As Jesus did, we should also stick to standards

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jesus said (to a man asking about how to attain eternal life): "'There is one thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' At this, the man's face fell. He went away sad, for he had great wealth." (Mark 10:21-22)

Certain Bible stories seem forever relevant. This is one of them. Told in three of the Gospels, the story of Jesus and the rich young man has everyday application.

The man had a goal -- obtaining eternal life. Jesus gave him the prescription for how to achieve it -- sell his possessions and distribute the proceeds to the needy and indigent. The man's reaction -- walking away, being unwilling/unable to meet the demands of Jesus' prescription. Jesus' reaction is to let the man go.

In Southeast Missouri and in every locale where schools are present, this is crunchtime. Final papers and semester-ending exams are being given. Graduation looms on the near horizon. A stressful time for many. It falls to us to apply the words of Mark 10 to this annual unfolding drama.

The presumed goal of every student is to pass a class with a good grade. The prescription for how to achieve that good grade is to execute the teacher's instructions. The reaction of some students (many, I hope) is to conform closely to the instructor's directives. However, there are pupils who react as the rich young man did. The wealthy lad of Mark's account did not get the answer he wanted; he stalks off in sadness. There are students who fail to give the teacher/instructor/professor what is asked of them. Yet the expectation remains of good marks even when the work is not done to specifications. Why?

Some ascribe the desire for good marks even when instructions fail to be followed to be a characteristic of the so-called YouTube generation (also called Generation M, for multitasking.) I resist such labeling. For me it comes down to this: Education seems more and more to be about reinforcing a student's own self-esteem. Grade inflation is the result.

We live in a time in which you may post virtually any means of self-expression on YouTube. You upload it and it can be seen by millions. There is no standard to achieve, no editor to approve your work and very few censors to regulate content. However a person chooses to image himself or herself should be acceptable to others. If it's not, then it's the observer's problem. That this attitude has spilled over into the educational system seems hard to refute. A teacher objects to the content of a paper or exam and marks down for failure to follow instructions. A student reacts by not liking the answer received and walks away. Self-esteem has been damaged.

Like Jesus, who declined to chase after the rich young man who didn't hear what he desired, the proper response of an instructor today is to let this be a teachable moment: "This is what you must do if you wish to earn a certain grade. If you don't want to do that, I'm not going to lower the standard to make you feel better."

At its core, education is not about boosting self-esteem. If that happens as a byproduct of grasping certain information and being able to articulate understanding, all the better. Remember that Jesus let the man walk. Did the fellow return to Jesus later, ready to do what was required? We don't know; the text never says. It's OK to have standards and to stick to them -- tempering all with the words of Micah 6:8: "do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God."

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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