The Empire – Modern American Education

I am apparently not alone when it comes to taste in contemporary Star Wars content, and I took a delayed approach when it came to watching one of the recent mini-series: Andor. We had all seen just how well mini-series were doing on Disney+, and when they came out with a back story…for a back story…none of us were seemingly convinced. I for one, care almost nothing about the upcoming series based on Echo – Maya Lopez, a character we were briefly introduced to in the Hawkeye mini-series. But that is a tangent. The more pressing matter I wished to write about are some thoughts that occurred to me after watching Andor.

Star Wars has been around now for a long time, and ideas about what Palpatine’s Empire means, what it does, and why we hate it have similarly been part of general public discourse for a long time. So even if you haven’t seen Andor you can at least understand the principles put forward here.

As I was recently watching the series I realized that Palpatine’s Empire and the United States’ public education system share at least one major trait: the belief that prosperity and success comes through more control. It’s easy for us watching Star Wars to dismiss the Empire as the bad guy and to think that since they are so obviously evil none of us would ever agree with them in real life, but the entire point of Andor is to show the larger scope of the consequences of the politics of the Empire, and the sincere hearts of those who fight and think for the Empire as much as those who rebel against it.

Throughout the series, it is demonstrated that the Empire does and must exert control over individuals and systems if for no other reason than the control itself. It has, other than Palpatine’s wicked desire for total power (which I have ideas about, but I’ll leave that for later), a sincere desire for peace and stability, but the way it achieves it is through controlling for wild cards and anomalies that fall outside of its desires. It does not view its own violent actions as counter productive or destabilizing because of pride and especially because of the belief that it is the ultimate good for the galaxy. Darth Vader’s conversion to the dark side is not one devoid of logic, focusing only on the death of Padmé; throughout the prequels we see distaste from Anakin about how the Jedi react to certain injustices, and Anakin wants to change that so that instead of resulting consequences like Padmé or his mother’s death, more good might come out in the galaxy on the whole.

Public education in the U.S. adopts a remarkably similar approach to promoting success and managing students. No, the Secretary of Education does not wield a red colored light saber, but if we look at what districts and states are doing and if we look at what professors in colleges are researching and teaching to the next generations of educators and administrators, we see where the comparison is strong. Most strategies for educational systems in the U.S. revolve around this idea: controlling any and all outside factors so that students achieve academic and social success. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what everyone wants? Certainly you don’t have the know-how or ability to do the job…you just ought to let them figure that out for you.

There are so many things that trouble modern public education, and the troubles seem to have no end. Random public attacks, high numbers of mental health cases, low test scores, truancy, apathy…the list goes on. Notice, however, what the response is to these issues: more. More security personnel, more psychiatric personnel, more teacher duties, more district policies, more funding consequences for districts, more testing, more school days, more classes, more teacher requirements, more initiatives, etc. The list goes on. By overtly controlling more factors, success can still be guaranteed or even improved.

From my perspective in the classroom I understand the appeal for this method of improving school; I am constantly tired by the way I have to work against the flow of student behavior. From my limited perspective, more control seems fine because maybe it means less for me to have to deal with on a daily basis. Yet also from my perspective in the classroom I can see that something is wrong and that things each year are not getting better but worse.

The answer, like the rebels demonstrate, is less. Less control and more freedom is what is needed in school. Less initiatives, less programs, less interventions, less requirements. Notice I’m not saying different, or smaller…I’m saying less, as in take them away. Forget them. This answer is so counter intuitive because it seems bad for two reasons. One, it doesn’t answer our contemporary woes with an actionable response, and two, it seems as the responder has no care for the fallout of such a solution. Yet both of these, in our contemporary context, are not true. Just recently my wife showed me a social media phenomenon of people talking about “Silent Walks,” where Gen Z somehow believes that they have come up with the idea of a long walk outside without the influence of technology. What the Gen Zers were amazed to discover was that after a while, they found their anxieties calmed; as if the constant attack of technology and busyness couldn’t somehow be the very cause of it all. The surprising answer to everyday modern anxiety? Less.

The second issue I mentioned, where the responder with such a solution of “less” seems to not care about the fallout, is the more significant objection. This is the case because it gets to the heart of the proponents of modern education. It is sincerely believed that “more” must be the answer because it is the conscientious and kind answer. It is a philosophically positive position, meaning it is a solution that introduces an intervention. The problem here is that while the motivation is kindness, the subjects of the many interventions are essentially being killed with kindness. There is simply too much happening to be effective. Think of an artist mixing colors, only to add an excess of variety to find an awful and disgusting brown as the result.

It must be acknowledged, then, that a solution of “less” will be met with inherent anger. How, the Empire asks, can we have more ‘order and peace’ if there are no interventions to establish it? Answer: we won’t. How, the Dept. of Education asks, can we have a higher rate of graduation, better student mental health, better test scores, more security, more literacy, more numeracy, higher college admission rates, less child abuse (etc, you get my point) without more interventions to establish them? Answer: we won’t. In the course of the events of Andor, the main character has just finished a heist job. Away from everyone else and after already losing several other teammates, his teammate suggests that they both split the heist and run away with the spoils. The teammate would abandon the remaining living teammates and steal the money not just from the Empire but also from the rebellion. At yet a later point in the show, a background rebellion organizer is speaking to an independent rebel faction, and is trying to convince them to cooperate with other factions, only to hear the objection that each faction had its own political ideology and can never possibly unite.

The point there is that when you advocate for “less” you are deliberately opening the door to suffering, moral inadequacy, and failures. You are literally inviting these things into existence whereas they may have not been seen before. The truth is, however, that even though they weren’t seen before, hearts were already set on them. Explicit interventions in a system the size of U.S. public education do not address problems – they cover up symptoms. In Andor, an Empire investigator is looking into missing technology. As part of her investigations she noted that fear of being reprimanded for losing equipment contributed to inferiors lying about it and covering it up. A solution to that is never addressed – but can we acknowledge that staying the course of fear tactics in a hierarchy is not going to solve the heart of the issue? The failure already existed – pulling back whatever “interventions” were already in place was simply exposing them.

Furthermore we must acknowledge that sincere proponents of Palpatine’s Empire, like Darth Vader, are seeking a utopia. Many contemporary progressivists are similarly desirous of a utopia. “With enough progress [interventions] we can achieve utopia.” As a Catholic, yea as a Christian, I strongly object to the feasability of utopia. Believing in such a utopia denies truths about our world and our existence that are unavoidably true. Free will – the ability to choose good as much as evil, is inherently part of our world. We cannot change that. Utopia inherently denies free will, since a utopic world cannot allow the possibility that someone might choose against it. Our education system inherently denies free will – of the parent and of the child. Our public education system, like the empire, cannot tolerate dissent. Worse yet is that even those who venture “dissent” still imbibe the same philosophical principles and educational practices, upholding public education as some sort of standard. In Andor the first governing authority we meet is not the Empire itself, but an affiliate authority who practices the same governance. It is not the Empire, but it might as well be. If other education systems are subject to similar regulation as public schools, like most diocesan schools, then even if they are allowed to do something like teach religion they commit the same flaws.

A world that involves free will is one that must accept “no” as a potential answer. At what point does public education accept “no” as a possibility? At what point did the Empire accept “no?” God Himself created us with free will, creating us knowing that someone would deny Him, so that those who accepted Him and loved Him did so with sincerity and not out of compliance. Just because something is good: order, peace, education, love; it does not follow that it should be forced because then it is no longer good.

What does “less” look like, then, for public education? The answer is astonishingly simple: abolish truancy and school attendance laws. While still providing the public with accessible education, but removing compliance, it means that the public chooses education as desired. Most of the ills that plague modern education would disappear, and nowhere more in particular than high school.

Now I find myself having difficulty suggesting that K-8 education should not be compulsory, since the benefits of a literate society are clear; but arguably it is even more critical for the K-8 sphere to be rid of compulsory education because of the demand such a freedom would put on parents. At the very least a freedom of choice for parents on what K-8 education looks like for their child should be provided.

I will focus, at least for now, on the more palatable suggestion that high school should be the first target of eliminated attendance laws. Maria Montessori, for those who sincerely follow her principles and design, does not have any programmatic guidelines for adolescents (those in the high school range):

“The essential reform is this: to put the adolescent on the road to achieving economic independence . We might call it a “school of experience in the elements of social life”

“Therefore work on the land is an introduction both to nature and to civilization and gives a limitless field for scientific and historic studies. If the produce can be used commercially this brings in the fundamental mechanism of society, that of production and exchange, on which economic life is based. This means that there is an opportunity to learn both academically and through actual experience what are the elements of social life. We have called these children the “Erdkinder” because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the “land-children.””

(Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence)

The adolescent is not primed for high school. The adolescent is ready to begin learning about entering the adult world. Sitting in a compulsory class setting for the majority of their waking hours is a living hell. Their bodies and mind are going through such a tumultuous change that asking them to sit still and comply with endless amounts of rules and requirements to endure specifically intellectual academics is crushing them. Once they are developmentally calmed down again they will be ready to do more calm and intellectual activities, and here we can talk about university, but until then it has to be a matter of choice and awareness around the unique traits of each child.

What we can talk about, then, are other kinds of activities like apprenticeships and a Montessori style farm that might actually benefit the development of adolescents instead of something like current public education.

In any case, this all begins with a discussion of removing attendance laws. The solution, as I said, is astonishingly simple. Our society has sowed a disaster, but has been covering it up for a long time; a terrible harvest awaits us on the other side. Past the other side, however, is a place of sincere growth and a beauty. We have to learn the lessons set forth in a fictional way about the Empire, and avoid furthering ideas of intolerable hyper-control. Instead of creating conditions that precipitate rebellion, we should foster environments of true growth and nurturing. By accepting that we cannot control everything and thereby create a Utopia, we find those who willingly want to create a better world and work for it. The society as a whole is actually more motivated to work towards the good. But as long as we’re forced to go to K-12 education…we will see a decline in its value.

The Atlas Complex

The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.

Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.

Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.


Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.

Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.

At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.

An Unintended Consequence

For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.

Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:

When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.

Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.

We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.

The Teacher, Atlas

The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.

When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.

The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:

“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”

Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.

The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.

“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”

“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”

Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.

The Difference

When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.

Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.

It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.

Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.

For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.

Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.

But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.

First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children. 

This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.

Does the parent:

  • Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
  • Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
  • Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
  • Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?

Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.

Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?

It is said that actions speak louder than words.

When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.

Upon the many goats and the few sheep.

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.

Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.

Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.

If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?

By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.

What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.

When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.

No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.

Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.

The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.

Kyrie, eleison.

Assuming Equal Intelligence

It’s funny how everything comes back to philosophical questions. There can be an assumption, at times, that philosophy is only for the far off and unimportant nerds. Really, though, philosophy underlies everything we do. It is a description of who and what we are, why we function, why we exist. Here, specifically, I am going to explore how philosophy is relevant to human intelligence.

So, first, I begin with a question. Is everyone equal? Society tells us that. Our country says that. Religions say that. It is, ultimately, a true statement. But in what ways exactly are we equal? For example, are all humans equal in intelligence? Postmodern philosophy (or epistemology, if you like) suggests that everyone is equal as much as Christian philosophy and theology does, as much as common sense suggests as well. Postmoderns, though, explain human equality differently than other philosophies. More specifically, they react to the notion of equality in different ways than other philosophies.

More or less, Postmodern philosophy suggests that all humans are equal in value and that all humans, more or less, have the same abilities and rights. They attribute the wild diversity of specific people to a combination of nature and nurture. Certain biological factors and certain environmental factors collide to create the unique experience of any one human person. All people are alike at the most basic level of their humanity, but they are victims to a chaotic world that subjects them to a number of (mostly unwanted) experiences, forcing us to change and become more and more unique. For the Postmodern, life is violent and gloomy. When it comes to intelligence, specifically, Postmoderns would view all humans as being capable of the same level of intelligence, but would attribute the result state of intelligence to whatever worldly factors produced that person.

Now, keep in mind that intelligence here does not mean ‘knowledge,’ per se. Intelligence means, here, more of a notion of ‘ability to reason.’ You might not know the constructive details of a car, but you are really great at conflict resolution for your friends. You might not know how a rocket works, but you can describe the complex organic chemistry of an animal’s body and how to fix a broken organ.

The idea of viewing all people as being capable for the same intelligence but not being in a resultative state of that exact intelligence is a notion shared by Christians, as well. God made everyone equal in value and potentiality, but how we are actually manifestly present in ourselves makes us different from other people. But these two groups of people do not assume the same explanation for how people come to have different intelligences. In the Christian mindset there is an idea of free will, an idea that has plagued many modern philosophers (but not older ones, necessarily). Postmoderns view people as complete victims of their experiences, but Christians view people as reactive agents that have power to choose their own lives.

How do these differences matter? So what if there are different reasons behind the matter? They both agree that all people are equal in their capacity for intelligence!

The ends do not justify the means.

You see, let’s take this seemingly abstract philosophy to a real field of consequence: schools. How our administrations understand ideas of equality will wildly shape their implementation of school policies. What our government officials deem necessary for school will depend on these ideas, too.  Do we think children are complete victims of their experience or do we think that they are active agents and have a role in how they turn out as adults?

I would argue, currently, that much of school administration across the country assumes the prior, that children are essentially complete victims of their experiences. They see children as not having any control over what happens to them, and think about their own pasts as children as being controlled by external events that mattered to them. Part of our nation’s discussion around systemic racism is centered in the postmodern mindset, that African American children are entirely victims of their circumstances. The Postmodern reaction to the issues of systemic racism and systemic education is that we need to flood peoples’ lives with opportunities. If enough opportunities are provided then people who are disadvantaged will use those opportunities to pull themselves out of their situation. It’s just a matter of providing the overabundant amount of opportunities.

But here we must acknowledge, in Postmodern thought, a fallacy around free will. The fallacy is that ‘if opportunity is provided to subject y, then subject y will be super grateful and seize that opportunity. But this fallacy, this assumption about the human experience, is false. A person’s desire to seize an opportunity is anything but guaranteed. And here what might change is not just a matter of circumstances, but the simple desire on the part of the person to either seize or not to seize.

So what does this have to do with intelligence? Well first, let’s begin with the idea that everyone is equal in their capacity for intelligence.  Generally everyone agrees with this statement. There are some obvious exceptions, like biological and mental impairments, where the rule of capacity is ruled out, but, more or less, people are capable. Intelligence is also not something that you are delivered on a silver platter when you’re a baby. Intelligence has to grow over time.

How, then, does intelligence grow over time? Like a plant? No, of course not. It grows through experiences of a person. As someone experiences and lives through reality, their intelligence can grow from those situations. But intelligence is not guaranteed. In all instances of an opportunity for intelligence to grow, people have to choose their reaction to whatever their situations are. If a person chooses, they can accept the education presented before them or they can reject it.

Over the course of time these choices (which might be something like 35,000 a day), affect the overall growth of intelligence. A fallacy that Postmoderns make, and therefore something like what our school systems make, is that choice is not important when it comes to understanding someone. When we think about students, for example, we do not as much consider what the role of willpower has when it comes to education.

Teacher: “Man, all my kids bombed the test.”

Admin: “Well how did you teach your lesson? Did you present the material in a fun and engaging enough way? Did you make sure that all 30 of your students were paying attention to you for 100% of your class?”

[uhm, hello, Atlas Complex anyone? My first year as  a college TA my supervisor taught us about the Atlas Complex, and about not giving ourselves the Atlas Complex, and here I find it’s about the only thing administration encourages in its teachers. In brief, student success = 100% teacher responsibility]

Let’s think about a situation. Let’s gather, in our minds, a large group of people (not necessarily students) who have the same level of intelligence. For the sake of a standardization element, even a terrible one, let’s use the notion of IQ. This large group of people, say 100, all have a high intelligence. They are all at home and they’re just living their lives. You present all 100 people with the option of: reading a philosophy book, reading a romance book, watching a movie, or taking a nap. Each of these things affects intelligence in a different way. Arguably a philosophy book (a good one, anyway) challenges the intellect the most and a nap most definitely does not (while maybe everything else lies somewhere in between). Are all 100 really intelligent people going to choose the thing that increases their intelligence the most? No! Why would they? Because they have a choice!

Even in a situation in the modern classroom we find this same struggle. I present a group of 30 students with a task, to work on vocabulary recognition with a technique called Columns (a modified version of flash cards). This opportunity presents students with a really great way to study class content. But there are a multiplicity of choices on the students’ part with how to react to the material. They can do it all the way, following all of my seemingly arbitrary guidelines, they can do part of it, they can do the bare minimum and do it totally against the rules, or they can just opt out (I’ve seen all of these reactions, if you can’t tell). The students choices on how to react to the assignment affect their intelligence and affect their education. I did my part as a teacher: it’s graded work, it’s relevant to what we’re learning, I gave them plenty of time in class, etc. But how they choose to react is on them.

If you wanted to chart a graph of human intelligence, based on capacity, it might look like a graph with a vertical line. Everyone is on the same level of intelligence. But if you instead make a graph with human intelligence, based on actual (current) intelligence, you would more likely see what is called a Standard Deviation curve.

It’s almost like we were already aware of these facts…

The Postmodern reaction is, essentiallly, to push aside this curve of standard deviation, and to forget the participation of the person on the opposite side of the opportunities. Again, you just have to get enough opportunities out there and then everyone will be taken care of. In fact, just as admin asks the teacher “Well what did you do so that everyone failed?” the assumption is that opportunities have to be forced on the disadvantaged.

When it comes to education, for example, we have to force students to take up the opportunity for education so that they can be raised to a relatively equal level of intelligence. Except by doing this they are inherently putting aside the extremely valuable notion of free will!

In St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s work Grammar of Assent, he expounds on the delectable saying:

“A man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.”

His exposition around this saying relies on the fact that even though you could possibly provide the most convincing logical argument, or (in a school setting) set up the most materially motivating principles for completing study with integrity, you are not going to receive an organic and natural result. Your own results are an artifice for your own gain at the end of a short time (if even that), but not earning any long term benefit for anyone.

In short, it is well to assume equal capacity for intelligence. It’s never too late for someone to learn anything. But it is absolutely right to assume inequality of intelligence in a population, simply because human beings have free will. It is not right to assume which person has lower or higher intelligence just because you don’t like them, but it is absolutely true that people with lower and higher intellects exist. It is also entirely fair to expect that in a situation like a classroom, not all students are going to excel in education and be intelligent.

Instead of falsely pretending that all people will excel in education, let’s presume that some people just aren’t going to make it that far. Not everyone needs to get a full high school education. We can help people become fully productive members of society without that much education. But liberal education is also good, and those who can should go as far in their education as is possible. Access to apprenticeships should be way easier, and students should have access to starting them sooner. We also should learn, as a society, to be accommodating to such an idea as varied intellects. People who don’t get as much education as someone else shouldn’t make less money arbitrarily. Especially if they go through an apprenticeship and become really skilled at a certain task, but even if they aren’t necessarily skilled, a person shouldn’t have to worry about feeding their family. Inasmuch, they shouldn’t be shamed because of choosing a professional apprenticeship instead of carrying on with a high school or university education. They’re still people, and valuable people at that.

We are a singular race of people with the power of free will, of making choices, no matter how hard the consequences might be. I think we can act like it, too.

An Ode to Liberal Education

To thee that would bring us out,

To show us richer life;

Where we have wasted our brightest sprouts,

And only increased our strife,

Cultivate in spite of their pouts,

For the farmer is desperate for your scythe.



I write this article in what I can perceive is only the beginning of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. Teaching in a public school has given me insight into education in ways that I never expected. I had of course attended a few public schools here and there (as well as private and online) but I was never attuned to my surroundings. When you’re a smart kid in school you know that other kids aren’t necessarily doing the same things as you, but you rarely pay them any heed. You put your head down, look at your own life and problems, and focus there.

The putting-my-head-down approach has probably bitten me in the butt at this point. Now I teach public high school and I wonder if all the things I’m seeing really popped up in the last seven years or if it was always this way and I just didn’t happen to see it. Our public education system is messy and gross – something I’m sure you’ve heard other people complain about before. But why be so cliché?

I couldn’t have articulated it myself until recently. By happenstance I recently was reading St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. You’ll remember this if you read my previous article “What does St. John Henry Newman say about Learning a Language?.” Previously I focused on how Newman might have answered the question of foreign language instruction, but now I’m turning my scopes towards a larger issue: American education.

Where do I have to start? Unfortunately it goes way back, back to the Roman Empire. From that time, we have teachers such as St. Augustine talking of these methods, and they were standard for the longest time. They contain the Trivium and the Quadrivium (three and four):

  1. Grammar
  2. Dialectic
  3. Rhetoric
    ↑Trivium – Quadrivium↓
  4. Arts & Music
  5. Empirics
  6. Mathematics
  7. Geometry

These seven areas constituted the liberal arts. What is the goal of such an education? The first impulse we have is to say “well, it’s to know the content from these subject areas.” But that isn’t what our western predecessors say about it. St. Augustine says in his De Ordine that the Liberal Arts are meant to free us from materialistic thinking. The word ‘educate’ comes from two Latin words: ex– [out] and ducare [to lead]. To educate someone means to lead them out…from where? From materialistic thinking. Through what? Through the artes liberales. The free arts, the arts that free us.   In other words, it elevates the mind beyond simple matters of the material and brings it into the realm of the immaterial, as well. I would like to take particular note of what Newman thought a liberal education was:

“Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is will to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University…Surely it is very intelligible to say, and that is what I say here, that Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence” (Newman, pg. 120-121, The Idea of a University)

Go back and read what Newman considers it ‘well’ to be. Do any of those things seem practical to you? Absolutely not! A delicate taste most certainly does not itself put food on the table. Newman talks in his book about the notion that knowledge should be sought for knowledge’s own sake. We ought to know simply to know. That knowing and increase in the intellect creates someone with a gentleman’s sort of quality, but they result from seeking knowledge with no ulterior motive.

How appalling to the modern mind! Why would we seek out something if we are not to use it to increase our material gain? Newman wrote in the middle of the 19th century and is still quite relevant in his critiques of those who would only educate for economic principles. The truth is, liberal education was the standard for education for the longest time. This idea of going to school to know things simply to know them was the expectation for education going all the way back to the time of the Romans…but that doesn’t seem to be what we have now, right?

Correct. In the early 20th century educators considered this inefficient and wasteful. Someone should walk away from an education with the ability to do things and to learn with more skill-based focuses. So expectations changed. But only ever so much. You see, when someone comes up with an idea, it usually comes about from a previous way of thinking and is only modified to accommodate a new level of expectation. What I mean to say is that even with the significant changes in education beginning in the 20th century, our model of education is still that of the Liberal Arts. Things are made out to be a bit more practical nowadays, but the notion that one should be learning about more of their native tongue and how to master it as much as math and arts or other extracurriculars is still the fundamental approach to how educators build our educational systems.

Except not.

Capitalist thinking, and especially modern and post-modern capitalist thinking, views units in an economy as agents interacting with supply and demand. Everyone, from the multi-national corporation to the individual, operates life under the assumption that he will buy what he needs to survive and thrive and sell what he has (or can do) for other people to buy from them. This interaction of selling and buying is foundational thought.

“Hey son, do this chore.”

“Sure dad, what do I get when I finish?”

The absolute worst part about this materialist thinking is that it has infected our systems of public education.

“All children must get an education.”

“Sure, government. What do my kids/me get when they finish?”

The answer ‘well they know things now’ isn’t an answer that will fly, exactly. The standard modern answer (in my opinion)?

“They need a high school diploma to get a job.”

The most basic notion of education is that it is a certificate for someone to say “ah, you’re grown up now. You’re now capable of fully and autonomously participating in real life.”

This contractual notion of exchange permeates education on every level. If you don’t believe me, just go read my article “I Need That Grade.”

Right now, more than ever, I believe this underlying thinking is being exposed. Kids aren’t coming physically to school because of COVID-19. If they have access to technology they are likely participating in distance learning with their school. Their teacher is working to come up with lessons to send through technology and then grade the work in return (get it?). And this contractual exchange is being exposed and ridiculed by parents. Kids, already exacerbated by a flawed system, are forced to try and fit the mold from an even more difficult position. Parents are tired of it. They didn’t sign up to educate their child! (They did, but they don’t believe they did). The exhausting effort to make sure their kids still get good grades is paramount. But, again, I already wrote about the grade part. Go read the other article if you aren’t following.

What this situation ultimately exposes is that not many people understand the why of education. They have grown up being taught that it is necessary, and that properly functioning members of society need it, but who the heck knows why we do it? Certainly we know that doctors and lawyers need to get advanced degrees that specify in knowing lots of detailed skills, but plumbers don’t need even a bachelor’s degree and they know lots of detailed skills? I don’t know, quit asking me. Sometimes I wonder if even the people in charge of our public education understand the ‘why’ of education. In a recent email I was encouraged to be lax with students, to give them ‘just what the students need to know and be able to do’ to get by the rest of the academic year. What even constitutes the body of knowledge that one “needs” to know?

In this delicate situation of trying to educate from home, parents are saying ‘this is enough. This is too much to handle from home. Just stop for now, pick it up again next year.’ I even had a parent email me (and all the rest of her son’s teachers) and ask

“What standards [state mandated learning goals for students] are you teaching through the rest of the school year? I just want to make sure my son is being taught what he needs to move on and that he’s not just being given busy work.”

In America in the 21st century, you don’t go to school just to go to school and to learn things. That’s dumb. There needs to be a product. Education means you need to acquire a skill, to acquire useful information. It’s either to get on to the next course or it’s to use it for some skill. Skill-based education is not inherently negative, but a skill-based education is not liberal. It is not freeing of the mind, it only ensnares it further in the materialistic thinking of the world. Most unfortunately that product of modern public education, in this case a high school diploma, requires grades. When you’re focused on perfecting your grades, what aren’t you focusing on?

Probably not cultivating your intellect.

Probably not a delicate taste.

Probably not a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind.

Probably not a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.

In short, we are not focusing on becoming gentlemen and ladies. I know…it sounds archaic. Who wants to be a gentleman anymore? Who talks of becoming a lady? It sounds pretty useless. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to earn me anymore money. But ladies and gentlemen (if you consider yourself to be in this category) we must put aside these talks of money, and products, and contractual exchanges. If we have a liberal education, then let us have a liberal education. Let us disavow of grades as we have them. If a society is lacking in its number of gentlemen and ladies than it is worser for it. By all means should we teach and offer skill-based instruction and education for our students. We need technicians, plumbers, farmers, and soldiers; but these deserve and need to become gentlemen as much as the lawyers and doctors. Instead of teaching our children to skate by with as little ‘education’ as possible, let us encourage them to engage in it as much as possible.

Not because good grades are what matter the most. Not because it is a burdensome requirement to participate in society.

But because knowing knowledge is good for its own sake.

“Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is will to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University…Surely it is very intelligible to say, and that is what I say here, that Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence” (Newman, pg. 120-121, The Idea of a University)

I Need That Grade

“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.”

Before engaging with another person, there are a set of precepts that we all have that dictate exactly what the parameters of a discussion are. We know that certain signs will indicate favor with the other person, others disfavor. Some signs will indicate confusion, others comprehension. Most importantly some signs will indicate whether one’s behavior or conversation topic are appropriate for the situation at hand. Similarly for most anything within the realm of human function we find precepts that are parameters, guiding where something can and should go. These precepts are not always ones of which we are conscientious, but usually we have some sense of them.

The epicenter of my thought today is around education and the precepts that we teach our students. Education is never plain cut around the categories under which we achieve it. The subject of my classroom is the language of Spanish, but that is not just what I am teaching my students. I educate them around behavior, etiquette, ethics, and culture as well. Sometimes I even engage and teach about other subject areas like history and literacy. But by the time that students come to me (since I teach high school or advanced middle school), students usually already have a set of precepts around education.

One of the most important of these precepts is the North American grade. I think grading students is a good practice. It helps communicate to the student a teacher’s perception of their education and whether there needs to be any change in regard to how a student interacts with their teacher, or it informs the student where they stand with regards the comprehension or learning of new content material. It also provides a measure of accountability. No one likes to see themselves as being worth less than they feel, and when a grade starts to dip past where a student sees themselves it offers motivation to improve themselves. It also offers others from the outside a look at the way a student is in class. Do they do the work? Do they perform well? Do they do homework assigned to them?

The North American grade, however, has become something more than that. It has become the focus point of a cultural shift, one that deserves a bit of attention. Grades are a tool, serving an end outside of themselves. Just like any other tool from our past, mankind has learned to warp it to serve themselves regardless of the circumstances, moral or otherwise.

Because of the potential cause that grades can serve, a lot of people have come to view grades as an authoritative step in making other decisions and answering key questions:

Can this student play sports?

Can this student play video games?

Can this student see his friends?

Can this student go to college?

Can this student be trusted with responsibility at work?

Can this student receive financial aid for current or further education?

And at first these seem like reasonable questions to answer with educational grades, because the effort and application required to earn good grades in school translates into other situations and can be used as a measure of a stranger’s confidence in a student.

Here’s the kick, though. Our society is losing a sense of morality. Students, parents, everyone. Yeah, sure, be nice to everyone, but life is about what you make it. Follow your dreams. Everyone else doesn’t necessarily matter. Do what makes you happy because no one else will. Authority figures aren’t to be trusted because they don’t know you as an individual. Make your own way.

So when students come into school and they are confronted with educational material, they balk at it. What does learning Spanish have to do with following your dreams to become a football player or a hairdresser? Math class doesn’t make me happy, and no one else you talk to (except your math teacher) goes on about how it makes them happy, so why should you care about it? Authority figures are always misleading, so what point is there to believe that your teacher is actually doing something for your own good? Best to not worry about it. Just make your own way. Survive high school and then you can do what you want.

Except that doesn’t work. Because grades are attached to their behavior at school. Behavior not even meaning dramatic misbehavior, but typical day to day actions. Complete the work? Get the grade. Don’t complete the work? Don’t get the grade (or get half credit). Grades are how you survive high school so that you can finally get on to doing what you want afterwards. High school (and college) are seen as “barriers to entry” for whatever thing it is that students would rather be doing with their lives (or what they think they would rather be doing). Since grades are a “barrier to entry” for getting past high school and into these other things, then we start to revisit those questions from earlier with a bit of a different perspective. When students see grades they don’t see a reflection of their education or their effort towards school work. They see:

I can’t play sports.

I can’t play video games.

I can’t see my friends.

I can’t go to college.

I can’t get a job.

I can’t receive financial aid.

And so I get comments like:

“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.”

Instead of these excess questions that people use to evaluate a student’s potential being in excess, they become necessary and are usually the only things relevant to a student. Whether they are actually learning or progressing in the class? Not important. Whether the grade from that class is allowing or preventing them access to other diversions and goods? Totally important. Instead of these questions of access being secondary, as originally designed, they become primary.


As our society loses a focus on the value of morals, it loses a focus on the value of things that only exist in the abstract. If it isn’t visible and if it doesn’t produce a tangible effect that brings goodness and happiness to me, then it doesn’t have value.

Our current educational system is based on the notion of a Liberal Education. Before any cranky conservative goes spouting off about how liberal snowflakes are destroying children, let me liberate them from that thinking. A liberal education is that which liberates the soul from materialist thinking (St. Augustine, De Ordine). St. John Henry Newman articulates it in a slightly different fashion in his book The Idea of a University:

“Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.”

Can we measure a cultivated intellect? Can we measure the degree to which a soul is liberated from materialist thinking?

Probably not.

Grades are a good start, because they have some measure over the engagement of a student with a task or the degree of intellectual excellence that a student can demonstrate, but grades aren’t the end of that image. When material goods are seen as the end of good grades, or when material goods are seen as the end of education, teachers and parents have failed. Right now, in this cultural setting, grades have failed. Students no longer have sight of what an actual liberal education is. They have no precepts for how to engage with it in an actually liberating way. But it doesn’t start with them, it begins with the people administering it. It begins with parents, administrators, and teachers, and those are the people that have the power to remedy this malady.

“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.

Far from it. I do understand. You’re telling me exactly what you’ve been taught.