A teaching colleague once gave me some bad advice. I had complained that my high-school English students did not really reflect on the books I assigned. Their essays were mere restatements of key passages and summaries of my lectures.

He replied, “That’s because they know that English classes are not about reflecting on the truths in a book; they’re about what the teacher says a book is about. Your busy students are looking for a time-efficient way to give you what you want, so you can give them what they want—a good grade.”

My colleague suggested I give them time to read in class, cut down on quizzes, and lead stimulating discussions. Then, he assured me, they would focus on understanding rather than on simply getting a grade.

I tried it. It was a disaster. As soon as my students figured out there would not be a chapter quiz, they pulled out the math homework that was due next period—or asked if they could join the cheerleaders in the gym to make posters. They still did not spend quality time reading and reflecting. I threatened to reduce their grades if they did not just sit there and read and think.

Empty Success

This may sound like a typical “education is going to the dogs” story, but it is not. I teach in a private Christian school where over 90 percent of the graduates go on to college—and they score well on the SAT. The students are highly motivated, turning out for sports, holding afternoon jobs, and organizing church youth activities. The problem is that they are too busy with the immediate to reflect on the eternal. And sometimes we adults inadvertantly push them further in this direction, making it more difficult for them to gain intellectual depth and deeply held ...

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