Most of us should examine our assumptions more than we do. There is a reason that the Socratic command about the examined life is repeated so often. Socrates was right: the unexamined life is not worth living. A man who will not ask himself questions thinks he is a god, but has the mental life of a boar and is surely a boor. The life of the mind is necessary for full human flourishing. Thinking can make a person uncomfortable, but mental inactivity is a denial of one’s own personhood.
We know this and yet there is a danger that is growing in the very best students, or the students who should be the very best. I meet young men and women who cannot flourish because they have lost the joy of the examined life. Thinking has become a constant grim duty and they lack the ability for recreation…for play.
I am not sure what causes this tense, serious, grim looking student, but I know this “intellectualism” has often come in a package. The student has experienced an academic program that has killed all wonder through the endless search for grades, high exam scores, and entrance into all the right programs.This is not the examined life at all, but a series of external examinations. The student is often mentally tired without having ever done real mental work.
Faculty often experience this fatigue when filling out the endless forms of assessment activities. This saps energy better used by teaching. Pity the professor or teacher who is already burned out after the orientation week! Worse is the lack of evidence that the activities help. An assessment of assessment would be funny if it were not exhausting.
The teacher and her student often lack the time for education because they are busy schooling themselves.What a pity! Is it any wonder that many bright students stop reading, trying new cultural activities, or experimenting? In our world of standards, credentials, certificates, and endless graduations, a student might move away from the keyboard or put down the Number 2 pencil and groan that their highly examined life is not worth living.
If the assessment obsession causes mental weariness that makes deeper thought impossible, then we must change. There is nothing more perverse than mental activity that wears out the soul while not putting on any future muscle. It is pain without gain.
Here is a suggestion. We must allow our teachers more freedom. To catch the incompetent, we have clipped the wings of the competent. Creativity is rendered more difficult when both student and teacher are assessed by a test. Perhaps it is better to set most teachers free, trust them, pay them like professionals, and see who might be attracted to the profession.
One strength of homeschooling is that in the best home schools, the parents are free of rules as are the students. All bad education looks alike, but the examined life is different for each person.
School administration, my sad role, must envision the school, find the proper resources, and mostly stay out of the way. This I know: when teachers and students are afraid or have no power, the result is not education but indoctrination. That indoctrination is in the platitudes of the secular elite instead of religious fundamentalism makes it no less mentally stultifying.
The examined life can only come when good teachers and good students have time and freedom to talk, walk, and argue. Something has always gone wrong when what we call education is either a business or a grind. Looking even for a moment at the writings of the mothers and fathers of the church would have warned us, but we are too busy assessing to read.