Cheating in Atlanta Schools: Extending Our Moral Outrage over Grading Deception – part 3

In my previous post, I claimed that common ‘postmodern ‘ beliefs such as “perception is reality” and “reality is what we make it” render the concept of integrity absurd.  Integrity, or consistency of moral character, assumes the reality an essential, continuous self defined by qualities that exist and have meaning apart from one’s public image.  Publicly a person might have a righteous image, though his true self is guilty and unrighteous.  Conversely, a person might be condemned in the public eye, though his true self is innocent and righteous.

One of the leading postmodern thinkers of the 20th century, French philosopher Michal Foucault, blatantly rejected this traditional view of the self.   He maintains that the idea of an “essential human nature” is a myth of Western culture and that therefore the quest for understanding one’s essential self is futile:

To all those who still wish to think about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth . . . to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection, we can answer only with a philosophical laugh – which means, to a certain extent, a silent one.
– Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences

In place of an essential self, or human nature, Foucault posits that each self is “socially and historically constituted“; in other words, who we are is completely determined by where and when we live in time and space.  Thus, who we are is defined by how society at this moment in time perceives us, or perhaps rather how we perceive others perceptions of us.

Now what I am not saying here is that educators who cheat by changing answers on standardized tests or by manipulating grades in some other manner are reading Foucault and using his ideas to justify their actions.  Rather, such abstract ideas about the human self have seeped into our culture (through the media, schools, and so on) and have profound influence on our moral decisions.  If I have no true self apart my public image, and if there is no true degree of student learning actually taking place apart from what the public believes is happening at a school, then public praise and reputation is the only reality that matters and people will act to attain a position of approval and privilege within that reality

While Scripture acknowledges that social and historical factors influence people and that real differences exist between cultures, there are nonetheless qualities that all human beings have in common that constitute an essential, universal human nature.  Summarized, these are:

1.  Every human being is made in the image of God having traits in common with the Creator of the universe – traits such as sense of justice and ethics, an imagination to create, and a mind with which to reason to truth (Genesis 1:26-28).

2.  Every human being has a core, essential self called a “heart” (Proverbs 4:23, 16:1; Matthew 15).

3.  Every human being is born into a state of alienation from God because of the inescapable presence of indwelling sin.  Though the truth about God is plain to each one of us, we deny this truth and would rather give our loyalty and devotion to things of our own making than to the One who made us (Romans 1:18-20).

4.  Individual persons are known by God intimately and their lives are fashioned according to a divine plan (Psalm 139).

5.  The life of every human being will be judged by God, who alone has intimate, perfect knowledge of each person’s life, even the deepest secrets of his heart:

They [the Gentiles – those without knowledge of the Bible] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Romans 2:15-16).

Without denying the reality of differences between individuals and between human cultures, the Bible clearly affirms certain universal truths for all people, regardless of time and space.  Simply put, the true self of each human being is defined not by social or historical conditions, not by public image, but of the internal state or condition of one’s heart before God, which is a private matter known by God.

Applied to education, the truth about what a student has learned resides in that student’s heart.  It is a truth known perfectly only to God, but partially and incompletely by the student and even more so by his teacher.  And this truth exists independently of what the public perceives. As the authority in the classroom, and as one that has access to the most evidence of what the student has really learned, it is the obligation of the teacher to report this truth to the student, the family, and the larger society as accurately as possible so that the public perception of what the student has learned is consistent with what is privately true in the student’s heart.  Integrity is compromised when that reporting is manipulated to create a public image that distorts this hidden truth.

I will close with some simple, practical advice for how you, if you are a parent, can help ensure integrity in grading practice at your child’s school.

1. Curriculum is defined and structured according to standards that convey the aims or objectives for a particular course or even grade level (in elementary school).  These are usually accessible on-line.  Find a copy and familiarize yourself with what the school intends for your child to learn.

2. Keep track throughout the year of what standards are presently being focused on in class at a given time so that you can talk specifically with your child about what he is learning and look for evidence that such learning is taking place.

3. Find out how much of your child’s grade is based on assessments (i.e. tests) that provide real evidence of achievement and how much is based on effort, turning in homework, etc.

4. When graded assessments are returned to the child, ask the teacher to explain in-depth what the grades mean vis-a-vis the curriculum standards.  You see a B on the test:  so what standards did your child achieve (and to what extent) and what standards did he seem to miss.  A number grade should translate in your mind into a verbal understanding of what your child has learned.

I am convinced that parents are in the best position to hold teachers morally accountable for grading with integrity.  Though all of us would like to think that our children are successful in school according to the grades that they receive, and thus may be too easily pleased by and ready to accept A’s and B’s, it is for their, and integrity’s, sakes that we and they know the truth about how much they are really learning

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