Assessment for Classical Schools, Part 2: Relationship, Soul-Orienting Conversations, and Types of Assessors

By Carrie Eben, guest author

In the last article about classical assessment, I discussed that assessment needs to align with the purpose of classical education—which is growing in intellectual skill and virtue.  This is achieved through a contemplative posture of what Josef Pieper calls “leisure,” otherwise known as “schole” or rest.  While this sounds beautiful, what are the important components for contemplative growth in a state of rest?


First let’s look at the idea of “assessment.”  Assessment has a relationship to the Latin word assidere which means “to sit beside” in the context of helping one judge, via dialogue, (specifically a tax appraisal).  In education, one can correlate this scenario to a teacher “sitting beside” a student and presiding over learning judgments via dialogue. An image of Virgil leading Dante step by step through hell, asking prudent questions, comes to mind:

And so I judge it would be the best for you 

to follow me, and I will be thy guide,

            leading you out through an eternal place…[1]

Virgil helped Dante make sense of Hell through his unwavering presence and poignant questions, orienting his soul toward the good, true, and beautiful. This is important because a key part of assessment is relationship. Quality assessment requires conversation between parties for a person to ignite movement within themselves to grow. Conversation is dialogue between two parties which lead to greater understanding of a topic. Good conversation is not a diatribe. It requires attentiveness for both parties to understand. It also requires a lot of listening and the asking of introspective, soul-orienting questions. Classical assessment should resemble the relationship between Virgil and Dante.

Soul-Orienting Questions

The Bible also has many examples of God asking soul-orienting questions.[2] In Genesis 3:9, after Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, God askes them, “Where are you?” God did not ask this question because he needed to physically find Adam and Eve. He knew exactly their location. He wanted them to assess the orientation of their soul: “Where were they in relationship to Himself?” In Job, we also find God asking his servant soul-probing questions. He asks Job in 38:4, “Where were you?” He does not beat around the bush when he asks this question. He wants Job to reflect on his own position which humbly places him as the created being, not the Creator. God orients the position of his soul. God also asked Jonah a difficult question. After the prophet Jonah had disobeyed God and repented after being swallowed by a great fish, he went to Nineveh to share God with them. When the Ninevites repented of their ways, turned toward God and evaded God’s punishment, Jonah pouted. God asked him “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). This poignant question required Jonah to think better of his own judgment for Nineveh and humbly reflect on God’s mercy towards this culture and himself. This reorienting question helped Jonah place himself in right relationship with God. The most important question asked in the Bible is in Mark 16:15. Jesus asks his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Ultimately, all humans must answer this self-assessment question. They must come to terms with who Jesus is and either accept or reject his identity as Christ, the Son of God. All the questions which God asks in the Bible create a discord within each person as they struggle with the question. This discord leaves a gap for learning. The questions create an itch which must be scratched and lead the person to self-reflection.

Types of Assessors

The questions that God asks in the Bible and the questions that Virgil asks Dante reveal the first type of assessor. The mentor, which represents the teacher, tutor, parent, coach, etc. who guides a student to thoughtful reflection. According to Proverbs 11:14, “…in the abundance of counselors, there is victory.” The peer can be another type of assessor. In Proverbs 27: 17 it says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Friendship at the truest level helps provide assessment and accountability for each other—such as the friendship between David and Jonathan, “And Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David at Horesh, and encouraged him in God.”  Peers can help each other strive for virtue. They can act as a mirror for the soul.

Mentor and peer assessors ignite conversation within the soul and inspire the last type of assessor—self. This assessor is the most necessary for change: “Let a person examine himself, then, so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Students can be made aware of error in their education (the Latin word educare means “to be brought out of error”), but no change will really happen until the self decides to change the course of direction. Chosen humility on behalf of an eager student is the most powerful for learning. According to David Hicks, “Pagan humanism and Christianity agreed that the fundamental problem with man, as well as the greatest obstacle to his learning about himself and his purposes, is his self-centeredness. Man cannot be virtuous or wise until he gets off center.”[3] When the self learns to ask herself the soul-orienting question prompted by God, mentors, and peers, the soul can reflect and assess move towards growth in both skill and virtue. 

My youngest recently completed her first semester as a freshman at John Brown University. I homeschooled her classically most of her life and I assessed her progress via, oral discussion, demonstration of practice, or projects and essays. She is a diligent student, and an articulate discussion leader, but she is not a stellar standardized test-taker. In college, she had to adjust (in some classes) to multiple choice tests and quizzes. Thankfully, as a classical student she understood the value of the intellectual virtues, which were also championed in her Honors Introduction to Higher Education class. She spent the first half of the semester learning new teachers, their procedures, and juggling all the things required for college success. Because she values learning over a perfect GPA, she was able to not get dismayed when her midterm grades were less than she hoped. She assessed herself, corrected some of her study habits (she addressed the intellectual virtue of carefulness) and ended the semester splendidly. Her main goal is to learn from her mistakes and grow, which displays the important intellectual virtues that will carry her through all stages of learning in her life. Her ability to self-assess and adjust her course for success is golden—and ultimately the most beneficial outcome of her education.

In addition to having a posture of leisure, relationship and conversation are essential keys for assessment. The process of creating a gap for students to ponder and answer themselves is imperative for learning and soul growth. Teachers who focus on dialogue about a math problem, a piece of writing, or a Latin translation can learn a lot about what a student knows and can direct them to ask themselves the important evaluative questions. Finally, the skill of self-evaluation, which can only be carried out in a posture of leisure, or contemplation, carries a student further in life than a body of knowledge. 

Works Cited

 Alighieri, Dante, Gustave Doré, and Anthony M. Esolen. Inferno. New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2003.

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

[1] Dante Alighieri, Gustave Doré, and Anthony M. Esolen, Inferno (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2003), 9.

[2] These questions from the Bible were brought to my attention by Cyndi McAllister, fellow Circe Master Teacher.

[3] Hicks, Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education, 92.

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