Ladders and Higher Learning

I think we would all like to believe that education is transformative, that it brings about some good that is better or higher – a telos that is worthwhile in and of itself  or a process of formation that changes a person for the better, thereby making the world a better place.  I can’t think of any educator who doesn’t hold this ideal to some extent or at least long for it.   However, it is also easy to become cynical about the possibility of vertical ascent in an educational context that is deformed by the horizontal goals of consumerism, individualism and utilitarianism.

Education has often been referred to as a ladder – a ladder to success, a ladder to a job, a ladder to another degree.  Some have also called education a “hoop to jump through”, suggesting pejoratively that education is a means to an end or something to be suffered temporarily (images of slaves or prisoners in work camps come to mind).    In all of these references, the effort to climb or jump is largely understood as a matter of individualistic “muscular will”, as Simone Weil (1951) would say.  Echoes of this notion of learning as “muscular will” are found in every report card comment that encourages the learner to “work harder”, or every deduction for a late assignment given in “fairness”.   Playfulness, joy, reverence and wonder are absent in this discourse and I see the impact of such conditioning on the faces of my students every semester around exam time.  They are weighted down with the gravitas of time pressure, multiple assignments and high stakes assessments – weights I feel compelled to impose. Our higher learning institutions – even those that claim to understand higher learning as spiritual transformation seem to do their best to make it impossible for learners to even hope for a vertical step.

These utilitarian, consumerist and individualistic ladders differ greatly from spiritual ladders offered to us – Jacob’s ladder, the ladder of the beatitudes, or the ladder of the fruit of the spirit, to name just a few.  “Muscular will” can do little to help you ascend these ladders because the first rung is always humility or self-emptying (being destitute and experiencing the awesome presence of God in fear and trembling in the case of Jacob’s Ladder, accepting Christ’s words that being poor in spirit is a blessing, discovering that last fruit of the spirit – exercising self-control – is really the first rung of the ladder because all other fruits depend on this).  These ladders are more about descent than ascent.  They are always a synergy of God seeking us, descending to us, and inviting us, and helping us make our ascent possible through a process of self-emptying and looking for/paying attention to/waiting for God.  The goal of the ascent (to become like Christ/to participate in the life of God)  is so ontologically brilliant that it is very evident that all you can do is step off the path you are on, take off your shoes and stand as close to burning bush as you can. In fact, the more you try to climb these ladders through “muscular will” rather than a desire and longing for God, the more quickly you fall off.

It is no wonder, then, that we can become cynical or at least question the possibility of the current context of education as spiritual ascent.  Education that is focused on the “muscular will”, not only results in “apprentices without a trade” (see yesterday’s post), but a confusion about ascent.  We come to believe that we can move vertically under our own power, that growth/learning/transformation are not essentially gifts given in a loving relationship that fosters compassion and increasing desire for all that we come to know/can know.  We become people ‘‘who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back but will go right up to the sky.  Thus occupied he cannot look at the sky.’ ( p. 127)  All education is transformative, but, sadly, the transformation is often a degenerative slide into the root cellar.

In order for education to be true higher learning, we must find ways to invite our students into learning that is not corrupted by ladders of consumerism, individualism and utilitarianism.  There are things we should do everything within our power to resist in order to provide learning that is enriched by time to look, time to wait, and time to desire, as well as, supported by educators who know how to extend these ladders and descend them in ways that help their students ascend.  Somehow we must find a way to do for our learners what God does for us – provide a ladder that is invitational, grace-filled, attentive, worth longing for and waiting for.  This doesn’t mean that learning is always “fun” – this kind of ladder is equally ego driven and horizontal.  Ascents are always a struggle and when we can’t rely on our “muscular will” or on “pleasure” the struggle is even greater.  I am simply expressing a heart that is often saddened by delusional learning ladders.  I am equating higher learning with the possibility of connecting with something that is real, beautiful, true and good for real, beautiful, true and good reasons.  I am still learning to do this as an educator.  Still looking.  Still longing.

Weil, S. (1951).  Waiting for God.  HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

9 responses

  1. Hi Kim. Another article with high potential for discussion and debate. Thank you! It made me sad. My earliest memory of school is that it demanded a performance and no varying from the script. I fought a losing battle with my daughter in jr. h.s. about liquid paper – she wanted a clean page, I wanted her to go back in there and fight for her ideas: crumpled, ink-blotted, wrong, clever and heart breakingly hopeful. I now have grandchildren. I suspect I am too late, but am surreptitiously teaching my granddaughter to go deep and sometimes make up her own words. Of course, I read books from the back and rarely finish one unless I love the dialogue. ☺ Irene

    • I feel sad, as well, Irene. But I think that feeling sad is a sign of hope. Feeling sad at the condition we see, feeling hungry for something different, keeps us looking and offering ourselves to that which we know is truer and better.

      Your granddaughter will long for and look for the same because she had a grandmother who helped direct her attention.

      Thank you for reading!

  2. Kim,

    This “ladder” posting deserves wide distribution, particularly at a time when when governments look only at narrow measurable “results,” and teachers’ unions consider almost exclusively their self-interest rather than the common good. And that, sadly, is what frames the debates about education. When a large public school board in Nova Scotia cut all librarian positions in its schools earlier this week, the main response was from the union about the loss of jobs . . .

    This week, my wife and I are looking after our two grandchildren who live on a chicken farm. And we volunteered to “pick eggs.” A fascinating experience, at least for a few days. It’s an assembly line with a machine at the end that automatically rejects eggs that don’t make the grade (some of which are literally thrown to the dogs), and then neatly arranges all other eggs on a tray that, significantly, then has exactly 30 eggs, all arranged points down in exactly the same position, with no room for any to move or be different. All too often, in my view, this would be a metaphor of what educational institutions do to children and young adults.

    What saddens me is that back in the 1970s I could be far more optimistic about what I thought education would look like in the future than I am now. There was much discussion about how we could help students search for meaning, how they could choose to learn what was meaningful for them, how as teachers we could help them become persons able to develop their own gifts, insights and abilities. There was, in short, more reverence for students as responsive images of God.

    Can we recapture that conversation and move in a different direction? Ideas have legs, and I hope that your posting and this website will be catalysts for such a journey–a journey of joy, peace, gratitude, and justice, even if it is not always an easy one.


    • Dear Harro,

      Thank you for reading and responding so thoughtfully. Your description of the ‘egg picking’ is a powerful metaphor for what schools can become. The way we assess and evaluate is an important key to finding a pathway forward. Although I appreciate the strength of standards based assessment and consider it a strong alternative to norm-based assessment, I also agree with Alfie Kohn who said that all grading was a fools game and interferes with creating conditions for true learning.

      I was just teaching a class a few minutes ago on the use of learning stories as assessment (a practice developed by Margaret Carr in New Zealand) and we were talking about how the most difficult things to accomplish in education are the things most worth accomplishing. It was encouraging to listen to the positive comments on this practice and its potential for inclusivity as well as better teaching and learning. These beginning teachers were also able to insightfully consider how one might transfer these practices or at least the spirit of these practicies into higher grade levels.

      One thing that might bring new life into the system is the inclusion of early learning through preschool and full day kindergarten. It seems like the conversation about real learning is alive and well there and has been for a long time.

      I still have hope, but I also long, and mourn.

      • Kim,

        You put it well: it’s what schools CAN become. It’s a blessing, at the same time, that there are many teachers and schools that resist the egg crate mentality–which, in my experience at least, is strongest in high schools and many first year university courses. And George Abbott’s move to pay teachers extra for every student above 30 in their class is, at best, a pragmatic administrative tool but, at worst, a reflection of a lack of understanding of what education should be all about. And I’m not as optimistic as you that pre-school and full day kindergartens can help to turn things around: from what I hear, too many full day kindergartens are becoming mini-grade ones.

        At the same time, discussions last night with two of our grandchildren about their middle school experiences were a strong reminder that there are places where students have wonderful learning opportunities working with committed, insightful, and sensitive teachers and leaders: creative interdisciplinary projects; worthwhile interaction about learning and life; student-initiated experiences such as school assemblies and service projects; personal mentorship from teachers as well as peers. In short, a place that both implicitly and explicitly promotes reverence for life and living meaningfully. I hope and pray that our grads will be able to follow a similar path in their teaching.


  3. Hi Kim,
    Thought-provoking. Of course, one of the more difficult pieces in the educational process involves convincing students and the school community that transformation is actually a worthy end of education, given the fact that there is no “transformation” category on the school’s transcript and no university or place of work seems to ask much about it.


  4. Hi Dave,

    Thank you for reading and commenting. The thought of transformation on a transcript makes me shudder, along with any other kind of transformation measurement. The interesting thing is that it is impossible for education to be non-transformational. We just aren’t paying attention to the kind of transformation we are imposing, or we have just given up thinking anything else is possible. I always think it is interesting that independent schools usually end up looking just like public schools despite their often explicitly stated transformational goals. They even seem to measure their success by how much like a public school they are – yes we use the same curriculum, yes our teachers are all certified… It is true that what we value is usually found in what we assess, but I always hate to think of educators as victims to systems as well. There is always room within a system to offer ourselves to what is true, beautiful and good, and to help our students pay attention to these things as well. The tricky part is not getting cynical or despairing. I keep telling myself that God knows we are “dust”. Maybe we also have to keep asking the why question. I recently spoke at a conference about assessment and one person attending said they hadn’t thought about the “why” of assessment since their teacher education program. Stories are very powerful, too. At graduation, parents want to know if their child was known, cared for, part of a community more than how many awards they get. Our education graduation ceremony is only about stories of the journey travelled, the journey that lies ahead and expressions of gratitude. But I know, I’m at heart a primary teacher who still loves cooperative sports days :).


  5. Kim,
    Fantastic blog post! This is exactly the type of thinking we are trying to imbibe in our schools. We just spent some quality time with a group of our educational leaders around your thoughts and blogs. Your point on ascent through “muscular will” is a great idiomatic metaphor that illustrates the trap our educational systems fall into.

    • Dear Greg,

      Thank you for your response and kind feedback. I am grateful to know that these blogs are part of ongoing conversations.

      God bless your conversations and hopes for your learners.

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