The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78
Chapter IV. — Cram and Examinations
Cram and Examinations.
Cram, properly defined, is hypertrophy of the memory at the expense if the other faculties.
These words—cram and exanminations—are linked in recent criticism of education as its twin evil spirits. Cram is supposed to be the epidemic and examination its source and stimulus; the former word needs only to be applied to the methods of a teacher or school to condemn them; it is an educational expletive that, when used, at once relieves overwrought feeling against any feature of our system without the necessity of argument or thought. The latter is rapidly falling into the same stage in the controversy; it is coming to be assumed as the Ahriman or devil of education.
There is need of harking back to the origin of our emotional hostility to these features of our life. For, when words have become expletives, they are used indiscriminately to express mere capricious irritations as well as intelligent objections. And the only useful course is to disentangle these.
Cram is properly meant to condemn the unreasoned communication of isolated facts. The metaphor is evidently taken from the process for producing pate de foie gras; the unfortunate geese to be operated upon have food forced down their throats till their livers swell into such diseased proportions as will fit the market. It is rightly applied only to the educational process that overloads the memory at the expense of all the other faculties, that crowds facts into the minds of the pupils without explanation or appeal to the intelligence. But it is now commonly used of a11 communication of knowledge, successful or unsuccessful, intelligent or unintelligent, for the purposes of examination. And the good is damned with the bad, the use as well as the abuse.
Now what was meant to be condemned was, it is clear, the forcing of fact on fact into the mind without any attempt to insure their digestion. The result is hypertrophied memory, a diseased condition that implies the atrophy of all the other faculties, including imagination and reason. And there is much in all the stages of our system, from elementary school to university, that deserves this condemnation. Masses of learning have to be stowed away without time or effort to incorporate them as mental sustenance in our constitution. A glance at the past will show why this has arisen end why its evil side was never discovered till far on in the nineteenth century.
Cram was born of the extreme reaction a t the Renaissance from the subtle debates and discussion of the mediaeval examination, of the new passion for definite fact, and of the necessity for cultivating memory on account of the dearness of books.
When Rome sank Christendom fell heir to her methods, whilst practically rejecting her legacy of literature and thought. And just as her basilicae or law courts became the model of Christian churches, the forms of discussion used in them were adopted by the universites and schools that prepared preachers and theologians for the churches. The master or doctor gained his degree and the right to instruct others by propounding a thesis and detending it orally against all comers. The method of the advocate was enthroned in the middle ages, not only as the examination test of all men of culture and learning, but as the only approach to knowledge, and the only search for truth. The churches, the schools and the universities became gigantic debating societies. And a semblance of science was given to them by formulating all the discussions and debates, and basing them on the formal logic that had come down from Aristotle.
The result was the evaporation of real knowledge; if truth were ever reached it was only by accident. Facts were ignored and even contemned; no need was felt for observation of either nature or human nature. And the first discoverers of facts and asserters of scientific truth, like Roger Bacon and Bruno and Galileo, had to fight for their lives. They threatened to destroy the logical dreams, to brush away the finespun cobwebs of theological subtlety, by a breath of reality. So some of them had to be burned to encourage the others.
What ruined the flimsy fabrication of centuries of debate and discussion was the discovery of a forgotten world, away to the East, and a new world to page 19 the West by the sailors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Christendom awoke, and found that all they had evolved and struggled for with sweat of blood during the middle ages were "airy nothings," no nearer truth or reality than the result of meny of the discussions in our debating societies, councils and law courts.
There came a violent reaction against the ginhorse round that had so hypnotised the Western mind. Observation was substituted for formal logic. To grip a single fact was counted more than a century of discussion And argument. How to get at truth became the aim of all mental effort. Slowly, as ever, the universities took in the new spirit and, rejecting the old test for degrees, the oral defence of a thesis, demanded accurate knowledge of well ascertained and solid fact. This they found in the newly-discovered literature of Greece and Rome; a little academic use of formal logic was retained, and mathematics, as having the formality of that subject, and still more of the new requisite, definteness, was added later on.
Comment and textual emendation became the fetish that logical subtlety had been. And the European mind was again set to the task of digesting and redigesting its own subtleties. It resumed its role of ruminant. The comprative cheapness of printed books enabled the students and scholars to dispense with some of the omnipotence of memory that the rarity of manuscripts had ensured. But the mnemonic still remained the dominant function of the mind, and feats of memory were admired as marvels of genius. Bad the vast extension of the audience of literature and the cheapening of books by the use of machinery and steam come at the Renaissance, European universities would have finally a bandoned the extraordinary stress laid spon verbal memory in education.
The new discoveries of the sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the conservation of the examination system by Macaulay aggravated his tendency.
It was the necessity for this mnemonic training that rendered the written substitute for the old oral test such a weapon of offence to the awakened modern mind. A minute amount of oral work still supplements the written examination in the older institutions; but has vanished from the newer. In the age just before the great cheapening or printed records and substitutes for memory in the middle of the nineteenth century, Macaulay enshrined the written test of knowledge and the predominance of memory in our educational system by making it the portal into the Indian Civil Service. The chief thing that the leaders of education gained from the new scientific movement was the emphasis laid on the acquisition of solid facts; and this, impressed on the written instrument of educational stimulus, gave a new lease of life to the dominance of memory in an age when the other mental faculties had come to be of tenfold more value for even daily business life.
Unfortunately, as the new sciences have won their way into schools and universities, they have rather strengthened this tyranny of the isolated fact for the average student. For laboratories are expensive luxuries, and the ordinary mind has not had its imagination and reason sufficiently developed to follow in the footsteps of the great discoverers in science. Textbooks have had to be used, not as aids to observation and experiment, but as substitutes, especially in schools. And teachers find it easier to impress upon pupils the task of committing to memory long series of facts than to appeal to their higher faculties by explanation and illustration.
Cram, or the use and cultivation of memory at the expense of reason and imagination, is not to be dispossessed by any change of subject. The medaeval system, futile though it was In the pursuit of truth, made the closest approach to getting rid of the evil spirit, and that in a period, too, that demanded the overcultivation of memory because of the dearness of books and the slowness of recording. The substitution of classics at the Renaissance, and the gradual substitution of the sciences for these in our own day, have by no means cured education of atrophy of reason and hypertrophy of memory.
Less competitive examination, more Socretic examination, both oral and written, the true method of education, and more practice or laboratory work are needed to get rid of the evil.
What is wanted to rid our system of cram is more examination and not less; but it must be examination that exercises all the faculties of the mind, and not one at the expense of the rest. Examiners who ask only isolated facts and test nothing but memory must be suppressed as the bane of modern life; and teachers who throw the burden of education on the memory of their pupils instead of constantly drawing out their reasoning powers and their imagination by the continual use of Socratic examination, and what might be called laboratory practice, must be considered by inspectors, boards and councils as indolently evading their duties. As the Americans say, "Somebody must be tired at the end of a lesson," and most will agree that it should not be the page 20 pupils alone. A good teacher will so interest and entangle the imagination and reason of his class, and so awaken their eagerness for knowledge and their curiosity by question and problem, that discipline will be spontaneous and automatic. And the interchange of question and answer should be so varied by practice in applying the principles and reasons involved that the tension of the youthful mind is relieved.
Nor must the written examination be abandoned. On the contrary, the use of it must be increased, not only as a test of what has been taught, but as an instrument of teaching, though it should ever be subordinate to the more vital method of oral examination. Bacon's wellknown maxim comes in aptly here: "Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man." All these should be combined in education, or the result will be onesided.
The misfortune is that so many of the rewards of youth and early manhood have to be decided by competitive examinations, and that exact comparison in difficult in the faculties and elements of human nature that are the most valuable for practical life—physique, morality, tact, character, capability to manage men or affairs, reason, imagination. When he has not a subject like mathematics to deal with, where every answer can be valuated to a fraction, the examiner resorts to the next most easily appraisable material for examinations, the products of memory and their manipulation. An isolated fact is known or not known, obscurely or clearly grasped and expressed, and a definite percentage can be assigned to every answer without hesitation. And examination papers naturally degenerate into a demand for isolated facts, and sections of unreasoned knowledge. Teachers soon appreciate this weakness of examinatorial nature, and, as it is identical with a weakness of tutorial nature, the whole task of preparation is foisted on to the memory of the candidate. He has to bear the brunt of the process, though the process may be shortened by the expert coach who can boil down textbooks into a Liebig's extract of knowledge.
Of all the reforms that are needed in the educational world today, the chief is an institution for the training and examination of examiners. Examination is one of the most difficult of all arts, and is the pivot and stimulus of our whole educational system, and yet it has been left to haphazard. We pick our examiner in a subject from those who know it well, without in the least considering whether he can test anything but memory in it. We know that the most brilliant scholar may be the poorest teacher, because he lacks disciplinary power, or sympathy, or ability to draw out the minds of bis pupils. There is the same dilemma in the sphere of examiners, though the absence of the necessity for discipline in their case makes their failure less petent. The art of examination should be taught practically in our normal schools or university colleges, not only to teachers, but to those who may be employed as examiners.
For competitive examination will continue to set the standard and methods of education; and some such scheme as was in the mind of Cecil Rhodes when he established the Rhodes Scholarships must be applied to it to reform it. It must test the character and the physique, as well as all the faculties of the mind.
For it is this art that saves or damns our whole system of education. It not only guards the entrance to our secondary schools and university colleges, and to all our professions; but it gives the cue and method to every teaching institution and every teacher in the country. If the network of examinations that entangles the whole life of our children up to adolescence and the entrance on their career in life has no method but the extraction of isolated facts, and no aim but the cultivation of memory, our whole educational system will have no other method and aim. The art of testing the imagination, the reason and the practical, experimental and observational powers is so difficult in almost all subjects that until it is reorganised and taught as an art, there is little hope of raising examinations to a higher level than stimulants of cram.
It is clear then that, if modern civilisation is to he reformed into a development of the whole nature and constitution of our children, our competitive examinations will have to be a test of other faculties than memory, and of more than the merely intellectual powers. There is little prospect in our huge modern States and our increasingly democratic atmosphere in politics, of abandoning the public competition for prizes scholarships and salaried posts for the return to patronage would mean in our democratic times a welter of corruption. But the number of examinations for competitive purposes might be reduced with advantage. And the extension of their scope to cover the whole humanity of the candidates would rid them of their most serious defects.
Cecil Rhodes had this in his mind when he laid down the scheme for the apportionment of the scholarships he founded. They were to be granted not for intellectual attainment alone, but for physique and character. Something page 21 of this same breadth of view will have to be introduced into all our competitive examinations. No one should be admitted to them unless on clear proof of such a physique and soundness of health as would not be injured by the competition or the preparation for it. If there were a, medical official for every school district his certificate should be an essential for every candidature. And characters might well be tested by a system of voting amongst the pupils of each school as to who were worthy to represent it in a competition. Under medical advice, the master or masters might select those who are physically capable of preparing for it and going through the ordeal. The usual school tests would bring out those of them who were intellectually most likely to uphold the reputation of the institution. And, finally, the votes of the pupils would select out of these the finest characters. For boys and girls are as keen and unbiassed critics of morals and leadership as primitive men. The playground reveals the nature as effectually as savage occupations do.
The present system of prizes and scholarship handicaps the average mind and the shy talents, and tends to the perpetuation of cram.
There is a deeper defect in our system of awards. It handicaps those who are already handicapped by nature and thrusts the moderately endowed minds further into the slough; whilst it forces, as in a hotbed, mental precocity. Now it is "writ large" in the lives of successful men that the finest talents most often blossom late, except in the aesthetic arts where the senses and the sensuous imagination, powers early developed, dominate. School and collage are not infrequently mere step-mothers to those who develop slowly, They fall below the range of prizes and scholarships in childhood and youth, and the world has to be their college. For there are qualities more important for success in the arena of life than memory and a few other intellectual faculties; and these are untouched by the ordinary competitive test. Want of recognition during the scholastic career often, does them no harm, as it does them no good. But still oftener does it make shy natures cease to believe in themselves or their merits; and they drop into the backwaters of life and are lost to the world.
We ought to save those slow-developing and shy talents by a modification of our award system. A certain proportion of all prices and scholarships should be reserved for the greatest progress or development made by seemingly average natures in a term, or year, or other period. These should be applied both at the beginning and at the end of the time, and the greatest advance made, should it be even in the lowest levels of the class or school or candidates, should be rewarded. Nature has already provided for the success of precocity and bold and showy powers, without the stimulus of any artificial award system. She has handicapped the slow and retiring minds, and it is they that really need reward to stimulate their growth. Her inequitable treatment is endorsed and emphasised by our methods of awarding prizes and scholarships; and by the self-interest of our teachers. It pays these better to lay out their energies on the clever boys and girls than to spend them on the average or moderately endowed minds. If the system were so modified as to reserve a proportion of awards for progress or development, the lower levels would have more attention. The real test of a good teacher is, not the number of clever scholars he sends out, but the influence and effect he has on the average natures. Were this better recognised in reports and results, there would be fewer failures in life from want of proper teaching.
But there would be no need of any modification of the award system, if the system of examination were reformed and became a test of the whole humanity of the candidates. Competition is our shadow that we can never leap off; it is the inner principle of all creation, But we can lessen and modify it so that it shall quicken, not disease, but vitality. It is the leverage of the teacher, as it is of nature. But it should be used with judgment, so that the progress of nature's favourites shall not discourage and repress the talents of the mass, the shy growers, and the aveiagely endowed. It is on these that the future depends.
Examination is the only true method of teaching, for its aim and end is the development of faculty, skill, talent. Along with the great benefits that the Renaissance and modern science have conferred on civilisation, they introduced a great evil; they made knowledge and the communication of facts overshadow in teaching the exercise and growth of the powers; they exorcised the devil of useless subtlety only to introduce the seven devils of cram. Examination every day, every hour, every minute, is the only sorcery that will dispossess these, not the mere wreching out of facts memorised ny the pupils that is its favourite type, but the constant interplay of all the page 22 faculties of teacher and pupils to make sure that the facts are completely digested by the mind, and have had their Fullest effect on the evolution of the whole nature. If imagination and reason wore enticed into the arena of the classroom, memory would need little of the whip, and it would be the pictorial and imaginative memory, the memory of idea and reasoning, that would become the habit of life, rather than the memory of words and facts. Emotions should be hourly stirred, the higher emotions and ideals should be hourly appealed to, ideals of heroism, virtue, character, patriotism and humanity. Nor should the physical health be forgotten by the teacher and examiner, and, if the results of such training were tested in every examination, every pupil would feel that his special excellence was in the open and under the sunshine of recognition and favour, None but would gain confidence in his superiority to oxners in some direction. The failures and wrecks that strew the margin of our civilisation would grow fewer and fewer. The self-scepticism, timidity and hopelessness that reign is the lower levels of school classes too often dog men and women from youth even, to She shelter of the final peace.