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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Exams - An Appeal

by Neil Wynn Williams,
Author of "Tales and Sketches of Modern Greece," etc.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 629-636


One of the most serious matters for parental consideration at the present day is the early age at which a crisis, big with fate, confronts children. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, the future life of the youth and sometimes the girl is to be determined by the examiner. He is door-keeper, so to say, to the professions and respectable occupations; and with a stroke or so of his blue pencil, he denies admittance, or indites a "Pass" to all the splendid possibilities of a career. It is a grave responsibility which attaches to the examiner--a responsibility which is but feebly limited by the one, two or three appeals within age limits that he allows to himself.

The majority of parents recognise the examination for what it is--a crisis. And those whose caution leads them to anticipate the future, are not slow to recognise that to make early selection of a profession for their scion is not sufficient in these days of high pressure. The selection must be accompanied by an appropriate educational scheme, and a watchful observance of its development. These are days when the "pass" or "failure" of young So-and-So carries a useful lesson to many anxious paternal and maternal hearts. So-and-So was at such a school, he "took up" this subject and he "took up" that; he was clever, or he was a fool; he worked hard, or he was idle. But whatever So-and-So may have done, once he has interviewed the examiner, he becomes an exemplar for varying time. This, which applies to the qualifying examination, is intensified a thousand-fold so soon as the competitive examination comes under consideration. The word "competitive" is strong with feverish suggestion, and the struggle for life which it typifies demands more than parental goodwill and sacrifice; it requires the voluntary and strenuous energies of the candidate for official existence who comes under its sway. At fourteen or fifteen years of age, the boy--if he would fulfil his parents' and his own desire--must commence to work with an object. He must meet his pedagogue on a common ground of desire, whose horizon is bounded by Burlington House or South Kensington. He must no only absorb fact and fiction, number and quantity to pedagogic command, but he must absorb them with the intention of ultimately depositing them at Civil Service order on blue or white paper. Less than this will scarcely command success, for the brains of those others with which his own are to be compared in the near future are being diligently loaded with a knowledge which may be useful, useless, or worse than useless, as opinion may have it.

Human effort ranks high in the esteem of the individual who exerts it. If it fail of its eventual object, the disappointment is proportionate to the expenditure of the energy in the past. The youth who has been "spun" after a long course of conscientious preparation is in a position to appreciate this truism. So are his parents as they glance at the file of bills for lessons and books that have punctuated the scholastic course with fictitious advantage. Eight hundred or a thousand pounds leading up to a dead failure for Sandhurst. How has it gone? Schools, and "crammers" at £20 a month. Pah! And not even a common university degree to show for it. And worse! a profession or a respectable occupation still to be sought at the hands of the examiners for this or that. The boy is disappointed, the boy idles, the parent is perplexed. Another failure for something else--and well! Latin or Greek and the higher Mathematics are the very training for the Colonies. Young So-and-So must do the same. Under these circumstances there is a phrase which finds ready acceptance with the multitude. It is a simple one, it declares that the friend of young So-and-So has "gone out to sink or swim."

The scholastic profession is a noble and hard-working one, its potentially for good and evil towards the rising generation is enormous. Nor can it be altogether blamed if its conscientious endeavours for the advancement of a pupil find their crude result in the manual labour of a colonist. It, as well as the pupil, is at the order of the examiner; and it, as well as the pupil, must work by the examiner's system. Let the profession admit that the mental strain on the youth committed to its charge is too great, that the multiplicity of subjects imposed is vexations if not positively harmful from a sound educational point of view--and what then? To admit is not to cure the evil; and to grumble does not necessarily signify a relaxation in an education which, aiming at all things, secures for the most part but the untrustworthy smartering. The synopsis of the examination is all paramount, and what weight would a headmaster have in the eyes of the public without a fat "Pass" list for exhibition? Success with the examinations means wear and tear, means monthly reports of progress, means the addition of interminable columns of ofttimes fallacious marks; but it also means bread and cheese and even luxuries. The headmaster understands this, and he seeks to cure the headaches of his pupils by a generous introduction of manly games. It is extra work for him, a hard-worked man; but then he thinks of the children committed to his charge--they work to his order the best part of the day, they labour for three or four hours of an evening. "It is too much," he says, "But what can I do?"

Parents, schoolmaster, and pupil, they lie at the mercy of the examiner, as representing the embodiment of a theory put into practice. This theory would have it to be believed by the democracy, that the competitive examination system supplies primarily an exact educational test, and secondarily, fills office, not by patronage, but by a careful selection of individual merit, with the best of those who apply for it. In short, it bases its claim for a favourable recognition of the public, by an appeal to the Englishmen's love of fair play and no favour. The criticism, which turns to its "exact educational test," is at once confronted with the system in action. It works, or is supposed to work, along two grooves, yclept respectively the vivá voce questions, tending to the greatest possible differentiation of candidates. But what does the critic find? That the vivá voce examinations, those useful elucidators of doubtful knowledge, are thrust into the background, are carried out in a half-hearted, low-marked, and perfunctory manner, or worse still, are not imposed upon the candidates at all. Briefly, one of the best tests of knowledge is either absent or but weakly represented at the competitive examinations of the day. And this, where the limited number of questions "set" upon a paper dealing perhaps with a vast subject, opens the door to all those chances that are included in the word "luck." But there are other weak points in the "exact educational test." Subject C; and, if a candidate takes up A and B, he will probably be marked higher than another who takes up B and C, and who answers the same number of questions. It is true that the examiner exhibits his synopsis with marks attached to the public gaze; but that is a business detail, it has no bearing upon the competitive examination as an "exact educational test." Again, the competition amongst candidates is intensely severe: take it at one in five for present purposes, and even at that too modest ratio, marks will run close. Take a "Military Competitive," for instance, and four marks may deny or grant a commission. But four marks in a possible total of some two thousand odd! Where is the examiner whose mental balance is equal to weighing such a nicety in the fine art of competition? An attack of indigestion, a touch of bilious headache, and the value of a paragraph is marked down five below par. That is sufficient! "I give you a second perusal is such cases," says the examiner. That is not sufficient. Where marks run so close, the competitive examination is--well! a gamble. And parents, schoolmaster and pupil are gamblers by force of circumstance.

In its second and assertive claim for existence--a careful selection of individual merit--the system of open competitive examination may be also subjected to skeptical criticism. In the first place, there is no allowance made in its code for those slow ripening intellects, whose strength comes to them with time. It would appear to act on the opinion that the apparently stupid boy must necessarily develop into the stupid man, that precocious mental youth can receive no check, that the clever boy of an examination-biassed school must of necessity make the most practical man for a profession. This latter is an error which the professions appreciate to their cost, even whilst they grumble at the reception of a youth, has finished with the examination which he has just passed, and that he may now rest after a strain which has been well nigh unbearable. And further, and against the system, it presupposes the capability of boy and boy to "part" with their knowledge to be at a common level. The which, as even men who work the system know, is as unjust as that a candidate otherwise fully qualified, should be placed at a ruinous disadvantage by the drawbacks of a slow calligraphy, or a nervous paralysis born of over-pressure.

In the face of the examiner and his system, the public in self-defence encouraged into existence a much abused man, for whom their slang term now is--the "crammer." He is abused for various reasons. The parents do not love him, for he lightens their pockets at the rate of from twenty to five-and-twenty pounds a month; and his discipline is, they say' uncommonly lax. The pupils "bar" him, for sometimes he feeds them badly, and when he does not overwork them, does not work them at all. The public schools dislike him, for he is a rival; but they recognise his merits in entirety, for they, too, commence to "specialise" with most encouraging success. But the examiners! His existence flatters them, he is their under-study, their responsive chord. And though with his expensive bills and subsequent "Pass" he negatives to absurdity their selection of individual merit, by insisting upon its being in possession of material gold--what matter?

As a business man, the "crammer" justifies his existence in his own eyes, and in those of a discriminating public so long as present conditions continue. And in two ways: by his work, and by its result in hard fact. He judges of education by the light of competitive or qualifying examination, and that education which satisfies the examiner he makes it his business to supply. Given a subject, he seizes its points as presented in the synopsis of the examination therein, and more fully developed in papers set thereon. It is with these points, and these points only, that his business lies. All else of education is, if not superfluous, at least a luxury, which he does not pretend to supply. The scholastic profession may quarrel at its peril with this view of his tutorial duty, but he acts on it. And when he has likewise studied the points of his pupil, still by the light of examination, he is prepared to conscientiously apply to him a course of "cramming." It is hard work--work that requires a tactful sympathy to lead to success, and work for which he requires to be well paid. That is the position assumed by the "crammer," and which from day to day is being approached by our Public Schools under the stress of competition. And so it comes about, that if there is a fashion in education, a striving after fact for fact's sake to the exclusion of useful thought and originality, it is not so much the fault of the schoolmaster and the "crammer," as of the examiner at whose beck and call they set the lessons of the week, the day, and even the hour.

The tendency of an abuse is to exaggerate itself, and before seeking for reasonable limitations of some of the sounding evils of the open competitive examination system, it may be profitable to glance at the qualifying examination, as the business which in many cases it has become. Is it honest, is it moral, to take the shillings of the people in return for an occasional certificate whose value in the employment market is practically nil? Whether it is or no, it pays. And here and there are flourishing corporations with high titles and big crests, which but a few years ago, owed their origin to the keen eyes of men, who saw in the growth of the examination system a fair opening for a modest capital. "Our examinations are an encouragement to culture," these bodies say, "We do a good work." Again, an appeal to the democratic sentiment; but a dishonest one, for nine out of ten of the candidates who do take their certificates, do so with an indefinite purpose of utilising them. The certificate will grant them a tutorial standing, they fondly imagine in their popular ignorance: they will teach on the strength of the signed parchment which they have gained. For this they have paid in their shillings, they have worked their brains at the expense of their bodies; and so have those others who have failed. But the pity of it! There are hundreds, ay! thousands, who hold these certificates. And to teach! It is easier to be taught in these days of "cram" and "exam": there is less competition as pupil than master. But the system persists. The doubtful quantity of its culture draws to it the support of the "popular cry." And year after year, it drags into its cogged wheels of "Pass," "Advanced Stage," and "Honours," the lives of many whom nature intended to labour with their hands, to breathe fresh air of field and wood. Of a surety, it is so, and the ill-paid musician engaged in unnatural struggle with the piano, and the line for line artist, drawing that which he should have left undrawn, are some among those of its lugubrious and lean products.

The despotic power which has fallen into the hands of examiners, a power which has been shown to be liable both to abuse and error, whether glanced at from the standpoint of parent, master, or pupil, is founded upon the severe competition that submits itself to its adjudication. The ruck of candidates are impotent in its face through their opposing strengths. By force of necessity they will endeavor to comply with any conditions imposed upon them so long as they may compete. It is well that this should be recognised, for with a growing population, a soaring educational code, their painful position must become accentuated. The examiners will offer no relief; their system, as it stands, is not capable of affording any. If candidates overwork themselves, as they do by the hundreds; if the growth of nervous disease from prematurely forced brains alarms the nation; it is not for them to find the remedy. Their duty is simple; it is to sift, according to their lights, the human ore that is to be appraised for the professions and occupations. It would appear, then, that open competition by examination has reached a point which gives pause for reflection; that it has become a competition injurious by excess, and unreal in some of its products; that it is a competition whose strength surpasses the judicial powers of the examiner. And, with this position reached, a large section of the public are tempted to ask why they should be called upon to spend money and equally precious time in preparing their children to submit to a system whose fiction is that it is open, nationally healthy, and fair. Why indeed?

The reform that would seek to assimilate from the past in order to modify the present to advantage is never so sure of popular support as that other reform which brandishes "novelty" in the face of a public, eager for a new sensation. And this, though human nature is said to be conservative. Hence, it is scarcely probable that the word "nomination," even though it find itself subordinate to examination, will read pleasantly to the public eye of to-day. There is a recollection of its former excess in patronage which is offensive; and its egoism of the past would appear at first sight to be unpractically out of sympathy with demotic aspirations towards broadcloth. Yet it is evident, on reflection, that through the judicious use of a system of public nomination lies the only check whereby the severe competition of the day can be presented to the examiners in a mild and reasonable strength--a strength that could be tested very nearly to its merit. Many voices will object that such an exercise of patronage must necessarily prove the negation of the endeavours of honest merit to struggle upwards, and doubtless, without the open law for all to read, it would be so. But, granted the law with its favourable notice of father's service, of early application, of physical qualifications, of pecuniary qualifications, of gallantry and distinguished conduct, etc.--and where the objection? It would be a law that would weed out, but so does the unqualified examination system, and at a greater cost of misspent time and energy, of ruined health and unsettled hope. It would be a law that would curtail the power of the examiner from excess into healthy vigour, and that would benefit the nation, the national education, and the candidate nominated for examination by limited competition. A modification of this law applies to the Royal Navy with excellent result. Why should it not be broadened out on lines in keeping with the progressive sentiment of the age, and applied universally?