Assessment for Classical Schools, Part 1: A Philosophy of Leisure

By Carrie Eben, guest author

Every time I teach a seminar on authentic assessment for classical teachers and homeschool parents, I begin by asking the question, “What is the purpose of education?” following up with, “Who do you want your students to be when they leave your school/home? Without fail, teachers and parents, give answers such as “Lifelong and autonomous learners,” “A person who loves God and others,” “Virtuous and wise humans,” “Critical thinkers who can articulate well,” etc. Never do I receive answers such as, “Good test scores,” “College entrance,” or even, “A steady, well-paying job.” Why? Because teachers and parents intuitively know the true purpose of education. They know that education is about leading a person to learn skills and love virtuous ideas which will help them flourish in all stages of their life. However, when I ask them to share about their assessment practices, they often do not align with their hopeful purpose. Assessment practices must align with the purpose of education.

Leisure Provides Posture for Purpose of Education

For students to focus on loving the right things, they need assessment practices which align with a schole education, or an education at leisure. Josef Pieper describes leisure as first, “…an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul…” and “inward calm” which is not “busy,” which is second, “an attitude of contemplative ‘celebration,’” and third, it is “opposed to the exclusive ideal of work qua social function.”[1] This positions leisure as the opposite of acedia, which is the despairing busyness of unfruitful toil.[2] A person at leisure knows their purpose and works accordingly. A person pursuing acedia does many things, but they are impotent towards their true human purpose. Leisure is unrushed.  It lets things happen. Humans sometimes have difficulty letting things happen. It is not efficient. However, if an education at leisure means to allow students to contemplate their personal journey, assessment needs to reflect this as well. Assessment with the posture of leisure encourages thoughtful reflection and helps students love rightly through wisdom and virtue.

Contemplation brings Celebration and Joy

While grades, report cards, and standardized assessments provide some initial feedback for students and parents in certain academic areas, it is important to consider a deeper level of assessment—one which begins a conversation within the student to ignite soul movement towards growth. This requires the moments of contemplative rest that leisure brings. Leisure, as Pieper notes, begins with a “silence” so one can apprehend reality.[3] A posture of contemplation can help a student orient their habits to grow first and foremost in virtue—the things that matter and the true purpose of a classical education. It includes an acknowledgement of where one is and a celebration of what has been learned. It is also an acknowledgement of where one should grow in wisdom over time. Pieper also explains in his book, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity that at the heart of a festival or a celebration is Joy: “Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves.”[4]  We want students to experience Joy as they receive what is properly loved and this includes assessment. We want them to celebrate the virtues of learning to flourish in all stages of their life. This is the true goal. However, during the mid-twentieth century, education evolved into a factory assembly-line and left little room for moments of introspection and realizations of Joy.

Classical Assessment Should Align with Purpose of Education

I recall the familiar flutters of fear on the advent of a test–especially ones that tested things I could not truly study for, like the SAT or ACT, which tested more on the ability to take the test rather than confirming my understanding in an area. I remember wanting to write in the margin of the standardized test, an explanation for why I chose a certain answer. How I was being assessed was not really showing what I knew. Providentially, I had developed enough intellectual virtue (tenacity and courage) to forge through these discouraging seasons; however, I also learned to idolize grades and test scores. While the purpose of classical education is for virtue, many classical schools fall prey to “acedia assessment,” encouraging love for measured achievement rather than a love of virtue.

Modern assessment tends to focus on goals and objectives relative to government agendas and standards. Instead of educating for freedom or the good life, the object is more utilitarian, and assessment becomes more utilitarian too. Modern assessment is less humane in that it limits the learner in how they are assessed by time limits, multiple choice, and true/false. Content is segregated and chosen by the teacher. On the other hand, assessment that is in tune with the purpose of classical education provides more freedom and evaluates the “whole person.” If classical education is about the “habituation of the mind and body to will and to act in accordance with what one knows,”[5] according to David Hicks, then assessment practices should reflect this. Too often, the classical school mirrors the assessment practices of the modern education establishment and forgets the purpose for which it embodies. The paradigm needs to be different. However, it can be very difficult for even classical institutions to implement the free, whole person assessments which are valuable if the methods seem vague and not quantifiable. Administrators will just go back to what they know and what is the easiest—which is a modern format of assembly-line assessment practices.

It is easy for classical schools to become enthralled with acedia, or the unfruitful busyness of certain types of assessment. Although many classical schools remove the “twaddle” of unnourishing curriculum and teaching practices, they often fail to eliminate poor assessment practices. Grade points, transcripts and college entrance exams are necessary for upper schools to communicate with higher education institutions, but they do not need to be the focus of education. It is important for the school to help students (and their parents) to learn to love the things worth loving in life. Intellectual virtues such as curiosity, autonomy, humility, attentiveness, carefulness, thoroughness, open-mindedness, courage, and tenacity are virtues which will help them continue to love learning and accelerate in skill and personal growth. When assessment is aligned with the purpose of education, it helps both teacher and student to be in a position for self-evaluation and growth. The soul is ready to evaluate where it is and where it needs to go. This can only be accomplished when one is in a state of rest, or leisure.

Works Cited

Pieper, Josef. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.

Pieper, Josef. Leisure: the Basis of Culture; The Philosophical Act. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009.

Hicks, David V. Norms & Nobility: a Treatise on Education. Lanham, MD, MD: University Press of America, 1999.

[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture; The Philosophical Act (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009), 46-48.

[2] Ibid, 44-45.

[3] Ibid, 46.            

[4] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 23.

[5] David V. Hicks, Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education (Lanham, MD, MD: University Press of America, 1999), 2

For over twenty years, Carrie Eben has championed classical education in both the private school classroom and homeschool arenas. She currently serves as founding board member at Sager Classical Academy in Siloam Springs, AR. Carrie passionately leads teachers and parents in the classical model of education. She develops and delivers customized workshops for administrators, teachers, and parents in both classical school and homeschool settings via Classical Eben Education Consulting ( Carrie holds a BSE in Intermediate Education from John Brown University and a MSEd in Curriculum and Instruction from Oklahoma State University. She is currently a PhD student in the Humanities program at Faulkner University and is a CiRCE Institute Master Teacher.


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