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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 2. March 27, 1958

Price or Prince? — Examinations and Machiavelli

page 5

Price or Prince?

Examinations and Machiavelli

The discussion on the examination question started off by Russell Price, should not obscure the fact there is a Machiavellian aspect to sitting examinations. Whether the system is good or bad, while we are stuck with it there are one or two things students can do.

In fact, a manual could be written on how to sit examinations, and I hope that my views, together with what others may have to contribute, will form a starting point for the composition of such a manual.

We don't need to waste time on the proposition that the best way of sitting examinations (and passing them) is to know the subject matter. But where the ideal is not possible one has to be content with the practicable.

The first matter of technique is to discover the field you are meant to have studied. You can do that, first, by looking at the prescription in the calender and, second, by analysing the structure of the lectures you have had and the pattern of the reading lists you may have received.

You can then go on analysing previous examination papers (careful, the syllabus has a habit of changing) and predict at least some of the questions with a fair degree of certainty.

Allied studies will show you that there is often a fair chance of a topic dealt with in class examinations to come up, that there is more than a chance probability that there will be questions on essay themes and that a thorough knowledge of set books is also likely to be useful.

So far you have not become very Machiavellian and are still very much like the students who study because they like it. But you are about to take the plunge (with me) into te murky seas of power and influence.

First, it pays to study your examiner. Watch him like a hawk. This is best done by regularly attending lectures. You will get to know (for instance) that he is an ardent proponent of theory A and thinks that theory B is nonsense. Here is your chance. In class you get to know all about theory A and probably a little less about theory B, so you make a point of studying both thoroughly. The non-Machiavellians (who have been subjected to theory A only and are likely to have had their mental horizons pretty well delineated) will at examination time have little else to trot out than theory A. Then the man opens your book.

Your answer, systematically setting out both theories, provides an icy blast of rationality compared with the answers of the stuffy conformers. The examiner—shocked at first—then remembers this ancient game of cricket and the moral code that goes with it. You can lay 10 to 1 that he will ensure that justice is not only done, but that it is manifestly seen to be done.

Another very Machiavellian tactic (and here I suggest that the official censor of this journal puts dark glasses on before he reads any further) another Machiavellian tactic is what can be described as the apt quotation.

The use of this one is rather limited, but young language students should take note. When you read a set play (or book) and have analysed it thoroughly so that the wicked examiner can not take you by surprise, do more than write down your answer with the supreme nonchalance that would make a Borgia envious. Stick in the apt quotation, neatly broken out from the rest of your argument so that it can not fail to strike the right note. It pays to have a quotation that fits the question and your argument, but like the ancient art of assassination, you can acquire dexterity by practice and preparation.

The third bag of Machiavellian tricks could be labelled "anti-tiptruck-ship". Now supposing you are asked about the meaning of a particular English drama. Do you gush forth about drama in general? Do you write about English literature and what it has done for your mental development? No sir. You smile one of those wicked smiles and write about that particular drama—and about the meaning only. Background? You waste but little time sketching it in.

In the fourth place there is the publicity trick. This simply means that you advertise your wares as best you can. Say you are going to argue that something is true for five reasons. Non-Machiavellians would simply write them down, any old way. You press the advantage home. You start by saying that the proposition is true for five reasons. You give those reasons and number them boldly. Then you finish up by saying that those five reasons, in your view, establish the case. How much better than to give two reasons, to state the problem, to give another two, to give the answer and to state the last one. The only advantage you have is organisation. It will pay.

For reasons upon which I need not dwell this small contribution about Machiavellian tactics in the sitting of examinations must remain anonymous—at least till such time as the university is peopled by characters who (unlike the Everest expeditioners) acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

In the meantime, friends, you and I must continue to lay our snares and set our traps, to sharpen our daggers and oil our stilettos.

They tell me that beer and women tend to interfere with that grim task. But those of you with Machiavellian tendencies need hardly be told about that.