Procrustes Redivivus

IF the observation of Socrates to the effect that the unexamined life is not worth living is applicable to modern school and college, the philosopher would surely hold high the educational life of to-day. From kindergarten to university the course is covered with catechetical hurdles. In spite of the perils of plausible analogy it is perhaps not too much to say that teachers have become so occupied with halting the procession periodically to measure the distance traversed that destination and the interest of the march arc all but excluded from consideration. Examinations, evaluations, reactionrecords, intelligence quotients, mentalage norms, percentiles, and all the shibboleths of modern devices for determining the indeterminable have come to command what seems a disproportionate degree of consideration in our pedagogical procedure.

One must not, be it said at the outset, minimize the distinguished and invaluable service that serious students of child psychology are rendering to the race, or undervalue the immense contribution t hey are making to the better understanding and more effective operation of that blundering business, the educational process. The explorers of this too little known field deserve grateful recognition, and their findings should be recognized and respected. The reverse is too frequently the case. Persons of little intellectual seriousness, whose mental finger-tips have never even touched the heavy tasks that constitute the real concern of the thinking teacher, are apt to laugh lightly at his painstaking toil and belittle his painfully reached conclusions, dismissing them with the ready gossip of depreciation. Such is not intentionally the temper of this paper. Its purpose is to raise the question whether the tendencies to weigh and measure what must forever remain an imponderable, immeasurable, inscrutable essence — the human mind — are not in our day being carried to extremes, and whether too great importance is not being attached to the appraisal, in cold fractional figures, of the activities, achievements, and possibilities of the human spirit, an appraisal on which not infrequently depends an individual destiny.

Before me lies a recent pamphlet dealing with ‘Intelligence Quotient Values.’ Much painstaking research has been devoted to its preparation, and it is held in high esteem by those who are du métier. The publisher’s note says: —

‘. . . These tables have a valuable use wherever intelligence quotients are to be derived from intelligence tests. By their aid intelligence quotients can be determined from scores on any test for which mental norms have been established, without translation of mental and chronological ages into months, and without the labor and inaccuracy involved by arithmetical operation. . . . Standard mental-age scores are given, and if these scores are inserted in the corresponding mentalage columns, intelligence quotients can then be read directly without translating the test scores into mental ages.’

This process, if it could be operated in the case of weekly school-ratings, would amazingly simplify the task to which I have known a detail of two teachers to devote an hour’s work weekly with a comptometer, that of adding and averaging grades of pupils in order to award equitably certain prerogatives and privileges that accompany or flow from various resultant percentages. The table of cerebral logarithms, this convenient graduated noöscope, would certainly have been labor-saving, but one may be permitted to wonder, in the case of both operations, what the intelligible result of all this number-juggling is. The figures are imposing but unconvincing. It may be magnificent, but is it either science or sense? Will any kind or amount of arithmetical treatment render equitable and accurate appraisals that must in their nature be inexact and conjectural?

But the new appeal from mindmeasurer drunk to mind-measurer sober will preclude ‘ the labor and inaccuracy involved by arithmetical operation.’ Might it not reasonably be accepted that anything so volatile, so fluid, so unevenly functioning, so freakish and fugacious as the activities of the human mind is as impossible of arithmetical audit as are emotional potentialities and emotional reactions? Can you measure patriotism in pints, integrity in inches, religion with a thermometer? Is not the fine faith t hat we pin to the findings of the professional mind-measurer often more credulous than intelligent?

In elementary education modern practice is rapidly shearing the written examination of its fateful finality, but the secondary schools — schools from which as a rule the pupils go to college — are still in its inexorable grip. The fetish of figures has fascinated us, and regardless of the fact of ‘uncontrolled variables’ we are committed to the dogma of academic salvation by statistics. That there is real educational value in written tests as training in the marshaling and application of resources (perhaps the real end of all educational effort), as goals of endeavor, to a limited degree, or as deterrents from dawdling, none will deny. That they afford absolute and final criteria of either capacity, achievement, or promise, some are not quite ready to agree. And surely some may be pardoned for thinking that those expert assessors who profess to appraise spiritual values in hundredths pay thereby rather startling homage to their own acumen.

Perhaps nowhere in the whole field of American education does this general acceptance of these fundamentally fallible statistical data disclose itseli so strikingly as in the practice that admits our youth to the opportunities and privileges of college or excludes it from them — at least in theory — upon a more or less artificial assessment, in figures, based on a single written test of achievement in each of a number of specified subjects. These tests admittedly concern themselves solely with attempting to determine the amount of the candidate’s acquired information, leaving unregarded the more pertinent and significant elements of the emotions, the will, and the indefinable and classification-defying constituents that go to make up what we call character. The question has come to be, not whether the candidate is adequately endowed and equipped to enter with interest and profit upon the opportunities of college life, but whether he has received a factitious rating of 60 or more in a sufficient number of prescribed subjects.

An effectively organized and powerful institution now directs and controls the admission processes of practically all our colleges. To drill and regiment youth to meet its exactions is now the ministry of the preparatoryschool teacher. The standardization that it enjoins levels the purpose of study. It dictates and defines subject and treatment. It controls and colors policy and practice. It prescribes selection, proportion, and emphasis. It has come, justly or not, to be almost the absolute dictator of the teacher’s future professionally. No matter how valuable inspirationally the latter’s instruction and personal influence may otherwise be, no matter whether his work ‘broad and deep continueth,’ if he fails to ‘get results in the College Boards’ he has slight chance of continued service and none of advancement. All this may be for good or ill, but it is certainly the case.

The schools cannot properly be blamed for this situation. They have no choice. So long as our colleges insist on these examinations as the exclusive conditions of admission, so long will our schools be mainly more or less pleasantly environed tutoring schools or cramming seminaries for the examinations that overloom and dominate all present educational effort. The question raised by protestants against the tyranny of tests, whether preparation for these annual ordeals is not excluding the aims and interests of real education, is a fair one. To assume to determine by a single written test a boy’s or a girl’s ability and fitness to continue profitably the collegiate study of a certain subject seems almost as reasonable as to decide on a boy’s fitness for a baseball team on the basis of his success in a single fielding-chance or on the outcome of one attempt to hit.

The varying character of the examination-matter and the uncertain and uneven ratings that inevitably obtain in history, English, and modern languages, indeed in all subjects except the ‘exact sciences,’ emphasize the unfairness of accepting such ratings as final and fateful dicta. Every teacher, moreover, knows that some pupils are temperamentally at a disadvantage in taking the tests. On one girl whom I know, a girl of excellent ability and promise, the immediate prospect of the examination has a hysterical effect. Many candidates in my own experience and under my observation grow almost mentally numb at sight of a test paper. Few face the dreaded ordeal with equanimity. The importance we attach to the numerical evaluation of a test so taken is undue.

The examination papers themselves, though prepared with most commendable care, not infrequently lay themselves open to serious and not always unjustified criticism. In mathematics both problems and ratings approximate equity. It will readily be seen that, given a working knowledge of fundamental operations, when once a pupil has mastered a type of problem he is likely to have little trouble with similar problems, the ‘passing’ of a test is highly probable, and the highest rating, 100, not infrequent. In modern languages, on the other hand, the passage assigned for translation may consist of subject-matter the vocabulary of which is outside of the pupil’s acquirement, and he is apt to fail. And, speaking of the modern-language papers, I have often wondered why a bit of delicate, unsubstantial, imaginative, insaisissable French verse, for instance, should be subjected to the indignity of attempted transmutation into barbarous Franco-English schoolboy jargon, for I have never seen any other kind of examination-paper ‘translation’ of poetry.

It certainly needs a ‘Heaven-sent moment’ and a poetic skill beyond what might reasonably be expected of ‘Candidates who offer French Cp. 4’ to do much in English with these verses from a recent paper: —

Ainsi, quand la fleur printanière
Dans les bois va s’épanouir,
Au premier souffle du zéphyr
Elle sourit avec mystere;
Et sa tige fraiche et légère,
Sentant son calice s’ouvrir,
Jusque dans le sein de la terre
Frémit de joie et de désir.
Ainsi quand ma douce Marie
Entr’ouvre sa lèvre chérie,
Et léve en chantant ses yeux bleus,
Dans l’harmonie et la lumière
Son âme semble tout entière
Monter en tremblant vers les cieux.

What requirements would a 100 rating have to fulfill? And what version shall be rated 61 and pass, or 59 and fail?

Here is a group of ‘required’ questions in the United States History examination last June which have been the object of much criticism in that they violate the generally recognized pedagogical principle of avoiding suggeslio falsi:

Rewrite correctly any of the following statements that are false: —

(a) Texas was admitted to the Union in


(b) The Fourteenth Amendment granted

suffrage to the Negro.

(c) In 1846 the United States acquired

Oregon up to the parallel of 54° 40'.

(d) The western boundary of the Lou-

isiana Purchase was fixed in 1819.

(e) President Johnson was impeached in


(f) The Platt Amendment provided for the government of Porto Rico.

(g) Military districts were established in

the South by the Civil Rights Act.

(h) The Maine boundary dispute was

settled in 1842 by the ClavtonBulwer Treaty.

(0 Daniel Webster supported the Compromise of 1850.

(J) Stonewall Jackson was lulled at Shiloh in 1862.

No simple task, that of estimating the ‘ percentage of error ‘ in the rewritten assertions, yet the Readers accomplished it. Reports show that out of 3374 candidates 1721 passed with ratings above 60. One boy of my acquaintance, who happened to have read a biographical sketch of John Hay the night before the examination, covered himself with glory and made his academic salvation sure by his brilliant ‘ killing’ of another required question in the same paper: ‘Give an account of the public services of either John Jay or John Hay.’

In a recent English paper the first ‘clause’ to be classilied limited a verbal noun. According to classroom definition and rule it must be ‘adjectival,’yet in actuality it was clearly ‘adverbial.’ It is only fair to state that the Readers decided after conference to penalize neither classification.

As to ratings, in spite of varying results due to the diiferent personalities and different reactions of Readers, the penalties imposed are absolutely fair in intention and actually as equitable as the appraisal of disability can in its nature be. The general objection of overmeticulousness might be urged, though the degree of this is necessarily a matter of opinion. In my own case, a few years ago, three points were deducted in rating a Latin paper because a defensible answer failed to accord with the one agreed upon by the Readers after discussion. I suffered disability also because a rather carefully made English translation of a passage of Spanish prose contained ‘repetitions which were not synonymous’; because I failed to add ‘in past time’ to the word ‘imperfect’ in explaining a tense in the name of which ‘past time’ is implicit; because of ‘vagueness’ in the given meanings of certain Latin rootforms; for omitting some superfluous details in accounting for case-constructions; and for ‘infelicitous phrasing’ in Latin prose.

To pick these flaws in a mechanism that must command admiration for effective performance even though the validity of its purpose be questioned is a rather reprehensible business. One cannot read the minutely detailed and exhaustive Report of the Secretary and be unimpressed by the painstakingly compiled array of bewildering statistics that attest the seriousness with which the Examiners and Readers approach and execute their thankless task. The College Entrance Examination Board accomplishes the impossible as nearly as this can be done, and the unfavorable criticism that seems so unappreciative and ungracious is directed not so much against the activities of the Board as against its claims and the blind acceptance of its decrees by college admission officers and committees. This criticism is spreading and is not always petulant and unintelligent. A nationally known writer on educational subjects, a teacher whose interest in educational progress is keen and constant, recently declared to me that he would rather have his own boy forgo the advantages of college life than have him subjected to the blighting influence of deliberate and exclusive preparation for the present system of entrance examinations.

Personal experience in loco candidate leads to the conclusion that the results of these tests are misleading and inconclusive in that they present only a partial and one-sided estimate, and that a very fallible one, of a youth’s equipment for college opportunity — the estimate, namely, of his mental acquirement. The emotional and volitive elements, considerations perhaps more pertinent and essential, are left out of account.

Aside from considerations of inadequacy and inequity, the emphasizing as final of what should be incidental, and the constant stress upon the utilization of acquired facts for immediate ends, are reducing learning to the level of the pseudo education of the crossword puzzle; and knowledge, like the isolated and unrelated word, is sought not for its own sake, or for its bearing upon mental and spiritual development, but merely to fill for the moment an arbitrarily created gap in a more or less artificial scheme.

But shall we abolish admission examinations and open the college gates to the ill-equipped, the incompetent, and the indifferent? Not at all. The alternative to present practice is not indiscriminate admission or even admission solely upon certification. The solution would seem to be a combination of written test and certification. It is reasonable to assume that the teacher is better acquainted with the capacity and character of his pupil than is a total stranger who inspects a single written paper and renders final judgment thereon. Let the college, therefore, permit unfavorable rating in a limited number of the Entrance Examination Board’s subjects, or even in intelligence-tests, to be supplemented, modified, or offset by first-hand favorable information from the candidate’s teacher regarding his general ability and the probability of his profiting by college opportunity. May not freshman year be a fairer testing-field than school, and is it not more desirable that a few students be ‘ dropped ‘ because of unfitness than that several should be by doubtful process debarred from college privilege?

Certainly the schools must somehow be emancipated from the tyranny of these tests and rescued from the Procrustean practice that now undeviatingly regiments and standardizes the antecollege intellectual training of youth. Until rescue and liberation come, the teacher must renounce opportunity to lead his pupils by the living waters and continue wearily to thresh his yearly dole of grammatical and textual straw, ‘ for they ‘re sure to ask you this in the College Board.’ Instead of awakening an absorbing and transforming interest in the language, literature, history, art, and folklore of a contemporary or past civilization in another land, he will go on drilling subfreshmen in exceptions to grammatical rules, ‘for they always give you something on this,’ and showing them how to transcribe sounds into written characters so that an examiner may be enabled to evaluate their pronunciation! Let us hope that sometime a teacher may have time to teach.

Faith in figures as measures of the undimensioned is slow to be renounced, and the fiction of the examination’s vital and final significance is inveterate. But may there not be educational as well as theological One-Hoss Shays?