The Pointless Tyranny of Exams

Sam Warren-Miell 27 May 2019
Image credit: Cambridge Assessment

Everyone I know is stressed. My friends are gloomier, more subdued. College is too quiet. This is because we are in exam term, the third of the Cambridge year set aside for revision, examinations, and a sliver of celebration. One is ‘in’ exam term in the same way one is ‘in’ a country: there is a national culture, customs to learn, etiquette to observe. The official language is competitive self-deprecation, mumbled late at night across library tables. The national colours are biro black and highlighter yellow.

But what if we were to ask: why? Why is our education organised around terminal, interminable, examinations? We all have some idea why we did so many exams at school: so we could get here, to the proverbial ‘good university’. But we’re here now, and still doing the same thing. Why?

The answer can’t be that exams are necessary to test ability or knowledge, because the course itself does this. Even if we were to accept the premise that education equates to acquiring these ‘skills’, we could note that a Cambridge humanities student writes at least one essay a week, and discusses it for an hour, often one on one, with an academic – surely a much more thorough and effective method of testing (and improving) ability than a three-hour examination. This isn’t even to raise the question of what speed and memorisation, crucial to exam success, actually have to do with academic study.

No, the real purpose of exams is to evaluate students with a numerical figure, so that a hierarchy of attainment can be produced. This predominantly serves as a tool to allow employers to rank candidates quickly and efficiently. This in turn explains why exams have become a more and more central part of university education the more the latter has been subordinated to the requirements of the market. Despite obligatory murmurs to the contrary, the academy hasn’t resisted this process, since by and large it has allowed it to carve out a niche in the world of modern global capitalism, as the trainer of what are called ‘skilled workers’.

Once education finds itself the servant of economy, which does not in itself have anything to do with education, it takes on certain attributes which circumscribe its nature. The Greeks had a name for the result of this: sophistry. A sophist is someone who, in return for a significant amount of money, teaches the young elite the knowledge and technical know-how it needs to gain power and wealth in the state. When Socrates posed the question of whether truth did in fact have anything to do with this kind of know-how, a new discipline called philosophy was born. His student, Plato, started a school, where questions regarding truth could be posed and discussed. Membership was free and women were admitted. It was called the Academy, and there were no exams.

Philosophy has always resisted the idea that thought should be submitted to the exigencies of the state or the market: this is its foundational gesture. I don’t think this is unrelated to the unusual fact that there are no prodigies in the history of philosophy. Thinking takes time; almost all great philosophers published their significant work on the far side of 40. There is no royal road to insight, only the labyrinths of disciplined thought, for the sake of nothing external to itself. At Cambridge, the opposite is the case. Thinking must be done as quickly as possible. The Platonic ideal of a Cambridge humanities student produces twelve essays in an eight-week term (though I don’t know anyone who has ever actually done this). We skim over the history of thought and try to generate some morsels of virtuosity that might gain us kudos from supervisors. As an old teacher of mine once remarked, an Oxbridge student is someone who can read the blurb of a book and be a world expert on the subject.

Exams are the highest form of this sophistic education. To take an example from my own subject: the practical criticism exam, with which Cambridge English so strongly identifies itself, essentially asks the candidate to very quickly produce a series of takes on extracts from the pantheon of English literature. It’s a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat: outwardly impressive, but ultimately phony, and slightly tacky. Worse, it cheapens the literature itself. Great art deserves to have time and thought expended over it; here all literature is made to exist as the fuel for a critical firework display, brief and dazzling.

This is bad for thinking, because it promotes an understanding of the history of thought as an arsenal of bon mots with which to impress an examiner, instead of the terrain of sustained and detailed engagement. We know Derrida has something to do with the deferral of meaning, but we never really read him. Deleuze used phrases like ‘intensive differentiation’, which sounds pretty cool. Foucault was really into power, right?

The result of all this is deep intellectual conservatism. Pace the canard that ‘there is no one way to get a first’, the economic imperative of numerical evaluation necessarily imposes norms. Limiting myself again to my own degree, liberally deploying voguish terms always makes a good impression: references to ‘embodiment’, ‘disruption of categories’, ‘structures of affect’, etc. are sure to leave markers purring, and in general, mastering International Literary Journal English is key. If there are two of something, be sure to call it a ‘binary’. If there are two of something but the concept is a bit vague, call it a ‘dialectic’.

Exams, then, are the perfect initiation into an academy that exists to perpetuate itself in its own private corner of the marketplace, in the half-remembered terms of thinkers it long ago canonized and whose radicality, if it ever existed, remains as at best the obscure memory of a time when the university was a contested site, a site of potential liberation. It is not impossible to conceive of a liberated education, but it cannot be realised as long as we continue to passively accept that education means leading the youth through the exam hall into the market. Freeing education begins with freeing it from what Alain Badiou has rightly called ‘the unthinking despotism of Number’. Sadly, this probably will not start in Cambridge.