Some children need to be reassured. Skill at exams does not necessarily equate with ability at a subject. Written exams are a relatively recent development in the history of European learning; and they can test only certain things.

At our universities, graduands were examined orally until well into the 19th century; and public examinations in schools developed after 1850.

A number of scholars have cautioned against excessive reliance on examinations, while others have asserted their value. For example:

T.H.Huxley, biologist
Examination, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master; and there seems to me to be some danger of its becoming our master… In fact, that which examination, as ordinarily conducted, tests, is simply a man’s power of work under stimulus, and his capacity for rapidly and clearly producing that which, for the time, he has got into his mind. Now, these faculties are by no means to be despised. They are of great value in practical life, and are the making of many an advocate, and of many a so-called statesman. But in the pursuit of truth, scientific or other, they count for very little unless they are supplemented by that long-continued, patient ‘intending of the mind,’ as Newton phrased it, which makes very little show in Examinations.
Universities: Actual and Ideal, in Collected Essays, CUP 1893.

F.H.Drinkwater, Catholic educationalist
In favour of the examination system… it can be said that examinations really are a good test, not perhaps of knowledge acquired, but of something still more important—of general mental discipline and training of the mind. One of the chief aims of any education worthy of the name is to give men minds that are able to observe accurately and think clearly, to distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant, to be critical of vague and sloppy thoughts and words, to see the point at issue and to be able to bring their knowledge to bear on it. Now, it may fairly be claimed for examinations that they are a real test of this capacity, and even that they do something to encourage it.
External Examinations in Educational Essays, Burns Oates 1921.

Sir Richard Livingstone, classicist & sometime Vice-Chancellor at Oxford
Examinations are the curse of education; there are practical reasons why we cannot dispense with them; they may serve to concentrate the mind and make knowledge precise; they may be convenient tests of industry or ability; they may apply to the pupil the spur to work which a good teacher does not need. But they have the same relation to real education as the promise of rewards has to good conduct: they stimulate it, but at the same time they corrupt it.
Education and the Spirit of the Age, OUP 1952.

Next post: Roman governorship: sensibilities.



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