I had a surreal moment this year. I’d almost finished a lesson when one boy, usually a hyperkinetic little bundle of enthusiasm, raised his hand.
“So, like, I don’t really understand anything you’re saying,” he informed me, “But I can still get the right answer.”
He smiled, waiting.
“Which part is giving you trouble?” I asked.
“Oh, you were talking about this extra stuff,” he said, “like the ideas behind it and everything. I don’t… you know… do that.”
I blinked. He blinked. We stood in silence.
“So is that okay?” he concluded. “I mean, as long as I can get the right answer?”
Here it was, out in the open: the subtext of practically every class I’ve ever taught. I’ve grown accustomed to yanking my side of the rope in an unspoken tug-of-war. The teacher emphasizes conceptual understanding. The students conspire to find shortcuts around it. So it always goes.
But I’d never heard a student break the fourth wall quite like this. It was as if Peter Jackson popped up on camera saying, “I know you want a good story, but what about a bloated trilogy full of mind-numbing battle scenes instead? You’ll still buy a ticket, right?”
“Is that okay?” my student repeated. “I mean, I can get the right answer!”
He had a point. What else is there?
There’s a powerful ideology at work here, one my student has perhaps internalized without realizing: the unshakeable belief that math is all about right answers, and nothing more.
The Church of the Right Answer.
Millions of students worship there, and it’s not because they hate ideas. They do it because schools exist, in part, to sort and label them. “Honors.” “Remedial.” “Vocational.” “College-ready.” And the primary mechanism of this sorting—society’s basic equipment for doling out futures to young people—is grades.
Make no mistake. Grades are a bona fide currency. When I write a score on a test, I might as well be signing a paycheck.
And as for our tests—no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how clever and fair, there will always be a back-road to the right answer. There will be something to memorize—a procedure, a set of buzzwords, whatever—that will function as a fake ID, a convincing charade of understanding.
Some tests are better than others, but all of them can be gamed.
It’s tempting to blame the kids: these grade-grubbers, these incurious mercenaries, shuffling through our schools, forever demanding to know whether an idea will be “on the exam” before they deign to learn it. But let’s be honest. From right answers come good grades, and from good grades come all worldly prizes and pleasures.
Students worship right answers because that god delivers.
I’m not fond of this reality. But most of the time, I simply work within the confines of the grade-driven system.
I write the best tests I can. I mix in posters, projects, and presentations. I dabble in standards-based grading. I give second and third chances to succeed. I sing the praises of learning, in the best tenor I can muster. And at day’s end, when my job demands that I sort and label my students, I try to do so with sympathy and transparency.
In short, I’m constantly nudging students to think more deeply, but I never really challenge the dogmas of the Church of the Right Answer. I’m a good, rule-abiding cop, in a city where the rules are sometimes grossly unfair.
That doesn’t always satisfy me. Some days I don’t want to nibble at the edges. I crave a more radical assault: a reformation, a new religion.
Some days, I want a Church of Learning.
Now, I don’t have 95 theses ready to nail on the wall. It’s easy to critique a system, and damn hard to build a better one. You want a magic plan for education, a foolproof blueprint for helping the next generation to flourish? Me too! Send me the link when you find it.
In the meantime, I’ll tell you the four theses I’ve got, and let you supply the other 91.
Think of all the people you know who are curious and thoughtful. People who ask real questions and listen to the answers. People who read weird, well-written stuff, and then tell you about it. They’re not so scarce, are they? In many places, they’re numerous and thriving. The soil is not as barren as it seems.
I’ve seen it often. I’ll meet a student who knows everything about quadratics: how to factorize them, how to graph them, how to complete the square. And, like most students burdened with such knowledge, they view quadratics with pure contempt.
Then, with a little coaching, they’ll suddenly see what a quadratic expression is. They glimpse the idea beneath it all. And all of those useless fragments of procedural knowledge finally snap together, swift and tight, into a whole and gorgeous understanding.
The idea pops like a firework, and the kid lights up like a sky.
Real learning touches something deep inside people. It endows a sense of power and purpose and wonder that you’ll never get from regurgitating facts and executing shortcuts. Once you start thinking, you want to keep thinking.
This is a theology that doesn’t require a steeple. We don’t have to march on Washington, or take a scalpel to the face of education. We’re talking about the simple conviction that ideas are worth celebrating. Such as love of ideas can take hold as… well…
As an idea.
The Church of Learning doesn’t require that I reject the economic structures around me. I don’t need to drop out of school, eat from dumpsters, and refuse to clip my nails. Sure, the school-to-workforce pipeline doesn’t always honor the things I care about. But that’s okay. My material life need not dictate the terms of my intellectual life.
I can be a capitalist, and still be curious.
(In fact, I haven’t subtitled my memoirs yet, but dibs on “The Curious Capitalist.”)
In a zero-sum game, every winner needs a loser. I can’t gain a dollar unless you forfeit one. I can’t triumph unless you fail.
It’s pretty much how we’ve built our educational system. Students compete for finite resources: admissions spots at elite schools, A’s in a tough class, titles like “valedictorian” and “cum laude.” If no one is failing, we sometimes worry that we’re doing something wrong—perhaps setting our standards too low.
Somebody has to fail, right?
To some degree, this continues after school. Adults compete for jobs, for customers, for parking spots. But—and I can’t scream this loudly or often enough—
Life isn’t just competition!
Wherever my students go—business, academia, government, Mars—they’ll reckon with problems. They’ll create things. Their hands will get good and dirty. And if they topple the challenges, fix what’s broken, and imagine wonderful new things that everybody needed and that nobody ever realized, then the world will get better.
A better world is not like a fancy college. The spots aren’t limited. The more we populate the planet with curious, thoughtful, talented people, the better it becomes.
There’s a word for this idea: “education.”
When my students leave, it won’t particularly matter what grades I bestowed, or what tests they aced, or what shortcuts to the right answers they could and couldn’t find. What will matter are their abilities.
Their wealth of knowledge.
Their curiosity, independence, and capacity to learn new things.
Those skills can be developed. It just takes time and effort. And that’s what teachers are for: to help make it happen.
Like my students, I have good days and bad. They and I are jostled by the same storms, pulled by the same tides. Sometimes I scold them for worshipping at the Church of the Right Answer, and sometimes I play back the tape and discover that I’ve been preaching its sermons myself. I try to track the harm and the good that I do in the classroom, measure the one against the other. It isn’t easy. There are no right answers.
But of course, life’s not about right answers.