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Oil and Water? Assessment and the Pursuit of Wisdom in Education

Oil And Water? Assessment And The Pursuit Of Wisdom In Education

Stating the Problem

Academic research in the field of assessment is replete with thoughtful analysis designed to offer us a multitude of ways to improve both our formative and summative assessment practices, as well as good advice about how we might adopt these practices to motivate, support, and evaluate student learning. However, let us suppose for a moment that by adopting the most excellent and well-researched assessment practices, we find ourselves better able to produce students with better grades, higher intelligence quotients, improved critical-analytic thought processes, enhanced communication and collaborative skills, heightened creativity and innovative capacities, as well as student graduates who will be more successful in their future endeavours as competitors in a globalized economy. Such improvements do not seem to be outside of the realm of possibility. But even if we are able to produce such wonderful feats of educational achievement in our classrooms, we must still wrestle with the plain fact that, having done so, we remain no further ahead with regard to wisdom or happiness.

The psychologist Robert Sternberg put this quandary most succinctly some ten years ago when he wrote:

“[H]uman intelligence has, to some extent, brought the world to the brink. Intelligence has brought us many good things, but also has brought us the nuclear weapons that have the power to destroy the world several times over as well as the addictive designer drugs that are destroying the lives of millions of people — young and old – around the world. Human intelligence has brought us where we are. Human intelligence, combined with creativity and practical intelligence, may have brought us the disaster at the World Trade Center that took place on September 11, 2001. The plan was creative, in its own way; it was analytically brilliant, evading the defenses of a nation; and it was practically shrewd, inflicting maximum damage for the number of people who were needed to carry it out. But the plan was not, for whatever else it may have been, wise, and the people who hatched it were not wise either. It may take wisdom to help us find our way out of a trap of our own making.” (2003, p. 234)

What we lack in not pursuing wisdom is that one good by which all other goods might be appropriately understood and enjoyed. Without wisdom, our critical-analytic judgments and calculations very easily derail, becoming only efficient means towards the gratification of our diverse desires; any “creativity” unleashed by our “innovative spirit” might simply enable us to develop ever-new and more harmful ways of wreaking our ignorance upon the world and each other; although “cooperative learning” and cultivating the ability to work harmoniously with others are noteworthy components of education, skillful collaborations that preserve a modicum of peace between associates are needed, as St. Augustine noted long ago, even among bands of thieves; so too might the enhancement of our communication skills lend itself to little more than the adept rationalization of our selfish interests, or to more persuasive demagoguery. Easiest to see, perhaps, is how the logic of successful global competitiveness in the creation of winners and losers does nothing to contribute to the peace and happiness of the vast majority of people on earth; such logic can only, in the end, fold in upon itself destructively with terrible, suffering consequences.

What is lacking in our current-day educational understanding is any enticement towards wisdom. Certainly, we seek eagerly after all of the secondary goods listed above, and as educators, we have taken up the great, social responsibility of ensuring that our students find themselves able to achieve all these prescribed “outcomes” of learning. However, in doing so, we have also failed to see that without this one primary good in wisdom, our ability to enjoy and to appreciate the goodness of all the secondary ones is greatly jeopardized. In education, our fixation with assessment has a strong tendency to divert both us as teachers as well as our students from the sort of learning that is associated with wisdom’s pursuit.

What is Wisdom?

What precisely is wisdom? Among the ancient Greeks, wisdom or sophia was understood as that Highest Good (Ariston) by which all other goods are properly measured; it is knowledge of the ground of goodness in which all that is good necessarily participates. But as the highest form of knowledge, wisdom is quite unlike all the other sorts of knowing with which we are most familiar, for Wisdom is also a goddess (Sophia). Being divine, Sophia transcends all of our ordinary ideas about knowledge; she is in a fundamental sense beyond every distinction we might make, beyond all particular or finite aspects of being we might espy, beyond all individual things, thoughts, feelings, as well as all temporality, change, and division. Wisdom is quite beyond our grasp or comprehension strictly as mortal beings who know by sensing and by the processes of discursive reason.

This is why Pythagoras – who long ago coined the word for wisdom’s pursuit, or “philosophy” – is known to have said “Only the god is wise” (Diogenes Laertius, 1972, I.12). Such ancient insights tell us that, to the extent we are merely mortal, wisdom must always remain beyond us; however, to the extent that we are able to “die” to our mortal selves – and for Plato, philosophy is precisely this “art of dying” (1961, Phaedo 67e) – to this same extent we might share in a more-than-mortal, divine sort of knowing or “immortalization” (to athanatizein). Indeed, “immortalization” is one of Aristotle’s most provocative and illuminating ways of describing the nature of wisdom’s pursuit in his Nicomachean Ethics (2001, X.vii.8). Linking education to wisdom-seeking in this fashion creates serious difficulties for assessors, however.

On the Activity of Wisdom-Seeking

Part of the problem, from an assessor’s perspective, is that one who loves or pursues Wisdom (i.e., the philosophos) is always in some way asking questions and inquiring into what is beyond our ordinary subject-object knowing, beyond the simply “scientific” and the measurable – beyond all the observational analysis and judgments we are apt to make with varying degrees of accuracy about particular instances of things in the world. For this reason, Aristotle refers to philosophy as that science which “studies being qua being.”

Wisdom’s pursuit involves a kind of contemplative seeing (theoria) that is not content to know any single aspect of things, or even to know a vast multitude of aspects of things. One who pursues wisdom is rather intent upon knowing, as Josef Pieper points out, “the totality of things” (1966, p. 12); he calls this pursuit “reflection on reality as such” (1966, p. 41). The love of wisdom is therefore perhaps best characterized as the desire to engage in the contemplation (theoria) of all of reality, which culminates in “a seeing” of the All.

Creating Perplexity (Aporia) Around Assessment

It is important to point out that genuine philosophizing can begin anywhere; it may arise in any inquiry (zetesis) whatsoever where human beings desire to know, and where their desire stretches out in openness towards the “totality” or the “ground” of being. As Plato tells us in his Theaetetus (1961, 155d), philosophy most especially begins in wonder (thauma) and perplexity (aporia). It begins with the recognition of our own ignorance – with coming to know that we do not know. In large part, this chapter is designed to drag you, the reader, into a state of perplexity about something with which you are already quite familiar and maybe harbor some feelings about having “expert”-level knowledge: namely, the day-to-day business of trying to make good summative and formative assessments.

But what if, despite the congratulations that we afford ourselves for embodying and teaching good assessment practices, our achievements in these matters are themselves really only illusory victories because they lack any grounding in wisdom, or in wisdom’s pursuit? What a profound confusion we have entered! Throughout the remainder of this essay, I want to problematize all our assessment practices by introducing you to just a few of the ways in which assessment and wisdom’s pursuit do not mix.

Stepping Back: Recovering Forgotten Insights through Lost Words

Part of the problem we face as educators who would entice our students towards loving wisdom is that we nowadays lack any language that is broadly accepted for speaking about the sort of thinking that is involved in wisdom’s pursuit. Ancient peoples, however, could handily name this sort of thinking that aims at wisdom. The Greeks, for instance, had two words to differentiate these different sorts of thinking: dianoia and noesis.

Dianoia generally names the sorts of cognitive activities outlined in Benjamin Bloom’s well-known Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956). Dianoetic thinking occurs where, beginning with the first principles (archai) or axioms (axiomata) of any of the diverse arts and sciences studied in school, we inquire or ratiocinate, using them inductively or deductively. It is in the realm of dianoetic thought that students gather and comprehend facts about things, that they analyze, synthesize, critique, and evaluate; it is here that they develop their thinking from the simple to the complex, that they innovate ideas, that they apply and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding; and it is in this realm of dianoia that we, as teachers, administer our formative and summative assessments according to the “objectives” and “outcomes” mandated by our educational superiors as these align with the specifics of our various disciplines. The cultivation and evaluation of dianoetic thought clearly takes up much of our time, and consumes all our efforts in education.

Whereas dianoia involves the discovery and use of axioms and hypotheses without testing them dialectically or “taking them up” (anairesis) towards their ultimate Measure (Metron), it is through noesis, by contrast, that we aspire to know the highest things, and it is this form of thinking that orders the soul or psyche. Noesis (often translated as “intellection”) names the kind of cognition whereby we do not simply discover the archai or axiomata of our respective fields of inquiry, applying them laterally into the realm of multiplicity occupied by our disciplinary studies; rather, noetic thinking “takes up” (anairesis) all such axioms and principles, as well as all hypotheses, towards that First Principle (Arche) or ground which is itself the Measure of all else. Put another way: noesis is not content to ask even an infinite multitude of questions about this or that quality or aspect of being in this or that area of inquiry, but seeks to know “being as such.” In the theoretical realm, the Greeks called such knowledge by the name of sophia; in practical matters aimed at achieving the good in human affairs, such knowledge was called by the name of phronesis.

Whereas dianoetic rationality is the manner in which we as human beings come to know the world around us through chains of reasoning, intellection is a way of knowing that transcends our strictly mortal nature; for unlike ratio (the Latin term for reasoning from point-to-point, akin to Greek dianoia), intelligentia (the Latin equivalent of noesis) knows not by the work of reasoning, but all-at-once in understanding (intellectus), which is described by Boethius as the union of seer with what-is-seen “by the one stroke of the mind” (illo uno ictu mentis, Boethius 1973, V.iv.103). Unlike dianoia, where knowing transpires objectively as a subject standing “over against” its object, in noetic cognition the categories of subject and object do not apply. Rather, in the act of contemplative seeing (theoria), the distance between knower and what-is-known disappears entirely as each becomes the other in a unity.

These two aspects of mind, dianoia and noesis, or ratio and intelligentia, are likewise recognized and named in the Zen tradition, where dianoia is akin to “thought” (nen nien), and noesis to “no-thought” (wu-nien); in neither the Eastern nor Western wisdom-seeking traditions is the dianoetic faculty spurned. Certainly, we could not get along in the world without the ability to handle things objectively; as tool-making masters of nature, as scientists, technicians, and artisans, we must be able to manipulate the world-as-object. Indeed, human beings attain a degree of “understanding” (intellectus) of the world and of themselves through ratio, dianoia, or nen nien, and it would be well-nigh impossible for any of us to come to wonder about the world and our experiences at all (and hence to take things up philosophically!) without our capacity for dianoetic inquiry. As D. T. Suzuki puts the matter: “it is through your seeing, hearing, and thinking that you enter upon the path” (Suzuki 1956, p. 142); Zen Master Dogen long ago stated Suzuki’s point similarly as follows:

“It is through the discriminating mind that we are awakened to the Bodhi-mind . . .  without the discriminating mind, we cannot awaken to the Bodhi-mind. This does not mean, however, that the discriminating mind is the same as the Bodhi-mind. Rather it is by using the discriminating mind that we awaken to the Bodhi-mind.” (Yokoi 1976, p. 107)

However, while affirming the value of dianoetic cognition, or nen nien here, Suzuki goes on to note that “it is also through the seeing, hearing, and thinking that you are prevented from entering.” In other words, the machinations of reason are insufficient on their own to attain to the ultimate object (or rather, non-object) of cognition; as Meister Eckhart writes, “Desire extends further than anything that can be grasped by knowledge” (1994, p. 185); noetic insight is therefore only attainable through the infusion of a certain kind of love or desire that propels the will beyond all specific instances and ideas towards that ground which transcends all discursiveness, and all subject-object knowing.

Before we link this discussion of cognition to the conundrums it poses for assessment, let us emphasize once again that discursiveness is not per se irreconcilable to noetic zetesis; Socratic inquiry is clearly discursive in character; the Madhyamaka dialectics of Nagarjuna are similarly discursive; noetic in their direction, they too require the rigour and discipline cultivated by dianoetic exercises up and down the Bloomian taxonomy; the important thing to understand is that, on its own, expertise in such machinations leads nowhere with regard to wisdom.

Conundrum 1: The Love of Wisdom is a Spirit, Not a Process or a Product We Might Measure

Although we might gauge and assess our students for their dianoetic abilities, we ought not to suppose that the same applies to their noetic capacities. Here, let me draw your attention to our first conundrum for assessors in relation to wisdom: namely, wisdom’s pursuit is a kind of spirit, not a product or a process that we might measure.

On the one hand, this contention may sound preposterous; certainly we could look at a Socratic dialogue, at Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, or at the dialectical form of Samkhya philosophy in the Hindu tradition, for instance, and endeavour through practice to copy its formal dialectical procedures. And inasmuch as we suppose that dialectics are merely a body of knowledge, a procedure, or a technique to be imitated, we might infer that we could also develop a system of summative assessments to decide whether or not our students were engaging adeptly in dialectics, as well as formative strategies to help them gain proficiencies in the demonstration and mastery of dialectical form. In so doing, however, we would be gravely mistaken. Indeed, even in ancient times, it was commonplace to mistake the philosopher’s doppelganger, namely the sophist (sophos), for a genuine lover-of-wisdom (philosophos) precisely because the philosopher’s dialectic (dialektike) — in form at least — is identical with the sophist’s eristic (eristikos).

We must point out that it is the spirit of wisdom-seeking that distinguishes it from what is not wisdom-seeking, rather than its outward form. Noesis, the Greek word that names the mind’s seeing of what truly is, is characterized by the peculiar will that serves as its impetus — a will that seeks beyond all distinctions, fluctuation, and manyness for what is without distinction or fluctuation; noesis strives beyond all individual archai for that one Archai; it is identifiable by its will that “takes up” (anairesis) every other seeing (theoria), all other insights and understanding (intellectus) towards the One through “going down” (katabasis), or by dying to all that is not the One.

Put another way, where a student-mathematician, -scientist, -artist, or -athlete might be seen to excel at his or her own specialized art or science without any further requirements of character, the student who engages in philosophizing cannot simply go through the motions; he or she must necessarily be of such a character as to make it his or her mission to love wisdom as purely and simply as possible. Philosophy, unlike all other school pursuits, is a matter of the deepest heart, and for there to be genuine philosophizing, it cannot be otherwise.

Philosophy, as the love of wisdom, should not be understood as something unapproachable for children, requiring an advanced degree or a higher-than-average intelligence quotient. Indeed, the pursuit of sophia seems altogether more amenable to children than, say, the pursuit of phronesis — which, incidentally, is much lauded as the highest goal of many modern-day educationists who seek a humanistic ersatz wisdom in “practical matters” (Steel 2014). Philosophy is, above all, a matter of loving, and children are quite capable of great, wondrous love. Adults, by stark contrast, seem rather less adept in this regard. Perhaps this is why the lion’s share of Platonic dialogues are not between Socrates and older people, but with teenagers who have not yet reached the age where their facial hair has begun to grow; perhaps it is why Socrates even philosophizes with much younger children in the Lysis.

The primary way to begin loving wisdom in schools is not to turn all children into skilled logicians or arguing machines. Rather, it is to begin to open ourselves to non-objective, contemplative, or theoretic modes of inquiry and knowing. We must ourselves find ways throughout the day to stop dealing with children and youth as objects; we must leave off from our constant, all-consuming fixation with scrutinizing their thought processes, skills, and attitudes as “objectives” to be achieved. We must, in short, cease with our formative and summative assessments during those moments in which we wish genuine wisdom-seeking to transpire.

Conundrum 2: Wisdom Can’t Be Assessed Like Other Kinds of Knowledge

We’ve just seen that wisdom-seeking presents problems for assessors because it is a spirit rather than a process or a product. However, discussions about wisdom that are grounded in ancient and medieval insights involve a second grave difficulty that modern-day teacher-assessors must face. In our daily classroom assessments, for instance, we make judgments about the adeptness and proficiency, the correctness, the depth and the breadth of our students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes using all sorts of rich formative and summative procedures and tools. And yet wisdom cannot likewise be assessed; for whereas each art and science judges matters within its own discipline, wisdom enables human beings to make judgments about each of the arts and sciences themselves; it does not simply judge according to the specific ends of each discipline, but rather in terms of how these disciplines themselves (and our practices within them) align or fail to align with the Good Itself.

So although in our assessments we might judge the processes and the products of student performance in their respective fields of investigation using the criteria of those particular disciplines as our benchmarks, we cannot do the same with respect to wisdom, for that would be to measure what is higher by what is lower. As Plato tells us (1961, Laws 716c), wisdom is itself the true Measure (Metron); it is the Benchmark of all benchmarks and the Standard of all standards. But if wisdom’s pursuit cannot be understood as akin to our most familiar, obvious ways of knowing – those ways that are the subject of all our formative and summative assessments in schools – how then does the pursuit of wisdom transpire? How can we coax it along among our students? And how can we pursue wisdom ourselves?

Conundrum 3: Not a Critical Assessor’s Eye, But a Loving Gaze is Required

A third, related difficulty stems from the type of seeing involved in assessing. Our classroom assessments cultivate seeing, but what kind of seeing is it? Certainly, it is a seeing that judges the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the straight from the crooked — the wheat from the chaff. Summatively, it is a seeing that ranks good, better, and best, as well as bad, worse, and worst. Formatively, it is a seeing concerned with rendering the worse better, and the better best. Assessment involves a kind of seeing that focuses upon measuring and manipulating manyness and change, qualities, attributes, details, and appearances. Henry Bugbee long ago provided us with the most excellent portrayal of ourselves when we relate to the world and to each other in this fashion:

“Let us consider men as we would find them; with what manner of man would we deal? What shall we say of a man whose attitude toward us is consistently objective? Is he not the man who withholds himself, who speaks to us over a wall and asks us not to bother him too much? Is he not the man who receives us as a kind of specimen or instance of humanity, to whom he is prepared to extend the rights which claims for himself, perhaps, because he is concerned with the consistency of his position far more than he is concerned with us? Is he not the man who fails profoundly to respond to us? Is he not one who insists on treating us abstractly, who sits over against us with the reservation of one who assumes the role of our judge? What intimacy and open reciprocity can there be with a man whose attitude toward us remains only objective? What invitation does he extend to us to call upon him, beyond the limits of those claims of ours which he is prepared to acknowledge as defining his duty ‘in our case?’ Perhaps we are an interesting case to him, and in that event he may deal with us protractedly — accordingly. Who among us has not been through the abdication of responsibility and the sterility of the objective attitude in human relationships?” (1958, p. 210)

Interrogating this “objective man,” the lover of wisdom might very well ask, “Aren’t we more than objects with attributes to be measured and studied? Aren’t we more than this manyness? In seeing a child’s ‘attributes,’ are you actually seeing the child? Who or what is this person before you?” Do the eyes with which “the objective man” (i.e., the assessor) sees perhaps see the trees, but not the forest?

Recall a time when you have been with your own small children at the park, perhaps at the pool, or while they were playing. Do you remember them calling to you, “Daddy! Mommy! Look at me! Watch me!”? In calling out for you, they do not want you to evaluate them; indeed, it is perhaps because children become all too familiar with the assessor’s objective gaze that, later in life, they most certainly do not cry out “Look at me!” any longer, but rather wish the teacher (or parent) would stop looking at them, knowing that his or her gaze is a critical rather than an accepting one. Children are not looking for a grade or a score when they call out for you to watch them; they do not want your feedback about how they could, for instance, climb the monkey-bars better, or learn to pile the mud more neatly next to the puddle in the yard. Children do not want to be evaluated. They want simply to be seen. And we as grown-ups? We do not want to be evaluated either in our heart of hearts. Like children, we would like simply to be seen, and in being really seen, to be loved. And in being loved, to be known.

What then is this kind of seeing for which the assessor is incapacitated, and which the child craves when he or she calls out, “Look at me!”? In ancient times, it was known as “contemplation” or theoria, and since the time of Aristotle, its cultivation has been lauded as the highest happiness (eudaimonia) for human beings. Pieper captures the character of contemplative seeing most excellently in the following passage:

“A man drinks at last after being extremely thirsty, and, feeling refreshment permeating his body, thinks and says: What a glorious thing is fresh water! Such a man, whether he knows it or not, has already taken a step toward that ‘seeing of the beloved object’ which is contemplation. How splendid is water, a rose, a tree, an apple, a human face – such exclamations can scarcely be spoken without also giving tongue to an assent and affirmation which extends beyond the object praised and touches upon the origin of the universe. Who among us has not suddenly looked into his child’s face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment ‘seen’ that everything which is good, is loved and lovable . . .  Such non-rational, intuitive certainties of the divine base of all that is can be vouchsafed to our gaze even when it is turned toward the most insignificant-looking things, if only it is a gaze inspired by love. That, in the precise sense, is contemplation.” (1998, pp. 84-85)

Where the assessor knows objectively by “throwing over against” himself or herself what is to be known, the one who knows by means of the loving gaze understands through relation. His or her “I-Thou” attitude (Buber 1970) is not reconcilable with the assessor’s gaze; and yet it is the deepest sort of knowing, because through the I-Thou we begin truly to see and to know ourselves, the world, our students, and each other.

Given the I-Thou character of contemplative activity, many scholars of “contemplative education” have recently been considering the question of how to approach assessment in their classrooms. Recognizing the tenuous relationship between assessment and contemplation, many have advocated adopting assessment criteria that indicate “ongoing steadfastness,” such as how well students are able to demonstrate that they have integrated their contemplative experiences with course readings; their willingness to engage in self-evaluation, or their use note card journals.

Many contemplative education practitioners similarly use attendance records as basic evidence of student engagement (Coburn et al. 2011). Indeed, in my own high school teaching, I have always weaved self-assessment, reflective writing, and effort-based, attitudinal measures into my grading scheme for English Language Arts in order to make room for and to recognize the non-dianoetic/contemplative components of schooling. Speaking of the need for “meaningful and valid assessment methods” in a contemplative curriculum, scholars in this burgeoning field of inquiry stress engagement in reflective activities, looking for ways to gauge participation, and evidence of “level of investment” (Holland 2006). Recent efforts by teachers and scholars to bring contemplative inquiry back into the classroom are certainly laudatory, and their cautious approach to the assessment of contemplative activity seems grounded in the basic insight that one cannot properly treat contemplative practices in the same fashion as one treats dianoetic ones.

The drive towards assessment in schools and universities is all but inescapable, however; nothing seems to matter in the machinery of educational institutions unless it can be made subject to rigorous assessment and assigned a grade; but as we have seen, noetic cognition and contemplative practice in the pursuit of wisdom necessarily escapes the “objectives” and “competencies” lists in our school curricula; because it is a spirit rather than simply a demonstrable form, the presence of noesis cannot be accounted for as just one more bullet in a catalogue of dianoetic “outcomes,” or as simply another level in Bloom’s taxonomic pyramid (Steel 2012).

The only way for students and teachers to gain access to theoria is to include it in our daily curricula; but as Maria Lichtmann points out, “The pace of a curriculum (from cursus, meaning ‘running in rapid motion’) literally has us running along to keep up. By definition, curriculum is not contemplative” (1989, p. 7). Contemplative education proponents therefore seek to alter the character of curricula by including opportunities for theoria somewhere within the school day; given the competitive logic of schools and the ever-growing demands for “accountability” in education, part of this project seems to demand legitimating  the inclusion of noetic cognitive activities by recognizing them with assessment practices based on participation- and effort-based measures.

However, it should be noted that all such alternative forms of grading that focus on participation, daily effort, and dispositions are currently under fire from the latest barrage of assessment gurus whose new “no zero” orthodoxy is being implemented by many school boards and education jurisdictions. The logic of such policies, when followed stringently (dare I say, fanatically!), demands the eradication of all marks based upon effort, disposition, attitude, or participation. This uncompromising purity in the allocation of marks arises from the claim underlying “no zeros” that the only thing a grade ought to measure is student performance in relation to itemized lists of “objectives.” As a result, even if contemplative educators do their best to find alternative ways to legitimate the inclusion of theoria within the school day, all such efforts will necessarily be undermined by current and swelling trends in educational assessment.

Conundrum 4: There’s No Knowing to Assess in Wisdom-Seeking!

In his excellent book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot points out that, when we philosophize or engage in noetic dialogue and inquiry (zetesis) like all those ancient interlocutors of Socrates, we enter into a state of confusion, perplexity, or aporia. In philosophic discussion, we don’t come to “know” anything – only, akin to Socrates, that we do not know. Here, we encounter a fourth difficulty for assessment in relation to wisdom’s pursuit; for through philosophic discussions, the interlocutor finds that he “has not learned anything; in fact, he no longer even knows anything.” In such a state, measurements of knowledge and skills, as well as the assessor’s concern with finding ways of improving the cognitive achievements of his or her students, are certainly problematic! “And yet, throughout the duration of the discussion, he [the student] has experienced what true activity of the mind is” (1995, p. 154).

Conundrum 5: No Possibility for Error Renders Assessment a Silly Thing

And now a fifth problem arises. In agreement with most ancient and medieval contemplatives and philosophers world-wide, Thomas Aquinas remarks that the human mind, in exercising its highest contemplative function is “never in error” – just as there is no error in the most basic knowledge of first principles which we know not by chains of reasoning or through demonstration, but by simple intuition (simplici intuiti, 1966, 2a2ae.180,6). Indeed, error can only exist where there is discursiveness and duality, where there are differences or distinctions to be made between this and that. But the non-discursive activity of the intellect – variously referred to as the “heart” or “eye” of the soul – that reaches out towards what is in some sense beyond all duality, transcends all such differences. But if there is no possibility for error in the highest form of thought – if error as a category simply does not apply here, then what about assessment, which only makes sense when there can be error?

Ancient and medieval mystics and philosophers, as well as a good many modern-day contemplatives  agree on this point: the real heart of education – that part of education that is aimed not simply at honing our discursive reasoning or critical thinking skills – has no relation to assessment whatsoever. It is education directed at what is unbounded, One, and immeasurable; it is education directed beyond the multitude of things that might be scrutinized towards the ground of what is lovable. Such an education involves cultivating among our students a love for being (to on) – “being” as perfect unto itself – and a fondness for seeing deeply into being.

Where summative academic assessment is designed to rank the performance of cognitive tasks as “good,” “better,” and “best,” as well as “bad,” “worse,” and “worst,” Master Dogen remarks that in contemplative practice, “neither a brilliant mind nor scholastic understanding is of primary importance. The same holds true for mind, discriminating consciousness, thought, and insight. None of these are of any use” (Yokoi 1976, p. 53). Rather, as Pieper points out, “to contemplate means first of all to see – and not to think!” (1988, p. 73). Indeed, “this is the specific mark of seeing things in contemplation: it is motivated by loving acceptance, by an affectionate affirmation” (1988, p. 75).

Conundrum 6: Wisdom-Seeking Looks Like Idiocy using the Assessor’s Gaze

In Zen practice, such loving acceptance is known as “beginner’s mind” (shoshin). However, one who gazes so lovingly with shoshin is necessarily judged by all ordinary measures as imbecilic. Stories of ridiculous philosophers abound throughout world literature, from Thales’ famed incident of falling into the well, to Thomas Aquinas’ nickname as “the Dumb Ox.” The great Taoist master Lao Tzu therefore exclaimed in his Tao Te Ching: “My mind is that of a fool – how blank!” (1963, p. 77). The Venerable Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua similarly spoke in his Dharma talks of a “great wisdom which appears to be stupidity,” even referring to himself using the epithet “Semblance of Stupidity” (1983, p. 13). Islamic scholar Idries Shaw also wrote of the Sufi tradition in this manner, remarking, “Because what narrow thinkers imagine to be wisdom is often seen by the Sufis to be folly, the Sufis in contrast sometimes call themselves ‘the Idiots.'” Shaw also notes that, “By a happy chance, too, the Arabic word for ‘Saint” (wali) has the same numerical equivalent as the word for ‘Idiot’ (balid)” (1969, p. 12).  Moreover, Lao Tzu writes that the appearance of idiocy is not simply a problem of misconception localized in his own time period; it is rather how all who seek the Way will always appear to a mainstream audience:

“When the best student hears about the Way he practices it assiduously; when the average student hears about the Way it seems to him one moment there and gone the next; when the worst student hears about the Way he laughs out loud. If he did not laugh, it would be unworthy of being the Way.” (1963, p. 102)

Given the pervasive failure of summative assessment practices throughout history ever to capture or truly to understand the nature of wisdom-seeking, it is to be expected that genuine philosophizing, when held up to our summative assessments today, will continue to appear idiotic, and arguably, that both students and teachers who genuinely embark upon philosophizing in the classroom will themselves continue to be sidelined and derided in schools.

Conundrum 7: There can be No Concern for Progress if There is to be Progress in Wisdom

Just as summative assessments fail to hit their mark where wisdom’s pursuit is made the focus of education, so too do all formative assessment practices falter. Put simply: ancient and medieval contemplative traditions warn against indulging our desires for self-improvement, personal development, attainment, achievement, or progress. Where formative assessment is concerned with rendering the worse better, and the better best, contemplative practice is, by contrast, not so much about learning as it is about “unlearning.” As Chuang Tzu writes: “Not because of cunning / Or daring; / Not because he has learned, / But because he has unlearned” (Merton 1965, p. 105). Similarly, Lao Tzu tells us: “In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day; in the pursuit of the Way (Tao) one does less every day” (1963, p. 109). Thomas Merton writes that contemplation “can never be the object of calculated ambition. It is not something we plan to obtain with our practical reason” (1961, p. 10). Aligned with Merton’s observations, John Main similarly contends that in contemplation, “You don’t demand results. You don’t look for progress” (1970, p. 108).

Progress in theoria is, in fact, impeded by the concern for progress. Seeking to attain for oneself what one has yet to attain is contrary to philosophic katabasis, or “dying to the self.” As Heraclitus (2001) points out, without katabasis, no corresponding anairesis is possible, for the two are, in fact, “one and the same.” Hence, we ought never to look at contemplative practice as technicians in search of a perfecting technique, or a means towards our improvement. Zen master Dogen’s most basic teaching in the Soto school is that satori, or enlightenment, is not the goal of training; zazen is not a means to anything. In essence, Dogen insists that there is no difference between practice and enlightenment. Because all human beings are already endowed with Buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha), there is no “use” function that brings this nature about; hence there is no attainment: “To practice the Way single heartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life” (Yokoi 1976, pp. 46-47).

Following Dogen, Shunryu Suzuki too warns against ever conceiving of Zen practice as a means (Suzuki 1970, p. 59). Similarly, Meister Eckhart has written, “Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who is always hidden” (1981, p. 183). Indeed, “The more one seeks you [i.e. God], the less one finds you. You should so seek him that you find him nowhere. If you do not seek him, then you will find him” (1981, p. 192). There is, in contemplative activity, no room for seeking, for attainment, or for concerns with progress.

Whereas in our formative classroom assessment practices associated with dianoetic cognition, we naturally offer our students feedback designed to encourage and to coax them towards improvement, in their noetic practices, we would be mistaken to do so. As John Main writes, “We don’t need to be encouraged in the progress we are making. That would be altogether too self-conscious an approach … and far too egotistical” (1970, p. 99). Shunryu Suzuki similarly advises, “In shoshin, there is no thought ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centred thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement . . . then we can really learn something” (1970, p. 22).

Conundrum 8: No Attainment . . . and No One Who Does any Attaining!

Perhaps the greatest problem with supposing that even the best formative or summative assessment practices could ever be used to evaluate student “progress” in noetic cognition is that, strictly speaking, noesis only arises to the extent that the self is allowed to disappear: there is no one who might receive either accolades or censure for attaining or for failing to attain to a knowledge of what is. The pursuit of wisdom demands the cultivation of absolute humility and leaving behind all self-regard in order to know the “totality.” Josef Pieper has written poignantly about how this lack of self-regard is the distinguishing characteristic of a genuine philosopher:

“[T]he true philosopher, thoroughly oblivious of his own importance, and ‘totally discarding all pretentiousness,’ approaches his unfathomable object [namely, wisdom] unselfishly and with an open mind. The contemplation of this object, in turn, transports the subject beyond mere self-centered satisfaction and indeed releases him from the fixation on selfish needs, no matter how “intellectual” or sublime.” (1966, p. 38)

In his view, wherever selfishness dominates the existential arena, “there we should not expect true philosophy to flourish, if it can come about at all” (Pieper 1966, p. 39).

Conundrum 9: Wisdom is not Earned but a Gift (Donum)

Wisdom is not something one might achieve through one’s own activity or efforts; wisdom is never something earned; rather, as Aquinas points out, it is a divine gift (donum, 1966, 2a2ae.45.1-6). Merton similarly writes that, “The contemplation of which I speak is a . . . gift. It is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers. . . . It is not the fruit of our own efforts” (1961, p. 4). Hence, although wisdom-seeking sounds like an active manner of being, it is more properly understood as a passive one. Simone Weil remarks:

“We have to desire that it should be done in us – to desire it truly – simply to desire it, not to try to accomplish it. For every attempt in that direction is vain and has to be dearly paid for. In such a word all that I call ‘I’ has to be passive. Attention alone – that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears – is required of me.” (1947, p. 118)

Wisdom-seeking is, above all else, the cultivation of the broadest possible passive receptivity: it is a passive sort of knowing where the understanding (intellectus) does not act but simply receives, beholds, or sees. As St. John of the Cross records, this passive reception requires non-striving:

“The feelings which we have described are produced passively in the soul . . . likewise is the knowledge of them received passively in the understanding … wherein the understanding plays no part . . . the understanding must do nothing in connection with these feelings, but conduct itself passively.” (2008, p. 223)

In keeping with St. John’s insights, Merton writes, “It is not we who choose to awaken ourselves, but God Who chooses to awaken us” (1961, p. 10).

Conundrum 10: You Shouldn’t Assess What Cannot Be Taught

Finally, it makes little sense at all to suppose assessment practices could be used either summatively or formatively to “teach” students to be wise, for strictly speaking, wisdom is beyond all our mortal capacities. As St. Teresa of Avila has written, “Human efforts avail nothing in these matters” (1921, p. 55). Because wisdom comes to us as a gift rather than as something that we earn through our own efforts, it cannot be taught! Just as at his defence trial, Socrates denied ever having been anyone’s teacher, so too in these lines from Chuang Tzu do we glimpse the manner in which noetic cognition – being the activity of our immortal nature – escapes all our mortal faculties and machinations, even when we would wish to pass on such practices to our nearest and most beloved ones:

You cannot put this into words:

You just have to know how it is.

I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,

And my own son cannot learn it from me.

So here I am, seventy years old,

Still making wheels! (Merton 1965, p. 83)

Simply put, to offer a student accolades or censure based on his or her philosophic performance is essentially to attribute to the student some credit of effort, where in fact there can only be a gift. Taking Chuang Tzu’s observations seriously, any teacher standing in loco parentis to his or her students, who wishes to teach wisdom’s pursuit to them would only end up faltering as a fool spinning his or her wheels.

Conclusion: But C’mon . . . Isn’t Deep Assessment Possible?

Readers familiar with Rinzai Zen, having read what I have said about how assessment and wisdom-seeking are like oil and water, might retort that certainly koan practices are a most appropriate means whereby the Zen Master (roshi) could assess his or her students as to the character of their achievements in Zen practice. And they would be correct. Here, meaningful assessment does indeed take place.

However, the roshi’s assessment is quite different from the classroom teacher’s summative and formative assessments. Where the classroom teacher assesses his or her students based upon the achievement of demonstrated learning goals, a koan, says D.T. Suzuki, “is not a logical proposition but the expression of a certain mental state resulting from the Zen discipline” (1956, p. 137). As Merton remarks, although koans in some sense have a “solution,” this solution is not “an answer”:

“It is in fact a solution that can be known only by being lived. The true koan meditation is one in which the disciple comes to be so identified with the koan that he experiences his whole self as a riddle without an answer.” (1962, p. 228)

Here we are once again back in the familiar predicament that distinguishes philosophy from other school “subjects” or “disciplines.” Unlike the scientist, the mathematician, or the historian, the genuine philosopher may never lay down his or her “subject” or “area of study,” because philosophy is not a subject but a way of life in pursuit of what is fundamentally ineffable.

The roshi’s “assessment” is really a “non-assessment.” That is: it neither measures nor “scaffolds” student learning; rather, it is aimed at unlearning. It does not serve to build up an edifice of knowledge, but tears down all such edifices and presumptions-to-know; the roshi looks for evidence that the student, in his or her contemplative practice, has experienced the faltering of dianoetics, that he or she has come to see there is no “answer” to attain, just as there is “no one” to attain such an answer. The roshi’s assessment, in other words, violates every tenet of emerging theories about valid assessment, which insist that we must only measure what a student knows, and never what he or she does not know! But how can the student be assessed on what he or she knows, when there is no “he” or “she” who might do the knowing, just as there is nothing to be “known”?


Having considered the ancient educational conundrums discussed in this essay, it is hoped that readers will be less self-assured or certain in their own assessment practices or the assessment practices being implemented in their schools. The purpose of this essay has been to invite readers to question their most basic presumptions about the value of assessment, as well as the meanings of knowledge, school, and learning in order to help them re-orient themselves towards education as the pursuit of wisdom. Readers are challenged and invited to consider what wisdom-seeking might look like in their own lives, and to begin to investigate what sort of perplexities it might entail. This is the road to deep self-knowledge not only for teachers but for students, without which Socrates said long ago, life is not worth living.



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Sean SteelSean Steel

Sean Steel

Sean Steel is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Sessional Instructor at the University of Calgary and a public school teacher. He is author of The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education (SUNY, 2015) and Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom (Peter Lang, 2017).

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