The Quantification of Human Souls

Half a century ago, Professor Bryce convened a meeting of the Higher Ordinary English class at Glasgow, to advise us on whether, come Michaelmas, we should proceed to Junior and then Senior Honours.  Unless we were prepared to immerse and lose ourselves completely in the “Realms of Gold”, he said, then we should not go down that path, but rather, and quite honourably, complete an ordinary degree.

A class member stuck his hand up and said, “Realms of Gold are all very well, professor, but I want to teach English in school, and under the current rules, unless I have an honours degree, I will not be able to become a principal teacher.”

Prof Bryce frowned.  “Really?  I had no idea.”

That’s the trouble with these pesky exams: they matter.  So if your future health and wellbeing, prosperity and happiness depend on your grades (or you think they do), you will naturally seek out a mentor who “teaches to the test”.  Forget the “Realms of Gold”.

Exam setters are well aware of the fact that “teaching to the test” can be an extremely non-educational experience, so they try to devise exams which will identify and reward originality and creativity in the candidate, rather than the parroted mantras of somebody who has been drilled.  I remember Question 2 in the Ordinary General Philosophy (Logic) exam at Glasgow:

  1. Is Question 2 a proper question?

Fortunately, you could pick and choose your questions.  I thought, don’t go near it with a barge pole.  You will be lured, as by a Siren, on to the rocks.

What is the purpose of an exam?  During the educational phase, it is a means of demonstrating, to yourself and to others, that you are ready to progress to the next phase of learning; and at the end of the educational phase – speaking from the vocational point of view – it is a means of demonstrating that you are competent to perform a task.  I suppose exams are a necessary evil.  After all, you could hardly let a surgeon loose in an operating theatre, or a an airline pilot in a cockpit, without first checking that they were up to the task, and subsequently periodically checking that they retained their competence.  There’s even some justification in allowing that examinations be a stressful experience, because the examinees will doubtless encounter stressful situations during their career.

But it seems to me that exams ought to be straightforward; not necessarily easy, but in their format largely predictable.  They should be like a driving test.  You demonstrate that you are able to carry out a series of tasks safely and competently.  You don’t need to be Lewis Hamilton.

My heart ached for the young lady who phoned into Any Questions on Friday to ask why it was that, her teachers having advised she was going to get a bunch of A+ A levels, a computer algorithm decided to award her a bunch of Ds.  I don’t think she was reassured by the barrage of obfuscating prevarication that ensued.  Don’t worry – I’m sure there’s been a mistake.  All you need to do is appeal.  How long will it take?  Three weeks.  But today, that answer no longer applies, and nobody is quite sure what’s going to happen.  But something will turn up.  The expression “Kafkaesque” is overused but surely pertains to this young lady’s situation.

Why is life made so difficult for young people?  Take medicine.  If you want to get into Med School, in addition to a clutch of A*** +++ advanced A levels, you need to craft a faultless “personal statement”, present yourself to an interview panel and satisfy its inbuilt prejudices that you are doctor “material”, and sit the absurd UKCAT test which is an exercise in mental gymnastics akin to the Sunday Telegraph’s fiendish crossword Enigmatic Variations.  Then you must render succour to a lost tribe in the Amazon during your summer hols, and come back with a Covid vaccine distilled from the Cinchona bark.

Meanwhile, here, a sick person can’t find a doctor for love nor money.  Well, maybe for money.  We need to train more doctors.

I think if I’d been Health Minister – Education Minister, sorry, Freudian slip – this year I’d have tried to organise on-line exams.  It would have been easier in some subjects than in others.  The essay form would be easiest to manage.  You switch on your laptop on the appointed day and at 9 am the exam paper appears.  You submit at noon, with a declaration that your submission was all your own work, and you never looked at a book.  So, an opportunity to lie and cheat; no change there, then.

The scripts submitted could have been used to moderate the assessments of teachers.  I think the students would have preferred the opportunity to show what they could do, rather than be compartmentalised by some sophisticated computer program that was designed to be applied to a population, and not to a unique individual.  Human souls are unquantifiable.  They are not designed to fit an algorithm.  They are created to become immersed in the Realms of Gold.

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