Life-Long Learners or Good Test-Takers? An Orthodox Christian Critique
Religion & Liberty Online

Life-Long Learners or Good Test-Takers? An Orthodox Christian Critique

The video below of a second grade teacher in Providence, RI reading his letter of resignation has recently gone semi-viral with over 200,000 views on YouTube.

What I would like to offer here is an Orthodox Christian critique of the anthropological assumptions that separate this teacher from the “edu-crats,” as he terms them, who in his district so strongly championed standardized testing-oriented education at the exclusion of all other methods and aims.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, there is an understanding, just like all other Christian traditions, that human beings are made after the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26). For the Orthodox, however, the terms “image” and “likeness” have important technical differences. St. John of Damascus describes this distinction as follows: “the phrase ‘after His image’ clearly refers to the side of [human] nature which consists of mind and free will, whereas ‘after His likeness’ means likeness in virtue so far as that is possible.”

To elaborate, the image of God refers to our human nature, that which is common in all human beings. Every human being as a human being is composed of a rational soul and body with certain faculties, such as free will, reason, intuition, emotion, capacity for virtue, and so on.

The likeness of God refers to each person’s approximation to the divine likeness. It is not simply our capacity for virtue, knowledge, holiness, or any other divine attribute, but the realization of those attributes in us through communion with divine grace. Each person has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each is farther down the road in some areas than in others. A person who excels at patience, for example, may struggle with courage. A person gifted artistically may struggle to appreciate the value of math and science.

This traditional, Christian anthropology (it need not be limited to the Orthodox) offers us a balanced view of human personhood that contrasts with strict collectivist or extreme individualist anthropologies. The fault of the collectivist viewpoint is to place too much emphasis on human nature, failing to consider each person’s uniqueness. The fault of the individualist orientation is to put too much emphasis on the uniqueness of each person at the exclusion of what is common. However, this traditional view of personhood requires that both be held in tension.

The error this teacher is reacting against is a collectivist one. He mentions that he was even barred from tutoring on his own time students who needed extra help; from a collectivist point of view, every person must fit into one, cookie-cutter anthropology. It fails to respect the dignity of the human person, in this case dyslexic students and their teacher who was willing to take extra time to alter his teaching methodology to meet their educational needs. Such collectivist thinking ends up with, as he characterized it, an educational methodology focused on teaching students to be good test-takers, but missing the greater goal of being life-long learners. Such a reductionist anthropology leads to a sort of social calculus where educational goals are set through state regulation to the marginalization of individual capacity and context, part of what Stephen J. Ball has termed the “terrors of performativity.”

To be sure, some standardization is necessary in accordance with more traditional anthropology. Education ought to be oriented toward our universal human capacity for knowledge, virtue, creativity, and so on, but the force with which standardization is championed can truly become tyrannical in some circles, such as Providence, RI, assuming the account given above is accurate. In such cases, the champions of standardization make the error of seeking to educate humanity rather than human persons. Indeed, I would argue that failure to attend to each person’s unique capacities will inevitably lead to performative failure as well, unless the standards are continually lowered (as they have been). Furthermore, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, such an impersonal approach to education demeans the inalienable dignity of our children and our educators and reveals a moral and philosophical dearth among those who myopically view performative standards as the ultimate educational goal, inadvertently favoring good test-takers over life-long learners to the detriment of public education and, indeed, society as a whole.

For more on related subjects, see the following two posts:

“Asceticism and the Free Society”

“Alexis de Tocqueville and the Character of American Education”

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.