Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/Comments on the Sacrifice of Education
CONSIDERING that nearly forty years ago I did my best to prove the necessity of examinations for admission to the civil service, it will be believed that I did not sign the foregoing protest with a light heart. Before the Indian civil service had been thrown open, and before Sir Charles Trevelyan had carried his reform of the civil service in England, I was allowed by the then editor of the “Times” to publish several letters signed “La Carrière Ouverte,” in which I said all that could be said against appointments by patronage and in favor of examinations.
Nor should I wish to withdraw now any of the arguments which I then advanced. I hold as strongly as ever that appointment by patronage is too much for human nature. But I believe the time has come to examine the examinations, to improve them, and to reduce, if possible, the evil which, in addition to much real good, they have produced. The present system of perpetual examination, in spite of all the good which it has done, stands self-condemned, so far as our public schools and universities are concerned, by two facts which can not be contested; viz., (1) the number of men who, after having spent six years at a public school, fail to pass the matriculation examination in college, or the little-go examination in the university; (2) the number of men who, after having taken a degree at Oxford or Cambridge, can not pass the civil-service examinations without spending a year or two with a crammer. These facts speak for themselves. I wish, indeed, that I had time to go fully into the subject, but I have not at present, and I must be satisfied with giving my general impressions, and saying what is uppermost in my mind.
From what I have seen at Oxford and elsewhere, all real joy in study seems to me to have been destroyed by the examinations as now conducted. Young men imagine that all their work has but one object — to enable them to pass the examinations. Every book they have to read, even to the number of pages, is prescribed. No choice is allowed; no time is left to look either right or left. What is the result? The required number of pages is got up under compulsion, therefore grudgingly, and after the examination is over what has been got up is got rid of again like a heavy and useless burden. Nothing is converted in succum et sanguinem. The only thing that seems to remain is an intellectual nausea — a dislike of the food swallowed under compulsion.
The mischief done is, I believe, most serious. It will poison the best blood of England, if it has not done so already.
It is the best men who suffer most from the system of perpetual examination. The lazy majority has, I believe, been benefited by it, but the vigor of the really clever and ambitious boys has been systematically deadened. Formerly some of my clever young friends were what is called idle at Oxford, but during their hours of idleness, which mostly meant discursive reading and thinking, they grew into something, they became different from others. Now, my young friends seem all alike, all equally excellent, but so excellent that you can hardly tell one from the other. What is the result?
We have excellent members of Parliament, excellent judges, excellent bishops, excellent generals: but if we want to know Who is Who! we must often consult a Red-Book. England is losing its intellectual athletes who were a head and shoulders taller than the rest, and used to be looked up to as born leaders of men. And if history teaches anything, it teaches us that no country remains great without really great men, without a few men different from the rest.
I am asked what remedy there is. In the university there is, I believe, a remedy. Let there be two sets of examinations, one for clever and studious men who promise to take high honors, another for the many. For the latter the examinations might remain what they are now. Only the degrees might be given, not in the name of the university, but in the name of the different colleges. For the former there should be a real matriculation examination held by the university, not, as now, by the colleges; and then, after three or four years, a final examination might follow for real academic honors, allowing great latitude in the subjects of examination.
Much depends in all this on the examiners. In England most examiners are young men, in Germany they are invariably old. The professores ordinarii, who alone examine for academic degrees in German universities, try to find out what candidates have learned and know; our young examiners seem chiefly bent on finding out what candidates do not know. Add to this that in some cases, though rarely, examiners are actually the same persons who have crammed their examinees, and it may be imagined how human nature is tried in that process, and what the result must be.
With regard to the civil service, I know no substitute for
competitive examinations. Competitive examinations, however, might be toned down to a minimum, and a year of probation might possibly be substituted for the final and decisive examination. I say possibly, for, as is well known, we have always to think of “Take care of Dowb.”
Two things seem to me necessary: (1) A careful supervision of examiners. If the examinations are to remain in the hands of the youngest members of the university, their report should always be made, first of all, to the respective faculties, and afterward only, when approved by the faculty, to the vice-chancellor. The necessity of this has been shown by recent experiences in India and elsewhere. (2) A gradual change of competitive into qualifying examinations.
Many years ago we wanted to have examinations for the sake of schools and universities; we now seem to have schools and universities simply and solely for the sake of examinations.
Of the working of the fashionable fancy for endless examinations, I can speak from direct knowledge only in my own university. Coming back to Oxford, after many years of non-residence, I was perhaps better able to compare what is and what was than either those who have never known anything but the present system or those who have seen the present system grow up. Just now it seems to be understood that examinations are the chief end of life, at any rate of university life; they would seem to be thought to have an opus operatum merit for both the examiner and the examined. The object seems to be to multiply examinations as much as possible, to split them up — what is called to “specialize” them — to the extreme point. A man is not, as of old, wholly plucked or wholly passed; with the ingenuity of Italian tyrants, a piece of him is plucked or passed, while the rest of him is kept for the sport of another day. The end steadily kept in view would seem to be that examinations should never cease, that therefore nothing should really be learned, that examinations should follow so fast on one another as just to give time to forget the matter of one examination before the next comes on. The thing has grown to such a height that names can not be found for some of the endless schools, they have to be marked by numbers and letters. The gravest personages will be seen debating with the gravest countenances over some peddling change in “Group A 1,” seemingly without the faintest feeling of the grotesque nature of their employment, or of the reductio ad absurdum of the whole system which is implied in such a nomenclature, if nomenclature it can be called. The Oxford undergraduate is even examined before he comes into being; the exercise called responsions, the exercise for the now perhaps forgotten status of Generalis Sophista, is now grotesquely performed on lads not yet members of the university. In natural science, above all, examinations and examiners multiply daily. The luxury, to be sure, is a costly one; it sometimes costs fifty or sixty pounds to examine a single man; but the thing must be done, under pain of loss of character. For in the matter of what is now called “science” — a word which used to have another meaning — the many are in the hands of the few. A proposal for a new examination in any other branch is canvassed, perhaps thrown out, because men have some notion what it means. But “science” is shrouded in mystery. A new -ology is invented; not a dozen persons in the university know what the ology is about; but no one dares to oppose a fresh examination in it, for fear of being called retrograde, obscurantist, opponent of the march of intellect, any other anathema with which the Holy Office of “science” may be ready. And so the thing goes on merrily; everybody is examining or being examined, save during the short intervals allowed for forgetfulness between one examination and another.
Now what has come of all this? Simply the degradation of university learning and teaching into a trade. Each undergraduate seems to do a sum to find out what form of examination may be most profitable to choose — profitable, that is, not to the understanding but to the pocket. I was not a little surprised when, after my return to Oxford, I heard the words “the pecuniary value of a first class.” Such words were assuredly never heard in my younger days. A man was rejoiced to get as high a class as he could, both because of the credit of the thing itself and as an augury of a coming fellowship; but he never reckoned the exact value of the class in pounds, shillings, and pence. Another phrase that startled me was that of the “tutorial profession.” A college fellow who in my day undertook, most likely for a few years only, the further duties of a college tutor, certainly never thought that he was entering a special “profession.” But, owing partly to the growth of examinations, partly to the new position of college fellows which has followed on the fatal permission of marriage, the “tutor,” if he can so be called, is now altogether another kind of person. He reaches his fullest modern development in the “combined lecturer,” of whom, as he is powerful, one must speak delicately. To him, teaching is strictly a calling; it is a calling and not an office, for he is ready to practice it wherever he can find employment, and he is, moreover, a mere teacher, not discharging any of the other duties of the old college tutor. Without being a university professor or reader, he teaches men from various colleges, but he does nothing except teach them. And he is strongly tempted to teach them a great deal too much, and in the wrong way. When examination after examination becomes the main object, there is sure to be a great deal too much teaching, so much as to leave no time for learning on the part of either teacher or taught. The legitimate duty of a university teacher is to guide his pupil to the right books, the great books of the subject in hand, and to act as a commentator on them. But this implies that the object is, not the passing of an examination, but the study of a subject. When the teacher's business is understood to be to “get a man through” an examination — whether the result of that examination is to be a mere pass or a first class with its “pecuniary value” — study of the subject, study of the great books on the subject, passes away. The teacher puts himself in stead of the books; the thing becomes, in plain words, cram.
This is the tendency of the modern fancy for endless examinations. Of course it does not prevail equally in all subjects or with all teachers. It can not prevail so fully with the older subjects, where something of the better tradition of the past is still kept up, as it does with subjects of later introduction. Every man sees his own grievances more clearly than those of his neighbor, and to me it seems that what is called “modern” history is the worst off of all. It is at least worse off than “ancient” history, from which it is so senselessly parted in a separate school, to the great damage of both. For about “ancient” history there still clings something of the traditions of better times, times when men read great books with a tutor instead of filling their note-books with the tips of a crammer. I once asked a man who came to my lectures, “Have you a book?” meaning, in my ignorance, a copy of the author whom we were going to read. He answered, “I have a note-book.” That seems to be the net result of forty years' tinkering of everything, of multiplied examinations and multiplied teaching, to drive away “books” and to bring in “note-books.” And the professor can do nothing; he can only work away in a corner with a few who are still ready to toil at the text of books, while the combined lecturer flourishes amid a whole library of open note-books. For the professor is useful only to those who seek for knowledge; the combined lecturer, it is fully believed, can guarantee “the pecuniary value of a first class.”
Every examination is in itself an evil, as making men read, not for the attainment of knowledge, but for the object of passing the examination, perhaps of compassing its “pecuniary value.” But it may be hoping too much to hope that examinations can ever be got rid of altogether. If they must be, then, instead of being many and piecemeal, they should be few and searching. Instead of giving a man time to forget his various subjects one by one, they should make it needful for him to remember his work as a whole. In Oxford we ought to have (1) a matriculation examination; (2) an examination for B. A. much on the lines of the old one before tinkering began about 1849; (3) an examination (or other exercise) for the degree of M. A. of as varied a kind, and, at the same time, of as “specialised” a kind in each case as anybody can want. The complete degree should be given only to those who show real proficiency in some subject, the last “-ology” counting as one. Thus only can real learning, as distinguished from cram, at least cease to be penal. Whether it will ever reach to a “pecuniary value,” I do not presume to guess.
May I end with my own personal experience in a time now far distant? I have deeply to thank my Oxford undergraduate course for causing me carefully to read several books, Aristotle's “Ethics” at their head, which I otherwise might not have read at all or might have read less thoroughly. But I do not thank it at all for examining me in anything. I do not mean because I got only a second class; for I got the “pecuniary value” of a first class in the shape of a fellowship. What I do mean is that I read with very little comfort or pleasure, while there was before me the specter of an examination, deadening everything and giving a wrong motive for one's work. When I had got my degree and my fellowship, I said, “Now I will begin really to read.” I began in October, 1845, and I have never stopped yet.
My point in this discussion is: That, having been called in to aid education, examination has grown and hardened into the master of education. Education is becoming the slave of its own creature and servant. I do not deny that examination has its uses: I do not say that we can do without it. I say that it is a good servant, but a bad master; and, like good servants turned bad masters, it is now bullying, spoiling, and humiliating education.
Those who teach are the proper judges of what should be taught, how it should be taught, and what are the results of teaching. One of the methods by which they have sought to test the results of their own teaching was by examination — one of the methods, an instrument to be used with discretion, moderation, and freedom. This expedient (a mere subordinate expedient) has silently grown into a system; it has perpetually enlarged its own jurisdiction; it has stiffened into a special profession; it has created a body of specialists called examiners. As a body, the class of special examiners are younger men, of less experience, and, except in elementary schools, of inferior learning, as compared with teachers, as a class. They very soon evolve an artificial and professional skill, and set up hard, narrow, technical tests. Their business is not to teach; but to test whether the teachers are teaching, and what the learners are learning. This forces the learners not to attend to their own teachers, but to find some way of satisfying the examiners. Examination papers, not text-books, come to be the real subjects of study; the aim of the student is to get an insight into the mind of his examiner, not that of his teacher; and to master, not the subject of his study, but that artificial skill of passing examinations. Thereupon grew up another class of specialists — the crammers. Their business is, not to teach, nor to test teaching; but to enable students to pass the tests. This soon became an art of its own, as artificial as playing whist or the violin. So, in the cricket-field, having called in professional bowlers to practice, it became necessary to call in professional “coaches” to teach the defense of the wicket. And in the result, education is tending to become a highly exciting match, not so much between the players as between the “bowlers” and the “coaches.” The teachers are slowly thrust out and controlled by the examiners; they in turn are checked and dodged at every turn by the crammers: so that learning is fast passing into the grasp of two classes of specialists, neither of whom are teachers, nor pretend to teach.
I have myself had experience both of teaching and of examining for more than thirty years, in more than one university, and in several places of learning. Though not belonging to the special class of examiners, I have constantly been occupied with examining, have worked much with examiners, and have had no small experience of the practical working of the system. I need hardly say that I regard the special examiners as a most acute, energetic, and conscientious body of men; and I say the same of the crammers as a class. Both do their work with great ability and conspicuous honesty. It is not the men, it is the vicious system which is in fault. Every teacher knows by experience that, when he has to take his place in the examination curriculum, he has to submit to the system, and he does his best to practice the examining “art.” And when, as every teacher nowadays must, he has to turn crammer, he tries to acquire the crammer's art — omnes eodem cogimur. Teachers, examiners, crammers, and students, all have to take their place in the vast examining machine, which, like the Prussian military system, grinds out a uniform pattern. The huge examining mill grinds continually, and grinds very fast — unlike the mills of the gods — but the grain it casts aside; it is designed to grind out the husk.
I do not say that we can do without examinations: nor do I object to all examinations, under any condition. My complaint is confined to the incessant frequency of examinations, the growth of the practice into a highly artificial system, the creation of a profession of examining, and its correlative the profession of cramming; the wholesale, mechanical, and hurried way in which the examinations are held, and the subjection of teaching to examining. In sum, I complain that the trick, the easily acquired and cheaply purchasable trick, of answering printed questions should now so largely take the place of solid knowledge and be officially held out as the end of study.
I shall say nothing about elementary schools. As these are compulsory by law, supported by rates and taxes, and administered by the state and public bodies, and, above all, teach mainly the mere rudiments, there may be reasons for an organized system of examination which do not apply to the higher education. Here the examiners are clearly superior in learning to the teachers; the curriculum itself is more or less mechanical and capable of mechanical tests; and a certain uniformity may be inevitable, and a certain standard of efficiency must be tested. I do not approve of our present system of examining in elementary schools. But I desire to say nothing about it. Nor shall I say anything about the physical effects of overpressure by examination. It is not my subject, and I leave it to others, merely adding, as is plain, that at least nine tenths of any overpressure on students arises from examinations and not from simple study. Nor shall I say anything about official appointments. I have no special theory or plan to support. As a rule, I think people whom we trust to govern must be trusted to select capable agents. If we can not trust them to do this, let us not trust them to govern us. If examinations are required to restrain jobbery, I prefer to deal with the jobbery face to face and by direct means, and not to pervert all public and private education in order to checkmate the wicked jobbers and reward the best crammed ones. Nor am I called upon here to devise a counter-project and to suggest other tests than examination for distinctions and prizes. The distinction and prize system is already absurdly overdone; and nineteen twentieths of the tests are wholly needless, or rather actively mischievous. We want neither distinctions, prizes, nor tests in anything like the profusion in which they are now poured out. Art, learning, politics, and amusement are deluged with shows, races, competitions, and prizes. Life is becoming one long scramble of prize-winning and pot-hunting. And examination, stereotyped into a trade, is having the same effect on education that the betting system has on every healthy sport. I do not deny that teachers may usefully examine their own students as a help to their own teaching. I do not say that there may not be one public and formal examination in any prolonged educational curriculum. My plea is against that organized, mechanical, incessant, professional examination, by which education is being distorted, and the spirit of healthy learning is being poisoned. Examination, like so many other things, is useful as long as it is spontaneous, occasional, and simple. Its mischief begins when it grows to be organized into a trade, and the be-all and end-all of its own sphere. The less the student be “prepared,” in the technical sense, the better. The more free the examiner be to use his own discretion with each examinee, the more likely he is to judge him fairly. It was so once. All this is now changed in the thirty or forty years since the examining mania set in. The myriad examinations which now encompass human life have called out an army of trained examiners who have reduced the business to a complicated art as difficult and special as chess. Like chess-playing, the art of examiner and examinee has been wondrously developed by practice. The trained examinee has now learned to play ten examination games blindfold. He can do with ease what the most learned man of the old school could not do. Gibbon would be plucked in the modern history school. Arthur Wellesley would never get into the army. And Burke would have got low marks, through not apportioning his time to the various questions in the paper, I seriously doubt if many of our great scholars, our famous lawyers, historians, and men of science could “floor” off-hand a high-class examination paper. They would not put their knowledge in the sharp, smart, orderly, cocksure style which so much delights the examiner. They would muddle the relation of the shire-moot to the hundred-moot, or they would forget the point in Smith vs. Jones, or they might differ from the examining board as to the exact number of the isomeric amyl alcohols now known. All this your trained examinee, well nursed by thorough crammers, has at the tips of his fingers. He “floors” his paper with instinctive knack — seeing at a glance how many minutes he can give to this or that question, which question will “pay” best — and trots out his surface information and his ten-day memory in neat little pellets beautifully docketed off with 1, 2, 3, (α) (β) (γ), the “five elements” of this, the “seven periods” of this movement, and the wonderful discovery (last month) of a new reading by Prof. Wunderbar.
Of course, all this does not take in the examiner. He knows that the student does not know all this, that this is not the wealth of the student's reading, or the product of the student's native genius. But what can he do? His task is to set questions, and the student's task is to answer them. If the questions on paper are answered right, cadit quæstio. The examiner's business is not with what the student knows, but with how many questions he can answer, and how many marks he can score. The examiner may see that he is not examining the students so much as the teachers, or perhaps the crammers. All that he can positively say is, that the candidate has been brought to the post perfectly “fit.” The student may be writing down mere “tips” from memory; but if he makes no slip, and he has been carefully crammed, the examiner has to admit that he has got his marks. The examiner may doubt if the knowledge is real, or is worth anything. He can not state that the man has failed. If he had time and opportunity, he could easily ascertain. But in many examinations there is no viva voce allowed; in most examinations the public viva voce is not thought decisive, owing to nervousness, temper, accident, and various points of temperament and manner. Few examiners now care to decide by viva voce; which in any case is done in a hurry and under disturbing conditions that destroy its value as a real test. An examiner has rarely the chance of trying a candidate with a fresh paper, or of giving him as many quiet verbal questions from time to time as he might like. There is no time, there is no opportunity. There are the rigid rules; the candidate is not accessible at the time wanted; he can not be got into a state perfectly composed, easy, and master of himself. A quiet afternoon or a morning's walk would settle it all. But the clock goes round; the machine grinds on; the list must be out in a few hours; the examiners can not sit disputing forever; an average must be struck, time is called, and down goes the candidate's name — usually, be it said, “with the benefit of the doubt.”
This is no fault of the examiner. His task is very difficult, trying, and irksome. None but trained men can perform it; and it is wonderful how much trained men can do, and with what patience and conscience they make up their lists. But the higher examiner now has to mark on an average, in a week, from 2,000 to 3,000 answers, perhaps from 4,000 to 5,000 pages of manuscript. In this mass he has to weigh and assess each answer, and to keep each candidate clear in his mind, throughout eight or ten sets of papers. He is lucky if he can do this with less than ten hours per day of work at high pressure — reading in each hour, say, from fifty to a hundred pages of manuscript. He can no more waste an hour, or follow up a thought, than the captain of an Atlantic liner can linger in his ocean-race. The huge engine revolves incessantly; the examiner's mark-sheet slowly fills up hour by hour till it looks like a banker's ledger; some fifty or a hundred candidates get into groups, of Jones, Smith, Brown, etc., or else Nos. 7695, 7696, 7697, etc., and soon Jones, Smith, Brown are labeled for life.
What a farce to call this examination! Any sensible man who wanted to engage a confidential secretary, or a literary assistant, or a man to send on some responsible mission, would not trust to a mark-sheet so mechanical, so hurried. He would see each candidate once or twice alone for an hour or two, talk quietly to him, get him to talk quietly, leave him to write a short piece, set him to do a piece of actual work, try him backward and forward in spontaneous, unexpected ways, as the quality of each candidate seemed to suggest. He would not burden himself with more than four or five candidates at a time. At the end of a week, a sensible man could perfectly make up his mind which of the four or five was the best fitted for the particular work required, and he would almost certainly be right. Nothing of this is possible in the official examination. The “rules” are stricter than those of a prison. There is absolutely no “discretion.” Discretion might let in the demon of Favoritism. The candidates are often numbered and ticketed like prisoners, to avoid the disclosure even of names. The precise number of papers is prescribed, and their preposterous multiplication leaves the examiner about one minute for each page of manuscript. With one or two hundred candidates to get through in a week or ten days, the examination is really like the inspection of a regiment. The uniform and accoutrements must conform to the regulation standard.
It is supposed that examiners are masters of the situation and have a large range for a “free hand.” It is not so. The examiner's mind runs into grooves, and a highly skilled class have sorted and surveyed the possible field. In each subject or book there are only available, in practice, some few hundreds of possible “questions.” The system of publishing examination papers, and close study of the questions over many years, have taught a body of experts to reduce, classify, and tabulate these. So many become stock questions, so many others are excluded as having been set last year, etc.; and in the result a skilled examinee, and still more a skilled crammer, can pick out topics enough to make certain of passing with credit. Knowledge as such, and knowledge to answer papers, are quite different things. Student and examinee read books on quite different plans, if they wish to gain knowledge, or if they are thinking of the examination. The memory is entirely different. The examinee's memory is a ten-day memory, very sharp, clear, methodical for the moment, like the memory cultivated by a busy lawyer, full of dates, of three different courses, of four distinct causes, of five divisions of that, and six phases of the other. It is a memory deliberately trained to carry a quantity of things with sharp edges, in convenient order, for a very short period of time. The feats which the examinee can perform are like the feats of a conjurer with bottles and knives. The examinee himself can not tell how he does it. He acquires a diabolical knack of spotting “questions” in the books he reads. He gains a marvelous flair for what will catch the examiner's attention. As he studies subject after subject his eye glances like a vulture on the “points.” Examination is a system of “points.” What has no “points” can not be examined. Many able and industrious students do take the trouble to acquire this flair, some will not, or can not, acquire it. But certainly a good many acquire it, by an outlay of labor or money, who are neither able nor industrious at all.
A man going through the full school, college, and professional career now passes from ten to twenty of these examinations, at intervals perhaps of six months or a year. From the age of ten till twenty-five he is forever in presence of the mighty mill. The mill is to him money, success, honor, and bread and butter for life. Distinctions and prizes mean money and honor. Success in examinations means distinctions and prizes. And whatever does not mean success in examinations is not education. Parents, governments, schools, colleges, universities, and departments combine to stimulate the competitive examination and the mark-system. None quite like it; but all keep up the tarantula dance — “needs must when the devil drives.” The result is that the Frankenstein monster of Examination is becoming the master of education. Students and parents dare not waste time in study which does not directly help toward success in the test. One hears of the ordinary lad at school or college, either as amusing himself because “he is not going in this year,” or else as “working up very hard for his examination.” He is never simply studying, never acquiring knowledge. He is losing all idea of study, except as “preparation” for examination. He can not burden his memory with what will not “pay.” And a subject which carries no “marks," or very few “marks,” is almost tabooed. Books are going out of fashion; it is only analyses, summaries, and tables which are studied. But published examination papers are the real Bible of the student of to-day — nocturna versanda manu, versanda diurna.
Next to old examination papers, the manuscript “tips” of some famous coach form the grand text-books. One of the ablest men I ever examined, who bitterly complained that he had failed in a coveted distinction, was told that he had not read his books on a given subject. “Why!” he said, indignantly, “he had not read the text-books; but he had mastered a valuable volume of ‘tips’ in manuscript, which was said to contain every question which could be set in a paper.” He failed through pushing the system too far; and a tragedy was the end.
The examination, thus made the “fountain of honor,” governs the whole course of study. If the teacher takes up a subject, not obviously grist for the great mill, the students cease to listen, and leave his classes. The instant he says something which sounds like an examination “tip,” every ear is erect, every pen takes down his words. The keen student of to-day is getting like the reporter of an evening journal: eager after matter that will tell, will make a good “answer,” capital examination “copy.” The mill governs the whole period of education, from hic, hæc, hoc, to the final launch in a profession. I know little boys of ten, in the ego et Balbus stage, who are being ground in printed examination papers which I could not answer myself. And big men, older than Pitt when he governed England, or Hannibal when he commanded armies, are still ruining their constitutions by cramming up “analyses” and manuscript “tips” of great “coaches.” The result is that poor little urchins in frocks are in training for some “nursery stakes,” as an old friend of mine used to call the trials of preparatory schools. The prize school-boy who sweeps the board on speech-day, often gets a perfect loathing for books, and indeed for any study that is not “cramming”; and the youth who leaves his university, loaded with “honors,” may prove to be quite a portent of ignorance and mental babyishness. He has learned the trick of playing with a straight bat the examiner's most artful twisters. But he can not bear the sight of a book; and, like any successful speculator, he has a hearty contempt for knowledge.
Examiners are very clever men; but they ought not to form a sort of Continental “Ministry of Education,” controlling on one uniform and mechanical scheme the entire field of education. Examining is more irksome, less continuous, and worse paid than teaching. Hence, as a rule, the professional examiners are hardly men of the same experience, learning, and culture as the professional teachers in the highest grades. They have not devoted themselves to special subjects of study; they do not know the peculiar difficulties and wants of the student; they are not responsible for the interests of a given branch of learning. A body of professional examiners, moving about from great educational centers, tend to give a uniform and regulation character to all learning. Our educational centers are yet in far too chaotic and changing a stage themselves to justify them in stereotyping any system. Knots of clever, eager, trained “experts” in the examining art are being sent about the country from Oxford and Cambridge, marking, questioning, classing, and certifying right and left, on a technical, narrow, mechanical method. They would be far better employed in learning something useful themselves. As it is, they dominate education, high and low. They are like the missi dominici of a mediaeval king, or the legates a latere of a mediæval pope. They pitch the standard and give the word. Public schools revise their curriculum, set aside their own teachers, and allow the academic visitor to reverse the order of their own classes. The mill sets a uniform type for the university. Colleges give way and enter for the race. One by one the public schools have to submit, for prizes are the test; and success means prizes. Next, the minor schools and private schools have to follow suit. And at last the smallest preparatory school, where children in nursery-frocks are crying over qui, quæ, quod, has to dance the same tarantela.
For this state of things the remedies seem to be these: Let examinations be much fewer — they are ten times too numerous. Let them be much more free — they are over-organized, over-regulated. Give examiners more time, more discretion, more room. The more the teachers are themselves the examiners, the better; the less examining becomes a profession and a special staff, the better. Do not set examiners to test teachers as well as students; do not set up mechanical rules whereby to test the examiner. Believe that it is possible to learn without any prize, money, or reward in view. Trust the teacher; trust him to teach, trust him to examine. Trust the examiner, and do not set up a mill. Above all, trust the student. Encourage him to study for the sake of knowledge, for his own sake, and the public good. Cease to present learning to him as a succession of races, where the knowing ones may land both fame and profit. — Nineteenth Century.