I wrote in my previous post about the controlling metaphors for both the Common Core (industrial) and Expectation (organic) videos (click here to view). It will be helpful to keep those in mind as we move to consider the more specific content, as the practical always flows from the philosophical. Or, perhaps better, the transcendent (and what we image as transcendent) always enlivens the immanent.
Both videos begin with an axiom, a statement of a universal truth. Each is a statement that both arises from the metaphor and is an expression of it.
For Common Core, the axiom proclaims that “Like it or not, life is full of measuring sticks…how well we can, you know, compete.” On its surface, the axiom has a definite truth value; it is true that we find ourselves in a culture of comparison.
Where the truth value fails is in the logical consequence. The axiom embodies precisely the message we must fight so vigorously against—we find the world as it is, and we must accommodate ourselves to it. This can be popularly phrased in a number of ways (most frequently with respect to education, “preparation for ‘the real world’”), but the basic message remains the same: humans are not agents in the world to make choices which may or may not conform to the dominant spirit of the age; rather, humans, embodied in an industrial metaphor, find themselves moved and directed by forces greater than they (let’s ignore that those larger forces are all the result of human agency) and must find ways to best direct their efforts in the same direction.
For The Academy, the axiom holds that “Starting a family is one of life’s biggest decisions.” Humans are here clearly the agents; a family is a choice, a known one, one weighted with dignity and moral direction. From this first decision (human agency) flow all the following decisions. Here, we do not find the world as it is and accommodate ourselves to it. We act as people in a world, as musician Rich Mullins once sang, “That I’m partly made of/And the world that is partly my homemaking.” We are not autonomous, but nor are we automatons. Finding ourselves in situations, we exercise choices within the limits of where we find ourselves, but our choices remain ours.
Who we are as humans dictates what education must be. Agency-less creatures who must adapt to our environment to survive an education which directs us to the best economic ends for us and our nation (competition in the global economy) is fitting and right. Immortal creations of mind and emotion and will, an education which cultivates wisdom and virtue is fitting and right and good.
Each education is fitted to the human it envisions. As James K. A. Smith remarks, “Every pedagogy assumes an anthropology; that is, the way we teach and our goals for education implicitly assume some working model of what human persons are.”
Education, then, can be evaluated (past), conducted (present), and predicted (future) predicated on the anthropology each axiom provides.
For Common Core, competition and comparison rule; thus, we know the problem in education not because of any measure of any transcendent, but only by comparison between “your child” and the children in other locales. If the comparison fails, then a problem is manifest. Again, this is a partial truth. Comparison is one helpful metric for assessing the education we provide. However, comparison is useful only as one of a host of metrics, and the comparison itself must be (as all evaluations must) in accord with the end towards which we are working. If comparison is the only metric by which we measure success, if it is the only metric by which problems become manifest, then the lack of a discrepancy in comparison would indicate the absence of any problem.
In the animation, we are presented two students, one of whom has a teacher reading from a textbook in a rather bare room and another with an excited, engaged teacher in a room full of visual aids and extensions. Obviously, we desire the latter (and there is much that is right in valuing the second). Implicit is the argument that if we could see both classrooms as the latter (dynamic), we would know the problem addressed. However, if comparison is the only measure, then the problem would similarly be addressed (or never made manifest as a problem) if we were presented with two classrooms of the former (dull and lackluster).
The real desire present for alignment is to measure up and ensure we can compete on the national and global economic field. But were the United States still leading the world educationally, whatever the health by another measure of education, we wouldn’t need to align.
Because comparison is inherently tied to competition—if comparison is the singular metric, then competition becomes the logical means by which to raise one’s standing—we see the outworking. We will know we are successful when our graduates, like those in Shanghai, have moneyed masses inundating them. Or, better, when we see more people inundating them with more money. For comparison is a zero-sum game; when one wins, another loses. (Or, perhaps more sinister, were the second image that of an American classroom and the first that of Shanghai, then not only would there be no problem, we would know success.)
For The Academy, narrative governs. The world has changed from what we knew or expected, and while there is an element of loss, this is not dwelt upon. Rather, knowing our own history leads us to make informed and evaluated choices in the present and for the future. The future itself remains an unknown, just as where we are now was unknown in the past we experienced; it is allowed as a part of the story being written by, for, with, and in us. A part of that future does involve career, including those we cannot yet envision, and a part of that future does involve, then, tests and measures and an education that equips students to perform (and outperform) in those measures. In this, there is apparent commonality with Common Core.
However, both in the wording and images, these are but individual considerations in the larger context of the story being written. The emphasis is on the potential of the individual as a person, not an economic unit, not as something moved through a machine. And the potential is measured in “a life well-lived,” envisioned not in comparison with other individuals or collective of people but in a life in cultivated in and by wisdom and virtue.
When our measure of the good life tends toward absolutes, towards wisdom and virtue, comparison and competition ultimately fail. Comparison with others, we find, is death, and so, then, is the attendant competition. We find that our only measure of comparison must be with perfection. The perfection envisioned, though, is not the perfectionism which comparison and competition can measure; it is the perfection of the True, Good, Beautiful, and ultimately, the perfection of Him who is True, Good, Beautiful.
Our comparison, then, becomes one which can measure only progress, a narrative story arc. Are we moving toward wisdom and virtue, are we seeing it flourish and grow? Are we seeing Truth, Goodness, Beauty increasingly fill our minds, imaginations, and persons? We find that our comparison must always give us a true measure of both our failure (we will never attain to the full measure of perfection here) and our success (we do see growth in truth).
Competition with others, we find, is madness. For what are we competing? For something which cannot be grasped or held, something which even in the very attainment we find empties itself and us into the lives of others.
Education, then, as an organic narrative, must be evaluated, conducted, and predicted organically and narratively. The child must be evaluated as an individual of infinite worth and dignity who brings past experiences, formative influences, knowledge, and skills to the classroom. A pure numeric metric cannot measure. The child must be educated as just such an individual, with his or her thoughts, insights, desires, passions, and will shepherded and grown. A purely “standardized” curriculum or classroom or, most frightening, teacher cannot instruct. The child cannot be predicted. This is not to say that a path of study cannot be laid out, nor that with wise counsel individual giftings, abilities, proclivities, and aptitudes cannot be discerned and wisely guided and followed. Yet, even in these, the child may not be seen nor see himself or herself primarily in measurable and quantifiable ways. The child is an adult in training who will one day be released to a lifelong love of learning because it is a life full of love.
The End of Education
The distinction between comparison and narrative is never more strongly seen than by the end of education envisioned. The Common Core video ends with students successful and ready to leap from the highest stage into occupations. Yet there are others behind them, others which have gone before. The industrial metaphor means the individual ultimately has no worth; there is no story, no narrative. The individual cannot find himself or herself here.
The Expectations video ends with the student living a virtuous life to make a difference in the world. The students have agency, so must the adults. Those educated have been so not so they may have been conformed to the world in which they find themselves but so they may seek to see the world conformed to the very image they have been trained to love and in loving to be transformed by. Their desire and actions will be governed by the desire to see a better story written in and for the world.
In a final post in this series, I’ll address how the great variance between the metaphors, axioms, and messages should guide us in practical outworkings.