I recently read a story about an occurrence in the life of Denis Diderot, the 18th century French philosopher. It came from a Ted talk by Amy Curry regarding her work, Presence. It told how Diderot was stymied in a debate on a topic and felt self-conscious and even foolish in not being able to design a clever response. He soon left the gathering but was bothered and humiliated by his inability to have a proper retort. By the time he had reached the bottom of the stairs, he discovered an appropriate response. He regretted that he did not have the presence of mind to have come up with a reaction to the challenge at the apropos time.
Upon reflection, Diderot realized that he had only began thinking clearly when he reached the bottom of the stairs so he coined the phrase l’ espirit d’ escalier, or the spirit of the stairs. It became known as the belated response, the after wit, the remark that you develop in your mind a bit too late. Elevator wisdom. We would love to be able to ‘do over’ the situation but it is lost in our life space. The experience can only be validated in reflection or the “wee vestiges of the mind.”
I thought about this in relation to my teaching career. There were many times that I wished that I could do “do overs.” There was the young man who was probably the most gifted artist that I have ever witnessed in my classroom but lacked the desire to discipline himself to do the habitual work of high school accomplishment. There was the young lady who had true leadership abilities when it came to running a meeting or galvanizing an effort to its successful completion but could not get a “C” on a test. Then there was the young man who could ace any exam that you would construct but had trouble talking to the person next to him. I failed the first person, gave a “D” to the second, and dutifully awarded the third person an “A.”
In each case, I was following the time honored pathway of education that consists of “curriculum/instruction/assessment.” Identify what is to be learned; construct a strategy for learning; evaluate the quality and quantity of what is learned. Therefore, the results are the grades F-D-A for the three students described.
In my l’ esipirt d’ escalier, I came to the realization that our formal general education system of rank ordering students based on their ability to produce knowledge or exhibit a mastery, albeit time-honored and easily understood by mainstream society, was terrifically flawed. In our wisdom of the last two decades in education, we have developed different grading systems like standards-based, ranked based, the six-point system, the eleven point system, the E-D-N-U system, Grade I or Y and have tried wholeheartedly to evaluate the student holistically (aka John Dewey to Ted Sizer and beyond). But ultimately, it all ends up being translated into a letter grade or numerical score.
In reflection, if I was able to revisit the lives of the three referenced students, would I, as adult to adult, “evaluate” them differently in my mind? If so, by what criteria? Are they participating and gainful citizens in their communities? Do they possess conscience? Do they practice the civic virtue that our founding fathers and mothers allude to as critical to a flourishing democracy? What is their legacy at this stage of life? Is it possible to codify such admirable traits in an adult and identify them backwards in young students? Or is education a “bottom line” business with a smattering of exceptions? Stephen, Alicia, and Brad and students who they represent have cruised through my thinking many times as I continue to mull over the ramifications of the flaws of academic evaluation.
I don’t have answers to all of these questions posed but my l’ esipirt d’ escalier has allowed me to understand better about my interactions with students, young people, and adults of all ages. The experiences of an individual throughout their life space shape them. Too much of what a person becomes falls outside the realm of a public education. Their family, friends, neighborhoods, upbringing, and station in life, cultural background and so many other factors sculpt them. But basic education is an important facet of that crafting. And the true purpose of basic education in the American public school is not to produce lawyers, doctors, lumberjacks, CPAs or tool die makers but to produce gainful citizens who contribute to the society in which they live and see themselves as part of the greater whole and participate with open thought in the “Great Experiment” of democracy that our founding fathers and mothers launched 200+ years ago. The grades, scores, aptitude tests, etc. will not go away. That is ostensible process of gaining an education but the “hidden curriculum” should be to incorporate a love and appreciation and sense of responsibility for life in a participatory democracy.