Bad preparation for exams

Copy of a letter to an Oxford Professor of philosophy

I commented recently on the fact that universities are making the process of supposed preparation for exams under the auspices of tutors even more inseparable than formerly from the aquisition of a qualification by demonstrating a certain level of proficiency at taking an exam of the kind which is being prepared for.

This is a death-knell to opportunity for the autonomous individual. Of course, society at large does not wish the individual to have any opportunities which are independent of the 'goodwill' of 'other people', i.e. which 'other people' can not mess up for him.

When one hears of a noticeably precocious child, it is often with 'advice' attached to the effect that his parents should make sure he meets lots of 'other people', pursues his 'interests' in association with lots of 'other people' who have similar interests, and so on. Just what negative effects does the adviser have in mind? I will try to analyse this some other time.

Incidentally, this injunction was followed by my parents when I was very young, and I was constantly going around with numbers of children, such as classes of boys from my father's school. But partly because my parents were teachers themselves and the children were well-organised and well-behaved, this did not have negative consequences for me. I was normally much smaller than the other children and the offspring of an authority figure, so I was treated kindly and protectively. This, combined with my ability to do things, such as reading which was useful on expeditions, prevented me from being made to feel inferior, and I had been brought up by my mother to be tolerant of other people's psychological drives, so I did not acquire any hang-ups. I would suppose that association with other children could very easily have demoralising and decentralising effects, although in my case it did not.

The conflation of the process of preparation at a certain university with the end result of qualification for, or disqualification from, an academic career was a major factor, in my case, in producing the disastrous final result of a second class degree and exile for life (or at least up till the present day). So as we bid farewell to a meaningful degree-taking system, let us analyse why this was so, and what reforms of the system might have improved it, by preventing such negative effects, instead of deteriorating it by reducing still further the individual's area of freedom for autonomous activity.

There were many reasons why I should have found it difficult to work for a degree at so late an age (late in relation to my own IQ and mental age, not the statistical average for the population, even of people who took university degrees at that time). These arose from the hostility which had surrounded me all my life and the years of intellectual and emotional deprivation and misery through which I had lived in consequence of it. But a primary and overriding reason was that, while there were no longer any positive rewards to be looked for, either in working for the exam or in the possibility of success, the penalty for failure was immense and absolutely final.

I would not be able to take the exam a second time to get a better result if I did not do well enough the first time, and the prospect of living outside a university career and environment could in no way be considered with equanimity. It was an intensely nightmarish situation; I needed to work for this exam to avert unthinkable disaster, but could find no motivation with which to do so. I knew that nightmare is paralysing to intellectual activity (one of the pieces of practical psychology which I had leant from my 'education', and which I would rather not have known).

In order to be able to succeed one needs to be able to envisage the possibility of failure, so to improve my chances of success I tried to set up a fail-safe plan, and to extract at least from my parents, if from nobody else, some assurance that they would give me at least moral support in taking another degree as quickly as possible if this one, which had been so seriously messed up for me, went wrong. This I could not obtain.

With my shortage of secretarial and other staff, this is all I can manage at present. To be continued soon and I will hope to proceed to the reforms which should have been made, and still should be made, while the deteriorations which have been already made should be reversed.