Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/May 1903/College Entrance Examinations
|COLLEGE ENTRANCE EXAMINATIONS.
By ABRAHAM FLEXNER,
OF all the influences molding secondary education in the United States at the present time, among the most powerful are the college entrance examinations. To the schoolmaster they seem to embody in tangible form the object of his efforts; to the student they form a barrier that must be cleared, interposed as they are between him and that fascinating interplay of social, athletic and perhaps scholarly activities, called college life. It becomes, therefore, a question of immediate and pressing importance—what conception of education do these examinations tend, perhaps unconsciously, to establish?
In scholarship tests they yield a result that is treated as absolute; no consideration suggested by the development or individual history of the student is suffered to modify or illumine their verdict. The ignorance and the impartiality of the examining authority compel the rejection of all factors except the visible question and its answer. But in the secondary school period neither knowledge nor the rehandling of knowledge can, save at the peril of growth, be regarded as the sole or main educational end. The accumulation of facts, the mastery of tools must be subsidiary to the inward ordering of the pupil. While this work of organization must proceed side by side with, indeed largely by means of, the acquisition of knowledge, the two processes do not form an equation. In a word, definite quantitative, even definite qualitative performances in certain limited areas of knowledge can not be immediately translated into mental and moral terms. A limited acquaintance with, certain predetermined selections from Greek, Latin and English literatures may or may not connote the concentration, energy and power of resistance which genuine training should confer; there is no necessary or inevitable connection between them. What we want is a method for measuring energy, growth, organization. An examination, therefore, which seeks not only to value past effort, but to decide the very possibility of future opportunity simply upon the basis of a uniform scholarship test, emphasizes scholarship, such as it is, at the expense of organization. It tends inevitably to produce a special, narrow fitness for meeting a particular form of test at the cost of spiritual spontaneity, and, in consequence, the verdict of the schools is usually upset by the verdict of subsequent experience.
I say the examinations emphasize scholarship; but do they? In each subject they aim to cover a clearly defined requirement. As a means of eliminating caprice this is excellent and effective; but too literal insistence upon the most admirably defined requirement is fatal to the scholarly, the vital quality. The larger interests, the vaguer gropings, that in youth mark the mind with developmental possibilities are distinctly discredited in favor of the nimble, lightly cumbered, Athenian knack of the trained 'examinee.' Knack is the quality produced and honored by the examination test, hastily and externally administered. Ability to guess the answer through the question, mechanical celerity in applying the formula to the problem—be the problem historic, linguistic or mathematical—cleverness in seizing and elaborating an idea frequently implied in the interrogatory, a special trick of remembering odds and ends, phrases or comments—in a word, breezy facility—such is the ideal equipment for the college entrance test. The candidate will surely be overweighted by genuine love of his subject, witnessed by large, though necessarily vague and immature acquaintance with it. His chance of passing will be better if he has not wandered beyond the 'assigned' and has that at his finger tips. For the foreign examiner is not seeking evidence of power, of energy liberated and directed to intelligent purpose. With this—the real business of the real teacher—he has no concern. He stands fast by the letter; he must have the special nuggets of knowledge. The effort to satisfy such tests is thus not only fatal to a lofty conception of the teacher's office—it is equally fatal to genuine scholarship, poor a substitute as is mere learning for that spontaneity of consciousness at which culture and training should aim. Taste, capacity, originality are thus heavily discounted by staking the issue on something that taste, capacity and originality soon learn to regard with disgust. Hence, too often, those who have most successfully lent themselves to the 'mill treatment' prescribed, are those whom the fuller tests of scholarship, professional training and practical life reject as lacking scope, pliability, and interest.
I am sure that our collegiate 'lords and masters,' overwhelmingly interested as they are in specialties rather than in boys, do not realize the deadening and restrictive effect of this mechanical emphasis of the letter. What shall it profit a student to develop a real love of Shakespeare at the expense of a thorough and intimate knowledge of the notes to Macbeth? What shall it profit him to extend his acquaintance with Milton beyond the designated poems and books, if in the process he forget why the 'Vision of the guarded Mount' looked 'toward Nomancos and Bayona's hold'? Of course, no student retains such lore beyond the day appointed for its display. The melancholy truth is that it is retained so long only by means of mechanical reiteration, much more likely to injure than to encourage good taste, and patiently submitted to only by those who never read literature as literature at all.
If too precise insistence upon arbitrarily assigned tasks is thus fatal to both vital teaching and scholarly interest, rigid limitation to brief and uniform examination periods is equally fatal to thought. We profess the desire to train students to coherent, logical ratiocination, to supplant the capricious mental spurt with the steady stream of thought. But the written examination, as now carried on, places at a marked disadvantage the intellect that has learned to work with deliberate discrimination. At a given moment the examination athlete darts his eye swiftly through the question paper, searching for some familiar sign, and at its sight dashes off the answer that is waiting for that particular provocation. No adequate time for reflection, no allowance for individual or accidental variations! The mind that refuses to operate in this reckless fashion is not 'ready'! The student who has read widely rather than crammed recently, is not 'ready'! Meanwhile, the sprinter equipped for just these spurts, without real power of thought, observation or concentration, satisfied with superficial compliance with requirement—or less—moves nimbly from topic to topic, touches lightly here and there, and with a 'make-believe' that the stranger can not penetrate, presents as the hammer falls a smooth and more or less finished result.
Such conditions are so far from promoting readiness of thought that they simply negative all thinking. They substitute a lightning reflex for the deliberate working of the higher thought centers. I can not believe that top-speed has, even in practical life, the importance here attributed to it by implication; and if it be urged that only 'average' speed is desired, I answer that the supposed process of averaging is an absurdity. The slower intellects refuse to be averaged with the swifter. Each has the sacred right of individuality, and no educational effort can be considered sound that suffers one to waste part of its natural superiority, while it endeavors to compel the other to be something that it is not and, except in a limited way, can never become. Doubtless speed will increase with the formation of a thorough and logical mental habit. But the seriousness of the occasion, the liability to temporary fluctuation, which the examiner can not distinguish from permanent characteristic, and the importance of ascertaining things of infinitely greater significance than the boy's ability to work under pressure for a time, combine to render the present method both unfair and unwise.
I have referred to the 'Jack-be-nimble, Jack-be-quick,' type of examination athlete; let me not overlook his heavy-laden brother—the hoplite to whom the thing is as earnest and important as it pretends to be. For him there is no youth; his life is a hard and unremitting cram, and he comes out of the ordeal, bereft of spirit, originality, spontaneity, too often of health besides. In exchange for these he carries a premature load of ill-assimilated pedantry, of neither disciplinary nor inspirational value, and destined soon to slip from his all-too-rigid grasp. Often enough, the college years witness a violent recoil—mental and physical. But for the time being he is the idol of the examination boards. He is ready to solve in all seriousness their linguistic and historic puzzles. He will promptly state facts to illustrate any random quotation; he has at his tongue's end a sentence each to describe 'the successive governments in France between 1789 and 1870'; he can mark all the long vowels in 'Cæsar,' and tell you what goddess gave any oracle that you can cull from the 'Metamorphoses'!
I regret that lack of space makes it impossible for me to submit complete specimens of recent examination papers in support of these criticisms; but the system as a whole is condemned by the absolute exclusion of all evidence beyond the answers submitted. I insist that it is fit for little more than to measure superficial knowledge; that, if it pretends to measure thought at all, it does so under conditions that practically forbid thought; that necessarily its influence on previous education tends to develop the external, mechanical and insincerely imitative at the sacrifice of the internal and spontaneous. The erection of so artificial a standard must lead to neglect of the proper educational business of youth, viz., the organization of each individual from within in harmony with his environment. Whatever connection may be charitably supposed to exist between such organization and the pursuits prescribed for college entrance, it can not be seriously maintained that the correspondence is so definite that it can be described in uniform quantitative terms, applicable to all students in all circumstances. Therefore, howsoever the questions be prepared and appraised, they can not alone be made the means of determining the issue without shifting the pedagogical emphasis from within to without.
In support of my contention that in its present administration the examination system is needlessly absurd, I have before me a very impressive mass of evidence. Here, for instance, is an examination in Roman history covering two printed pages, in which, under eight subdivisions, of which the candidate must select four, forty-one queries are submitted. 'Time allowed, thirty minutes'! Thirty minutes within which the youth is expected to comprehend the way the paper is put, read the questions in order to exercise the privilege of selection and commit to writing the answers to about twenty questions. Some of them are, it is true, mere matters of memory; but in this space of time, the candidate who stops to recollect is lost. Hence, nothing but the sort of cram that disappears the day after the examination and risks the loss of all pleasure in history will provide instantaneous knowledge of such facts as 'The attitude of the Achæan league toward Perseus of Macedon; punishment inflicted by Rome for this; Polybius, the historian, as connected with this punishment,' etc. All this depends on the merest mechanical memory, but there is more to come. In the same thirty minutes, he is to display quick-action historic insight; for, as an original effort, he must 'tell the story of Appius Claudius as his political enemies would tell it, then as his political friends would tell it.' Now if the answer to this is merely a repetition of a previous attempt it is worse than worthless; if devised at the moment, assuming that the candidate has what he can not have—sufficient information at his command to warrant an honest answer—it must necessarily be superficial. The companion paper, in Greek history, requires the student in an equally brief half hour, after a varied memory performance, to 'argue that the Athenians were or were not wise in their final rejection of Alcibiades in 407,' and to tell 'what was the opinion of the comic poet Aristophanes in 405 about the wisdom of recalling him.' One can hardly go far wrong in recognizing the same keen educational intelligence in two previous papers, one calling mainly for the history of Capua, the other for the history of the Messenian wars. The display of such learned and irrelevant trifles is taken to indicate a proper knowledge of Greek and Roman history; and a teacher who is really trying to train boys must employ the history-tool so as to satisfy such tests! In truth this attempted draft on the historical imagination is but a transparent imposition, deceiving, not the children, who know the hollowness of the 'make-believe,' but the learned scholars who gravely require boys and girls after a study of the outlines of ancient history to 'compare Plato and Aristotle,' and in the same two hours, select and answer eleven other questions out of a paper containing forty, many of the single questions demanding from five to ten distinct answers.
The English papers present equally pernicious illustrations. 'In these days of the "new' education, prominent educators congratulate us on the 'system' that has unified the entrance requirements in English! A board of experts selects in two groups some dozen or two everything everywhere. Now English A, so-called, consisting of things so appropriate to the universal youthful mind as Tennyson's classic gems, a knowledge of which is required of all candidates for 'Princess' and Lowell's 'Sir Launfal,' is to be touched lightly as a mere basis for composition; the examination uses the material thence derived to test the candidate's powers of expression. A process better calculated to torture the teacher and to divorce expression from experience in the pupil could hardly be devised. For the way in which the selections must be used can be guessed from the fact that one paper before me requires the pupil to write in an hour and a quarter three original essays, 'correct in paragraph and sentence structure and general arrangement' on subjects selected from twelve, of which the following are samples: 'What are the essential characteristics of the life described by Addison and Goldsmith as contrasted with the life in Ivanhoe'? or 'Compare the Ancient Mariner and the Vision of Sir Launfal with regard to the representation of a moral idea in each'? In one and a quarter hours a boy is to read and choose three out of twelve such problems, get his ideas into shape and set them down 'correct,' without the chance to reconsider, readjust, rewrite or recopy, which the most practised writer demands, and which every good teacher tries to get the pupil to require of himself!
English B is worse. The specimens consisting of 'Lycidas,' Burke's speech, Macaulay's 'Milton,' etc., must be dissected and 'crammed' in minute detail. One question before me requires the student to enumerate Burke's 'six causes'; another, after quoting five lines from the body of the speech, gravely asks what part of the oration follows immediately after; while still another requires, on the basis of Macaulay's two essays, a comparison between 'the political element in the life of Milton with the same element in the life of Addison '!
It is useless to go further into details; but I must not omit to call attention to the close connection between the examination papers in Latin and Greek and the fraud that is generally practised in their study. It is well understood among boys that to pass in these subjects one must have at ready command the assigned portions of the classics— one must be able to pick up the thread of narrative or argument, wherever the caprice of the examiner may choose to cut into it. The most effective and expeditious way to prepare is through the persistent use of 'interlinears' and 'trots.' A smattering of syntax, a fair knowledge of the forms, such as class room drill alone may be relied on to give, and a glib translation, such as daily surreptitious use of the 'trot' will infallibly ensure—these may be safely counted on to satisfy the present form of examination. What successful preparation for such tests costs the candidate in honesty, love and capacity for work, interest in the subject itself, one need not pause to calculate. It is only another illustration of the way an external and 'impartial' examination makes shipwreck of sound educational practice. The pupil detaches a fragment of his power, devotes it to devious uses, and 'passes'— the rest of his nature remains an unweeded and untilled garden.
I contend, therefore, that however the examinations be modified, the system that relies upon them . solely is fundamentally unsound. For the closer the apparent articulation thus secured between secondary school and college, the more certain becomes the internal educational hiatus. The larger the examination specter looms before student and teacher, the more decisive the tendency to neglect individual discipline and development, in order to perfect in their stead an organization calculated to meet the exigencies of a critical moment. Preparation for college entrance examinations, rather than preparation for college or preparation for life, insensibly becomes the educational goal. For clearly, when the whole future is staked on this single throw, the temptation to be effectively ready for it is irresistible. I say advisedly—the whole future; since by insistence on an academic degree as a prerequisite to the pursuit of law or medicine on the most highly favored terms, the professional schools aid in the production of the artificial crisis. Under these conditions, the field for pure educational effort in the secondary period threatens, despite the enrichment of the curriculum, to become steadily narrower. The initial and determining factor in the planning of a student's course of work is neither his endowment nor his opportunity, but the caprice that carries him to one institution rather than to another. This choice once made, it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade him to cooperate with his teacher in the endeavor to sound fully and genuinely his personal power. His absorbing interest lies in the statement of the college requirements; and so marked has this factor become that prominent schools do not hesitate to announce the particular colleges by whose requirements their curricula are regulated, as if any uniform requirements could possibly outline an educational procedure strictly applicable in even a single case.
Doubtless the secondary teacher will be roundly criticized by his collegiate superiors, just when he has, through the suppression of the student's individuality, succeeded in perfecting the preparatory machinery warranted to turn out the qualities and accomplishments demanded. For amidst collegiate conditions that begin by conceding to the student the possession of an individuality, which his previous training has, under collegiate compulsion, absolutely denied, it becomes at once manifest that preparation for college entrance examinations is not preparation for college. Indeed, for a college life, offering at the outstart liberal election in the whole field of knowledge and experience, what adequate training can be supposed to reside in the mechanical and uniform drill demanded by the entrance requirements? The articulation that seemed from superficial inspection so neat and complete turns out a delusion; the educational sine quâ non leads nowhere. In bygone days it may have fitted immediately into the prescribed freshman course. But no such justification now remains. Everywhere the developmental idea of power has driven out the superstitious faith that attached magic virtue to certain symbols—everywhere except in the peculiar domain where the nimble mastery of a few formulae is still thought to indicate a definite degree of mental growth and moral strength!
The situation, therefore, calls at once for examination reform, but it calls also for far more: we must harmonize under a sufficiently large ideal the various phases of developmental education. The elementary school, the secondary school, the college, have not yet been viewed and organized as essentially a single educational institution. Pending and in aid of their reorganization on this basis, I urge the colleges to emphasize the vital, not the mechanical, side of preparatory teaching; to establish fixedly no machinery that may impede the creation of a system subtly adapted to the individual. Our sore need now is of an intellect that shall conceive as a single whole the progression from childhood to maturity; that shall embody this progression in a connected series of educational institutions, from which every false, every mechanical, every pedantic test and motive shall have disappeared. Throughout, the system must be dominated by the effort to organize the child in effective harmony with his environment—it must aim at nothing else; it must be satisfied with nothing less.