The Real Test Has Finally Come

Mar 19, 2020

After all these years, the real test has finally come.

The real test was never going to be a set of math problems. It was never going to be lab work. It was never going to be a list of facts. The real test was never going to be an essay on Jane’s relationship with Rochester, a fill-in-the-blank about which monster was Scylla and which one was Charybdis, or a series of multiple-choice questions about the Apostles, the Cold War, or “biblical economics.”

The real test was always going to be, “What do you actually want?” And so, the real test is upon us. For now, the old tests don’t mean much.

As classical schools cancel class for the foreseeable future, teachers are assembling lessons for students to do at home. Teachers are recording lectures from their dining room tables. Teachers are recording videos from home and emailing links to students. Teachers are prepping work sheets and workbooks and reading lists, but also recommended viewing lists and recommended cooking lists. In the midst of it all, a certain vexing question is emerging in every teacher’s mind that they had not expected. That question is: How do we keep students accountable for all we are asking them to do?

Most of the old ways of keeping students accountable are worthless now. Reading quizzes and pop quizzes won’t do. Oh, perhaps teachers are trying to finagle bizarre online contraptions that will allow them to “ensure” that students are doing all they are asked to do. Some teachers are, doubtless, trying to set up complicated scenarios in which all their students gather for Zoom meetings, and during the Zoom meeting, each student will be emailed a reading quiz to complete, then has five minutes to email it back. “I’m going to watch you type out the answers,” says the teacher, “just as I would watch you write out the answers in class.” Other teachers are drafting complex descriptions of “testing environments” to send to parents: “Parents can administer quizzes I send out, day by day, at home under the following conditions. First, smart phones must be collected and stowed…”

Admit it now, though, before you look like a fool: these ridiculous testing scenarios and accountability protocols simply aren’t going to work. They won’t work. Bizarre methods for creating a surveillance state at home won’t work. You will never be able to shore up all the loopholes. A few students won’t be able to find Zoom meetings at the appointed time. Parents won’t be at home to enforce quiz standards. Ten thousand suspicious things will go wrong.  

Instead, we have all been left with the real test, a pre-Modern test, a pre-20th century test, a human test— Dante’s test, really. And that test comes down to this question: What do you really want to do with your life?

During the quarantine, no matter how rigorously teachers enforce something they speciously call “accountability,” no matter how many worksheets are sent home, no matter how many Zoom meetings they set up, students are now free to blow off as much as they want. Face it, teachers. Your coercive power is all but done for.

The quarantine is not really like the free time of Summer, for teachers have no authority over students during the summer at all. But neither is the quarantine exactly like school, for teachers do not have the same authority over students which they used to. The quarantine is thus a bit like adult life: there's really no such thing as "free time," for we are commanded by St. Paul to make "the best use of our time" during these "evil days." Students are in a time of voluntary obligation, so to speak. What they prove of themselves during the quarantine will be a fine predictor of how they're going to spend their twenties.  

Let me put a positive spin on it, though. Now you get to play the part of chef, waiter, and sommelier. You can cook up some interesting dishes. You can gesture at them on the menu and describe the hill in Italy where the tomatoes were grown. You can extoll the minerally virtue of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However, like a waiter, you can make no demands.

This is, frankly, the real world coming to your students a little early. The quarantine is the real world as you have always known your students would encounter it. After graduation, students are free to care about old things and good things as much or little as they like. They’re all free to call or write, ask for recommendations, but after the diploma fits into a graduate’s hot little hand, he’s calling you by your first name. He’s calling you “dude,” if he likes.

Over the next 6 to 8 weeks, then, have a care that you not appear desperate and tyrannical. Don’t be the uncle who gets drunk on Thanksgiving and complains that no one gives him enough respect. If you have a number of students who obviously blow off everything that you’re “demanding” they do at home during the quarantine, do not be shocked. They have always blown off your assignments— you just couldn’t tell before. You couldn’t tell before because you had never truly been able to test them. So be thankful for the quarantine.

Your students are still paying tuition. You still owe them an education, although the nature of this education has changed.

The quarantine will give some people extra time, but it will rob many people of what little extra time they ever had. When creating work and projects and so forth for students to do at home, teachers must not assume that parents are going to play a big role in their children’s education during the quarantine. A few parents have that luxury, but most don’t.

If you have the possibility of daily digital communication with your students, live it up. Now, we’re all aristocrats. Now, we can all do what we please. Don’t pass up the chance to confirm the liberty of your students. Now, we are all free to do good. Now, we are all free to reign as kings and queens in our homes, undertaking great projects as befits royalty. Now, we can all write stories and listen to beautiful music all day. Send your students lists of your favorite books, favorite movies, favorite poems. Make them links to one-off things on YouTube that delight you. Give them your best recipes. In the midst of it all, give them assignments. If you were making your way through Paradise Lost, you can keep doing that. If you were teaching them the French Revolution, that’s still possible. All is not lost— just testing, just assiduous, bean-counting accountability.  

Your best, most obedient students will rise to the challenge. When you see them again, they will tell you wondrous stories. They will have done all the reading and more. They will be happy to return to school, but not too happy, and they will tell you, “It wasn’t so bad. It was different. It was good.” Many students will report moderate success, having made a few forays into interesting possibilities. Then a few students will complain that “Spring break is finally over.” They will have done nothing you asked them to do, claim otherwise, but remember none of the plot, know none of the principles, and perform none of the skills which you exhorted them to practice.

But, so what? It was always going to be this way. 

The quarantine is the apocalypse, which simply means "unveiling." The quarantine is pulling back an educational curtain and showing us what we all suspected. Don't let pride get in the way of an honest look at what's behind it all.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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