The Bureaucracy of Learning

I once found a student report in a high school hallway. Three exams: 100, 100, and 93. Two homeworks at 50 points apiece, neither turned in, 0/100. Total score: 293/400, C–. So what part of this record is irrelevant? The exams, which could be aced without ever doing homework? The homework, which didn’t contribute to performance on the tests? Or the grade, which tells us nothing whatsoever?

I once knew a young man who could draw better than anyone I’d ever met. He was occasionally taking figure drawing and watercolor courses at the local community college, far more talented than any other person in the room. One day, he left class halfway through drawing one of those bio-lab plastic skeletons. I asked why he was leaving. “If I finished, I’d just have a good drawing of a skeleton. Don’t need that.” So of course, his community college transcript was littered with Fs and Ws. So what part of this record is irrelevant? The talent, which wasn’t performed consistently enough to put into the gradebook? The three-hour course session, during which he’d put in more than enough practice after an hour or so and was learning nothing new? Or the grade, which tells us nothing whatsoever?

I’m writing this after filling out a form for a presentation I’ll be giving in May. I’m intending it as an aesthetic experience, an opportunity for the participants to think about the world and about their work and about their colleagues in a new way. An opportunity to be productively unsettled. That riskiness is at the heart of why I’ve been invited.

But the host organization also needs to offer professional continuing education units for it, and so I have to fill out a sheet that labels which category the CEUs will fall within and the minimum of four learning objectives for the session.

Which part of this record is irrelevant?

We collectively spend trillions of dollars a year on higher education. I know that it can’t be left to magic, to hope. I get that. But the things that I do as a teacher are not enhanced by categorizing which stack my units fall into. The things that our students do are not enhanced by counting educational minutes, or assigning them at the end with a character from a truncated alphabet that attempts to encompass the full merit of their experience.

Every law is the response to a crime. Every code is the response to a cheat. Every regulation is a response to someone’s laziness or carelessness. And all of us now pay for the sins of our predecessors. The attempt to trim off the bottom also places an unspoken top, a standardization that works counter to the lived miracles that education can bring.

We seem to be working in education with a dour view of human nature. As the Methodists’ Book of Discipline puts it, “Original sin … is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” We must be eternally vigilant against each teacher, against each school, against each student, lest they fall to sin.

And by so doing, we lose the possibility of grace.