June 28, 2017

Subscribe to SLJ

Consider the Source: Why Do We Bother?

Sheet Music

CC-licensed image by Flickr user schoeband

My 12-year-old son has spent this week getting ready for midterms. He’s working hard even though he knows, far better than I do, exactly what their weighted contributions to his final grades will be. He can name the percentage allotted to every single quiz, test, assignment, and extra-credit opportunity in all of his classes. And he claims that all he cares about is doing well enough to make the honor roll—no more, no less.

My eight-year-old, though, is taking piano lessons, and his teacher gave him the simple theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to practice, which gave me a reason to sit, transfixed, in front of an iPod and listen to the entire score. What I heard gave me the one good answer I can offer my sons for why grades really are not the point of education.

Give yourself a treat; go listen to the Ninth. You can’t help hearing how Beethoven plays with you—the music driving ahead with a martial air, you can almost sense the fife and drum of the people marching; now expectant as dusk; now soaring, reaching to and beyond the breaking point up toward sky, toward transcendence, toward Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” sung in the final movement:

Can you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Can you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.

Joy, daughter of Elysium
Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.

You usually hear the chorus sung in German, but I have recording of just the chorus in which Paul Robeson sings in English (slightly shifted to the political left, so it’s not about a Creator but rather the people united, “All for one and one for all”). When the chorus swells, it’s Robeson’s earth-rattling voice that I hear in my mind.

Beethoven masterfully braids together themes and melodies, so that you’re taken on an ever-winding journey upward. Robeson’s voice tells me the same story: everything is about creation. We put our children through their paces in school not so that they will learn something, or master something, or meet any standards. No. We give them tools so that they can experience the joy, the passion, of creating. All we are doing is saying, “Here, if you know this, there is more you can make; there is another path you can map; there is another song you can compose.” School—from pre-K to postdoc programs—exists so that we can all build more from within ourselves and with our colleagues.

Young people need training, so that they can become builders. In my Beethoven-induced reverie, I was thrilled to see this headline in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune: “Walnut High students build worlds in new academic program”. The article is about a school in California where 75 tenth graders have volunteered to work with three teachers, three periods each morning, to create a society from the ground up. As social studies teacher Justin Panlilio told a Tribune reporter, “Right now, the students are designing a world we call Atlantis. They have to build the government, cultural and economic structures that bind a society together.” Creation—that’s where school leads, not rote and grade percentiles.

My 12-year-old doesn’t have the patience to sit through an entire symphony. The soundtrack of his life is more immediate. But even as he put down one set of study guides and picked up another, he saw me beaming as I listened to the music. Perhaps there was a halftone of pity in his expression: poor old dad just didn’t understand what school life is really like. But I also caught a second of wonder. “Maybe, yes, maybe,” his eyes seemed to say, “there is a wild ocean ahead for me, not just these endless streams to cross.”


Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

SLJTeen Live! Virtual Conference
Join us on August 9 for SLJTeen Live! This free, entirely virtual conference will feature more than 20 YA author panelists and keynote speakers, plus two hours of panels on innovative and creative approaches to teen services and programming. No teen librarian will want to miss it.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Thank you for this jolt of reality.It’s a good thing to consider the big picture of why we are learning in addition to what we are learning.

  2. Perfect – “We put our children through their paces in school not so that they will learn something, or master something, or meet any standards. No. We give them tools so that they can experience the joy, the passion, of creating.”

  3. Marc Aronson, thank you for this provocative essay citing differences between your two sons. As a retired reading consultant and classroom teacher, I have long held the thought that we should do away with the grading and testing that is presently the way we do American public school education. We should replace that practice with keeping portfolios of students’ work. Furthermore, children who do not do well within the confines of classrooms (and schools) could study as an apprentice from a mentor whose field of study matches the student’s interest(s).

  4. marc aronson says:

    I agree, portfolios and apprenticing are both excellent options, and as more or more kinds of education are available to students online, perhaps we will create new kinds of assessment and evaluation.

  5. Paul Robeson, oh how I love thee! Do you know where I may get a copy of the recording with Paul Robeson?