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Assessing Students Classically - Charter School Course

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In the opening scene of Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, the machinelike Mr. Thomas Gradgrind gives a passionate explanation of his philosophy of education. Gradgrind sees students as merely empty depositories to be mechanically filled with “Facts.” This is made strikingly clear both by Dickens’s brilliant use of language and when a new student comes to class one day. She has grown up with horses her whole life and knows horses intimately, but is chastised for not being able to give a textbook-style definition of a horse. Though obviously dramatic, this type of focus on facts and trivia is strikingly similar to the modern culture of standardized testing. Students are asked to mechanically learn certain facts to be assessed and graded by a machine. This sort of assessment does not allow for the nuance to determine if a student is learning to love the right things. Likely, clear corrections will never be provided, so it truly is merely a way to dump facts into the depository in hopes they will stick. The growth of the person is not demonstrated to be valuable. Though, as Robyn Burlew points out, a deeper assessment is often more crude and less objective, it can get closer to testing the things that a classical education seeks to instill in students.

“From the heron flying home at dusk,
from the misty hollows at sunrise,
from the stories told at the row’s end,
they are calling the mind into exile
in the dry circuits of machines.”

— Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems 1990, II