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May 2, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

Spiritual and Educational Materialism: A Lesson From the Maha Saropama Sutta

“Focus on the learning, not on the grade.”    

Whenever I complained about a grade as a boy, my father repeated this mantra.  Although it’s a good philosophy, it’s not one I fully embraced until I was attending the college of my choice…  a privilege I’d earned primarily as a result of my high school grades.  Now that I’m a high school teacher, I find my students in the same position. As high stakes testing continues to proliferate, educational institutions too often focus on assessing students as not only a means of evaluating them but also of teaching them.

This results in part from the fact that, quite rationally, students often don’t take work seriously unless it “counts.”  My law school classmates and I  exemplified this mentality; we were graded on a forced curve and our first year grades mattered more than any others in our educational careers.  We therefore put the minimum effort required into our pass/fail legal writing class, since doing anything more would have taken away from the time we could spend studying for our graded classes.

The process of grade obsession begins early on, since only students who do well early in high school qualify to take honors and Advanced Placement classes.  Although intellectual curiosity may make for good application essays and teacher recommendations, my students logically regard these as somewhat nebulous concepts next to the hard currency of actual grades and test scores.  Teaching to tests and test preparation is even more of a national obsession in Korea than the United States.  Regrettably, it emerged this week that some people in Korea apparently got their hands on this week’s SAT questions in advance, with the result that this Sunday’s administration was cancelled nationwide.

Saddened by these thoughts, I happened at random to listen to the Maha Saropama Sutta (opens a sound file, text here) this evening.  Like many suttas, it relies upon a simile; in this case the Buddha likens the pursuit of the holy life to the pursuit of heart wood.  He criticizes spiritual materialism, that is pursuing a spiritual path for reasons other than enlightenment.  I feel (and fear) that too often, we engage in educational materialism at all levels, that is focusing on pursuing grades and in turn degrees, rather than educational enlightenment.



Leave a Comment
  1. Christopher Lipsett / May 3 2013 1:47 am

    Interesting blog, Mr. Teacher. Interestingly, your father also worked on what to do about high school students stealing SAT questions. Love, Da

    • A Mindful Traveler / May 3 2013 1:59 am

      Interesting. So my understanding is that because someone stole questions from the January edition, they cancelled the May edition nationwide in Korea. That seems a bit unfair. What’s the thinking behind this? Live O

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