need to be resurrected in a community of flesh-and-blood readers who make those books existentially urgent. 

*ceterum censeo: but I’m of the opinion

Christian education is the conversion of the imagination

From James K. A. Smith’s essay, “Keeping Time in the Social Sciences: An Experiment with Fixed-Hour Prayer and the Liturgical Calendar” (in Teaching and Christian Practices):

Christian education is not just about the transfer of information but also about a task of formation  – the formation of the kinds of persons that constitute a “peculiar people.” In short, Christian education is not just the communication and dissemination of Christian content but the formation of a people who are defined by a certain set of desires or passions which are themselves defined by a certain telos – namely, the shape of the coming kingdom.

More specifically, I’m convinced that at the heart of this task is the “conversion of the imagination” enacted through intentional practices that are tactile, bodily, repetitive, and “narratival.” We are narrative, liturgical, desiring animals whose actions and orientation to the world are driven much more by pre-cognitive imaginative construals of the world than by cognitive, intellectual perceptions of the world. Our dispositions function as automaticities that are operative, for the most part, without our thinking about them. So a central question for the task of Christian education is this: How can we form those pre-cognitive dispositions – those pre-theoretical, imaginative construals of the world? The shape of a Christian education, then, is not primarily (or not only) figuring out which content to disseminate, or from what “perspective” to consider such content, but determining how to enact practices that effect, as much as possible, the conversion of the imagination – the formation and training of an abiding desire for the kingdom.

Liturgy wastes much (linear) time

From Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths’ essay, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” (in Teaching and Christian Practices):

The liturgy is repetitive, and in being so it takes – or, better, wastes – much time. This is perhaps most evident if the entire cycle of the liturgy of the hours is prayed: doing that takes something over two hours a day, and if it is combined with the liturgy of the Mass, a substantial proportion of the day is liturgically spent. Wasting time is, in ordinary English, a bad thing: we want, we think, to make the best use possible of it. But in liturgical terms, time, considered as linear time that can be scheduled, divided into minutes and hours, filled up, deployed, and measured by chronometers, is exactly what should be laid waste, and effectively is. Time, considered as it should be, is cyclical rather than linear, and endlessly repetitive in its cycles: there is the cycle of the day, of the week, of the month, and of the year, each grounded, as Christians see it, in the creative work of the Lord, each evident, in different ways, in the created order, and each given its liturgical correlate. The liturgy of the hours works on a daily cycle, the Sabbath orders the weekly cycle, and the yearly cycle is given shape by the seasons of the church’s year, from the beginning of Advent to the feast of Christ the King. To enter into the repetitive patterns of the liturgy is to lay waste linear time with the radiance of eternity, and in that way to provide a foretaste of heaven


Liturgical work is done without concern for outcome

From Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths’ essay, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” (in Teaching and Christian Practices):

Liturgical work, the work of the people (which is what the word means), is done without interest in or concern for outcome. We do not receive the body and blood or hear the word or sing praises to the Lord because we think that doing these things improves us morally, makes us healthier, provides us material blessings, or conforms us to Christ – even though it may do some or all of these things. We work liturgically because it is the thing to do, because liturgical gratitude is the only way to accept a gift given, especially one of surpassing beauty and value that we do not merit, and because we are in love and eager to show that love. Inscribing the liturgy’s gestures of love into an economy of contract, within which every action carries with it an expectation, even a demand, that something should be given back, would be to corrupt the liturgy. Those gestures belong, instead, to an economy of the gift.