A student gave me a beautiful reminder of the heart of a liberal arts education last semester. And it wasn’t because she got good grades. In fact, her grades were pretty poor. Having done the vast majority of the work for the semester, she found herself buried in commitments at the end of term, and completely missed several major deadlines. She had realized this by our oral final exam at the end semester, and was prepared for the sub-par grade she received.
After we had discussed the details of her grade, she opened up about having learned a great deal this semester, among other things the virtue of time-management and the danger of over-commitment. No surprise there. Hopefully those lessons will prove well-learned in semesters to come. But what came next was beautiful.
Education and the Greater and Lesser Things
With head held high, she shared that she was grateful for this semester—grateful for everything she had learned. While I was caught up in trying to help her process a bad grade, she was revelling in the joy of having learned, not just about time management, but about Plato, Aristotle, Donne, Shakespeare… the nature of love and justice, and the art of integration. Without any attempt to manipulate or change her grade, without any signs of really caring about her grade that much at all, in fact, she basked in a proper and full pride of work well done, and semester of genuine growth.
And she was right to do this, for grades, while they play a valid and important role in education, are ultimately not a primary or even secondary concern. The true heart of a liberal arts education is far less tangible than anything that can show up on a transcript, anything that can be measured or quantified, for it is a matter of the formation of mind and character, learning to read, think and write in ever richer, more careful, creative and faithful ways. And regardless of the grade she earned, she had in fact grown a great deal in knowledge and wisdom.
The Heart of Education
My students and I are not here to give and receive grades. These, at best, are mere signs or sacraments of a far deeper reality, a far richer grace. We are here, both of us are here, to learn. We are here to learn because learning, growing in knowledge, wisdom and understanding, is a good in and of itself, and because by learning we grow in our ability to live good and full lives. And fortunately, my student was able to have joy in this, while I was distracted by concern for lesser things.
As I gear up for a new academic year, I can only hope to have more students like this one—students for whom grades are less important than learning, for at best they are weak and inadequate pointers to a far deeper and more important reality: devoting ourselves to a life transformed by a search for wisdom.