The Examination System in Education

WHILE it is true that the recent great increase in the number and in the thoroughness of written examinations in our schools and colleges has had good effect in increasing the total work of students, and in raising the minimum qualifications for graduation, it may also be true that bad results have followed which are capable of correction, and which may be readily seen in the mental characteristics of many of our students. The intellectual indifference of the students and recent graduates of the foremost English and American universities has become too noteworthy to be longer passed by, and this indifference seems to be greatest where the examination system has been most developed. In the schools, colleges, and universities of the highest reputation in England and America, the scholar, from entrance until graduation, sees before him an examination paper, and to pass this the competition of his teachers drives him to the utmost. In the foremost preparatory schools of America he is scarcely taught to appreciate the significance of his studies, save in view of the coming examination for college, and for independent work he has neither time nor encouragement. His final struggle for entrance to college, and especially to Harvard or Yale, is a weary, distasteful trial of multitudes of examination papers, in order to obtain the speed and knack in answering which are necessary to success. If he has entered a small college from a school in which there has been no such mechanical drill, in independent growth and love of study he is probably in advance of his contemporary who has entered Harvard from a high-pressure fitting school. At Oxford the entrance examinations are comparatively less difficult than in Harvard, the student in the sixth form in Rugby being obliged to return to his former studies when brushing up for the university, and during his first term at the latter his studies are decidedly more elementary than in his last year at Rugby. There is therefore less machine work at the best preparatory schools in England than in America, and from this it can be readily seen that a high entrance examination for colleges is an evil for preparatory schools, since in that case the teachers have no time to take the scholar through a broad and thorough course of training, as the severe entrance examination for college forces them to train the scholar only that he may pass examination papers.

We will suppose now that the preparatory school has been left behind, and that the student is in Oxford or Harvard. In the former university the majority of students give the main portion of their time to athletic sports and society, considering the taking of a degree as a necessary evil, which is to be undergone for the benefit of parents, and which is to be attained with as little trouble as possible. Of the remaining minority nearly all are ambitious workers, but such is the severity of the examinations that they also, like the majority, work only to pass, but with honors. One blessing is that with the fewness of the examinations some independent work naturally comes in; but even that is slight, and the athletes come out comparatively better than the honor men, as the struggle to conform themselves to the rigid requirements of the training for the examinations has been less severe in their case, and their minds, having been more at liberty to follow their inclination in independent thought and research, are more buoyant and progressive. Mr. Mark Pattison, rector of Lincoln’s College, Oxford, in an article on the examination system at Oxford, writes in the January Mind, in 1876, “ The process of training for the race is the commanding interest. Training, be it observed, not in intellectual discipline, not training in investigation, in research, in scientific procedure, but in the art of producing a clever answer to a question on a subject of which you have no real knowledge. . . . I have never, in the capacity of examiner, analyzed the papers which are handed in the examination rooms without astonishment at the combination of scholarship, varied knowledge, command of topic, and scientific vocabulary which the candidates can bring to bear on the questions. I have felt a thrill of awe at standing in the presence of rich, matured intellectual development detected in young men scarcely out of their teens. The thought has been involuntarily forced upon me, If these minds are already arrived at this stage at twenty-one, where will they be at forty ? A nearer acquaintance, however, with the whole result of the system dispels the illusion. Memory is almost the only faculty called into play. Were they facts with which the memory is thus charged, the inadequacy of the system would be apparent at once. But in the preparation of this examination, instead of facts, the memory is charged with generalized formulas, with expressions and solutions which are derived ready-made from the tutor. Out of this training some few stronger natures may emerge unscathed. A still smaller number of the most vigorous may even be braced by reaction against the oppression to which their minds have been subjected. But in the average Oxford prize-man we too plainly recognize the symptoms which indicate that he has suffered from the forcing house : mental pallor, moral indifferentism, the cynical sneer at other’s efforts, the absence in himself of any high ideal. He knows of everything, and truly knows nothing. For him intellectual enjoyment has passed away. The taste for reading which he has brought to college he has left there; he has lost reverence without acquiring insight; he remains an intellectual roué, having surfeited the native instinct of curiosity, of which, as Aristotle says, philosophy was born.”

This criticism applies also to Harvard and Yale, though in a far less degree, as there the system of examinations and the science of passing them are far less developed than at Oxford ; but the great number and frequency of examinations at Harvard and Yale will soon place these colleges in the line with Oxford in this respect. At Harvard there are long annual and mid-year examinations in each subject, while shorter ones occur frequently. The course is hard, requiring rather more work than at Oxford for a moderate standing. But this work is mainly in view of coming examinations, and is exerted to pass only, or to attain high rank, according to the ambition of the student; and if a man of ability works for himself alone, and is careless of rank, he is looked upon by his fellow students as rather eccentric. To succeed well in the numerous examinations the student must cultivate excessive docility and receptivity of intellect, and bend himself to the whim of the instructor. For years his study has been one struggle to please examiners, to adapt his nature to passing examinations, and the consequence is the development mainly of memory and ability in mechanical working in examinations. The examination papers are usually made so long that the student must write at his utmost speed to answer all the questions, and a very slow writer can seldom obtain high rank. In an examination, for example, in philosophy, the questions are so numerous, that the student has no time to reason long about them; and in truth he has little need of so reasoning, as these same questions have been answered by the professor in his lectures, and the student has only to thrust into his examination book an epitome of what the professor has before given. In mathematics, to be sure, there is more room for original work, but in the classics and in most studies the examinations are like those in philosophy, and here memory, the ability to express another’s thoughts in your own words, rapid penmanship, and physical energy are the principal desiderata for success. No professor would think of subjecting himself to such a trial, and it is doubtful if there is a single professor above the middle age, in Harvard or Yale, who, in a very long examination on such a subject as history or philosophy, where much writing is required, could do as well as the first scholar of the class he teaches. It matters not how well the professor knows the subject, he will lack speed in writing, and the ability, acquired only after long practice, of turning off, under high pressure, page after page of answers. As success in the majority of examinations does not require that the student should be an original or broad thinker, it is not surprising that the majority of recent graduates of Harvard lack on graduation that training in independent thought which is so necessary to true culture. As all have been placed under the same pressure, intellectual individuality has been crushed in most cases, and nearly all come out the same in pattern. There would be no objection to this sameness if the model were excellent, but on the contrary the model is that of an intellect which for years has been endeavoring to mold itself into a form in which its best powers are not demanded, rather than endeavoring to acquire strength. There is naturally, from this training, an indisposition among the majority of students to engage deeply on broad general questions of the day, whence comes the well-known phrase, “ Harvard indifference.” The creative era of the college is not the present; there is far less original work done by her students and younger instructors than a stranger would naturally expect, and with the growing system of examinations our first American college is rapidly becoming a great mill for grinding out young men who understand how to work up for and pass examinations, but who lack intellectual substance. This evil is well recognized by many minds of the university, and even the college papers compare the rough force and ambition of the graduates of smaller colleges with the refined indifference of the Harvard man. But this evil is not the especial characteristic of Harvard more than of Oxford, or of any university where the system of written examinations has been highly developed. Harvard has been dwelt upon at length only because she is the most advanced of American colleges in this system ; but Yale is advancing close upon, if indeed she is not already up to, Harvard in the development of the system, and this age, which worships organization for its own sake, without considering its ultimate tendency, is driving our smaller colleges also in the same direction.

Three changes would greatly improve this condition : fewer examinations in school and college, and these as far as possible in original work performed at the student’s leisure; greater freedom for students, both as regards their choice of study and attendance at recitations ; and a different method of appointing college instructors. Education should be a training to promote insight, power of thought, and facility in acquiring knowledge. Perception, not memory, should be cultivated, and as the student can advance only by his own endeavors, he should be led through such a course of labor and original thought that he may come out an independent thinker, as well as a thorough scholar, in such branches of education as he has inclination for. To obtain such a training examinations should be means, not ends. For example, instead of the student in political economy, history, philosophy, or mathematics being obliged to work, as now, with an examination, perhaps of catch questions, ever in view, the examination might consist in original essays in the first three subjects, and the performance of a paper of great severity in the last, all being done at the student’s leisure and with such assistance as he can get from books. Here is a training similar to that in actual life ; the best qualities in mind are brought out, while recitations can furnish the students with practice in answering questions, and the instructor with opportunity of guiding the students and correcting their errors. The same principle should be extended as far as possible in all studies, and also in preparatory schools. It has recently been tried at Harvard with signal success in the examinations for second-year honors in mathematics, while in political economy and history there is a tendency in the same direction. The adoption, also, in the Harvard Law School of the " case system,” which is based on the principle of letting the student do his own thinking in law, has caused independent thought to be more necessary than research for success in recitations ; has infused extraordinary vigor into the school, and made its recitation training unsurpassed.

It may be objected that by such a system as I have proposed a prize would be placed on deception. Even if some obtain illegitimate assistance, it is not pertinent to the real issue, which is, What is the best method for those who wish to improve ? Natural shirkers will not receive much improvement by any method. Forcing a man to work does not improve him, as with the removal of the pressure he will return to his old condition. What we want is not to lift young men up to a height and hold them there, but to enable them to rise by their own exertions. Again, the shirkers will be themselves the losers, and it is well that they should find their level as soon as possible. There is so much need for the instructor’s time on the many who want improvement that it is wasteful for him to spend it on those who do not desire it. Again, the system of examinations now in use takes little account of the peculiar qualities of each student, but passes all through the same drill. Now, the best progress would seem to be made in allowing each student to develop those powers in whose exercise he has most pleasure, — that is, those powers which he has in the highest degree ; and the examinations which I have proposed, as they are mainly on original work, will cause such a development. Such work will also be far more interesting than that under the present system, and consequently greater industry will exist among the students.

The adoption of such a system in our preparatory schools is incompatible with the present entrance examinations for colleges. One possible change would be to accept graduates of schools of recognized merit without an examination, thus allowing those schools to look to the proper training and improvement of the pupil. It is the complaint of parents whose sons are not destined for college that they can find no school where a thorough general education is given, as the course of instruction is planned to fit scholars for college ; and even in public schools the fitting encroaches too much on the master’s time. A second method is to allow entrance without examination, as at Dartmouth; requiring of the student within a certain time such quantity and quality of work as will show his fitness to remain.

Closely allied with this change is that demanding greater freedom for the student. At Oxford the non-honor men have no choice in what their course shall be, and they are compelled to attend lectures. The honor men can indeed choose their general course, but must hear such lectures within that course as their tutors command. It is, however, an indication of the weakness of the system that during a student’s last six months he is usually excused from lectures, on the plea that he wishes to work. In American colleges both the course of study and the attendance are generally compulsory, though there are a few exceptions, like Johns Hopkins University and Harvard. In the latter university, though perfect freedom does not yet exist, great advances have recently been made, and to the success of the elective system Harvard owes much of what independent work her students now perform. But in the German university the student has the utmost freedom ; his only restrictions being those of good order and a demand that he shall aggregate an attendance of three years at some university or universities before trying for his degree. Coming from the rigid control of the gymnasium, he naturally devotes his first one or two university semesters to the relaxation necessarily precedent to his acquiring the ability to work for himself alone. But at the end of this time he generally settles down to study, and is henceforth a worker, not with the rank list in view, not under immediate pressure, but at his own desire. The American and English argument is that without the pressure which is now exercised on the student he would accomplish little work. But this is not true in the case of the German university, and in our professional schools voluntary attendance has worked with marked success. Again, compulsion deprives the student of that training in self-dependence which is necessary to his best work ; and though I do not undervalue that sturdy training in industry which compulsion involves, still if the compulsion were made less immediate, the prudence of the student would act in place of the daily pressure which is now placed upon him.

The appointment of instructors in English and American universities depends at present on their success in passing examinations. In England the Fellows (whence the tutors are chosen) are selected by competitive examination, and in America it is generally useless for a graduate to expect a tutorship who has not, in college, achieved high rank. Those, therefore, get positions who have subjected themselves to the highest pressure of the examination system, and though some of these instructors are men who possess, besides the ability to pass a good examination, other qualities which cause them to be able teachers, it may also happen that some possess little besides ability in passing examinations. Moreover, when a position is once obtained, the lack of competition and the want of proportion between work and remuneration tend to cause them to sit in the traces and be dragged on by the impulse given to the machinery by their predecessors. The lack of ambition, the small amount of original work, and the morbid terror of criticism which prevents writing for publication, shown by our younger English and American tutors, are too well known for comment. How different from the enthusiasm and vigor shown among the younger instructors of German universities ! There any graduate who takes the doctor’s degree may, on showing his fitness, lecture in the university, receiving his pay from the price of the lectures paid by the students. If he succeeds as a lecturer and draws hearers, he is sure of a professorship ; but failure in this trial means failure in appointment. Every professor, therefore, has won his position by his ability and success as a lecturer, against all competitors ; he is spurred on as well by the zeal of the young lecturers, or privat do cents as they are called, and if he relaxes his efforts he loses his hearers, on whose number his salary greatly depends. There is no more ambitious life in Germany than that of the professor, who must possess qualities capable of influencing men, as well as mere intellectual acquirements. Could this system be introduced in our English and American universities, real ability and success could be best tried before appointment, competition would act as a spur, while the qualities which give success in outer life would be more demanded in instructors. If it is feared that the standard of lectures will deteriorate on account of the desire of lecturers to have a large number of students, there may, as in Germany, be an examining committee in each department, who will require a high order of original work from students, so that the latter will of their own accord attend the ablest lecturers. It must never be forgotten that college training is a training for life. Our professors may sneer at the shallow arguments of our sturdy politicians, but what matters it if they neither possess nor help students to acquire our politicians’ rough strength ? In England and America the best thinkers on education favor this reform ; at Harvard, recently, a powerful but ineffectual attempt was made in the faculty to induce a vote in its favor ; and the attention now given in this country and England to the principles of education must before long bring about changes similar to those which I have indicated.

Willard Brown.