Examination v. Research

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A UNIVERSITY is as much a place for compromise as a party caucus or a church. It has to provide for different needs and to satisfy conflicting interests. It has to preserve its corporate balance against the attacks of specialists and extremists who try to drag it on to a side-track. And it has to do all these things with limited means and limited wisdom. From time to time doubts may well arise as to how far it succeeds in steering the best course. Oxford at present is in the throes of such a discussion. Always critical, she is more critical of herself than of anything less near and dear, and is now enjoying a perfect orgie of self-criticism. But such emotional delights should not lead to oblivion of the fundamental facts of academic life.

Oxford has to find a working compromise between four distinct functions which lead up to four distinct ideals (or exaggerations) of a university. She has to educate, to teach, to examine, and to research, to say nothing of governing herself, which is not, perhaps, the supreme ideal, as our officials are apt to imagine.

(1) Educationally, Oxford is a place where those who can afford it, or are selected by private or public charity as fit recipients of scholarships, may obtain an intellectual training which will fit them (more or less imperfectly) for a number of professional pursuits, and are subjected to a moral discipline which (again somewhat imperfectly) induces them to do less harm to themselves and to create less disturbance in the community than similarly situated youths are wont to do in any other country. Thus Oxford is not an ideal university. But it is as incapable of being the university of Bohemia as of Utopia. Its educational ideal conducts to the perfect gentleman, or, if it fails, to the perfect snob.

(2) As a teaching institution Oxford is expensive, but (on the whole) efficient. It is expensive because it sacrifices the teacher to the taught, and leads the former to bestow upon the latter a great deal of individual attention, more, possibly, than is good for him, more, certainly, than is necessary or than he gets elsewhere. It is efficient because the college spirit is strong, and the competition between the colleges is keen. Wherever this inducement fails, i.e. wherever the university conducts the instruction or the college takes no pride in it (e.g. in the case of the “pass” man), the tutor has not rendered the “coach” superfluous. Elsewhere the teaching is good of its kind. But since good teaching aims at enabling every fool to appear a genius, it is not an end in itself. The teacher’s ideal therefore has to be controlled by a higher, the examiner’s.

(3) These two functions are quite distinct. The good examiner is not necessarily a good teacher, nor vice versa. The excellence of the teacher lies in his ability to instil knowledge and a desire for knowledge; that of the examiner is held to be the exposing of ignorance and pretence. Experience has shown, also, that competitive examinations are among those aids to learning which appeal most forcibly to the national character. They appeal strongly also to the critical faculties of the academic man, and to the love of power in a class which has naturally few occasions for gratifying this instinct. It has been discovered that though knowledge is power, yet the power of testing knowledge confers superior power. It is possible to control all knowledge by conducting examinations in it. This, therefore, is what we have set ourselves to do, and the regular genesis of a new branch of study is, first an examination, then students, and last of all the provision of teachers. This is distinctly suggestive of Looking-Glass Land, but to one who has grasped the rationale of examinations it will not be the paradox it seems.

Now it need not be wholly denied that examination has its uses. A certain amount thereof is necessary, and even beneficial to the soul of the examinee, promoting in him a willingness and capacity to absorb and reproduce teaching and to arrange his knowledge which are very conducive to mental efficiency. But the qualities which examination fosters and rewards are not the only qualities of value. Moreover, the benefits to the soul of the examinee are offset by grave dangers to that of his examiner; for the ideal examiner becomes one who is wholly devoted to the exercise of his function, and wholly critical. He can examine everything but produce nothing.

When, therefore, for these and other reasons which it would hardly be decorous to mention, a university sets up an examination system, and gives it power over the whole realm of knowledge, it runs a risk of sacrificing to this idol all its other functions. Teachers and taught alike are sacrificed to it at the annual holocausts, the results of which are contemplated with such reverence that their fame clings to their victims throughout life, and forms an important factor in their subsequent success or failure. Hence it is an ingenuous refinement of cruelty when professors of eugenics argue statistically that there is a “high degree of correlation” between success in examination and in life. Does it not follow rather that when a university conceives too great an admiration for its examinatorial function, it will grow a mental atmosphere which affects the national mind, and is deadly to all its other ideals? The “perfect gentleman” and the devotee of culture (mental or physical) will be forced by the menace of examination into undignified and banausic efforts to escape expulsion. The ideal of the perfect researcher will hardly be allowed to germinate; for such a university will have as little use and real regard for researchers as for “pass” men.

(4) Yet the Laputan ideal of an academic life of pure contemplation (or, in a more modern but lowered version, of scientific productiveness), exempt from the sordid duties of disciplining, teaching and examining, is in some ways the prettiest dream of them all. It is a sad pity that ever since the days of Dean Swift mankind has laughed at it. For there is some good in the researcher’s ideal, even though in its extreme form it is absurd. In practice no seat of learning can be made up of professors who do not teach, and exist only as objects of distant contemplation by students fearful of perturbing their sacred meditations. Neither the country, nor our purses, nor our sense of humour, would stand it. Besides, it is a psychological fact that a certain amount of teaching is good for research, just as a certain amount of research is good for teaching. The one helps to clarify the worker’s exposition, just as the other helps to imbue the teacher with a flavour of originality. Whether a similar connection could be traced between researching and examining seems more disputable.

But there can be no doubt that at present Oxford sets too low a value on research because it sets far too high a value on examination. This sterilises research both by the excessive selection of minds possessing the excellences of the examinee without possessing those of the real student or of the scientific originator, and by the enormous absorption of time and mental energy which our vast masses of examining exact. The wonder is that with such a system we produce anything at all. It is a still greater wonder that, despite contrary assertions based on our habits of self-depreciation, our scientific output, taking it all in all, is not inferior in quality or even in quantity to that of any other academic institution in the world. The explanation lies in the excellence of our recruiting system. We make ourselves so attractive that even the ablest will welcome an opportunity of joining our ranks. And then the perversity of human idiosyncrasy will divert some of this surplus ability into researches which we tolerate without encouraging. For genius, like murder, will out. But with the high average of ability we have in Oxford we could, and should, produce much more, if only more value were put upon productiveness and less store set by criticism.

Enough has been said, perhaps, to give an idea of the root of the evil. But it is not so easy to suggest remedies; for radical measures are Utopian, and ignore the psychological hold which the examination-system has over the national character. But the following suggestions at least seem wholly practicable. (1) In some subjects, e.g. natural science (but not, perhaps, in classics, mathematics, and philosophy), the lead just given by the modern historians might be followed, and a research thesis be permitted to form part of the undergraduate’s examination. (2) Most of the university prizes, &c., should be awarded to the best researcher rather than to the best examinee. (3) There ought to be a great development of graduate study, and our teachers ought to be enabled, and even required, to acquire a greater initial superiority in knowledge over the taught than is compatible with a system under which most of them are appointed immediately after examination. It will be a red-letter day when an Oxford college elects a research student pure and simple, a mere B.Sc. or B.Litt., to a fellowship. (4) Fellowship examinations of the sort we now have ought to be abolished; for what is the use of deciding over again whether a man possesses the qualities of a good examinee? A college should ascertain rather whether he possesses also the capacity of working at his subject. And, as we saw, he is not the less likely to make a good teacher on this account. From this point of view it is to be hoped that our new Chancellor will give us at least an object-lesson in self-reform by inducing an alteration in the All Souls fellowship examination. (5) The university and the colleges should largely increase the inducements to their members to proceed to “superior degrees” and to undertake the researches which a doctorate ought to imply. At present only the “new” doctorates of Science and Letters connote any considerable intellectual achievement (though they all mean much spare cash), and so they are manufactured chiefly for export, and hardly half-a-dozen of the existing college tutors (of whom the present writer was unwise enough to become one) have found it desirable to take them.

There are, I know, difficulties of detail in the way even of these moderate suggestions; but even their partial and gradual adoption would abate the fascination of our examination system, and check the tendency to identify the good examinee, functioning as a good examiner, with the ideal of academic man.

F. C. S. Schiller.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.