Thursday, February 9, 2012

Whitehead on primrose paths and external examinations

Alfred North Whitehead wouldn’t have approved of the collegiate “study guide,” the simple pre-exam handout (handout indeed), often requiring (I am told) no more than fifteen or twenty minutes of effort to memorize. From The Aims of Education (1929):

In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place. This evil path is represented by a book or a set of lectures which will practically enable the student to learn by heart all the questions likely to be asked at the next external examination.
Nor would Whitehead approve of what we now call the standardized test, what he called the “uniform external examination”:
We do not denounce it because we are cranks, and like denouncing established things. We are not so childish. Also, of course, such examinations have their use in testing slackness. Our reason of dislike is very definite and very practical. It kills the best part of culture. When you analyse in the light of experience the central task of education, you find that its successful accomplishment depends on a delicate adjustment of many variable factors. The reason is that we are dealing with human minds, and not with dead matter. The evocation of curiosity, of judgment, of the power of mastering a complicated tangle of circumstances, the use of theory in giving foresight in special cases — all these powers are not to be imparted by a set rule embodied in one schedule of examination subjects.
Nothing in my experience does more to kill intellectual curiosity and effort in young adults than schooling focused on the work of standardized tests. When every question has only one right answer, any thoughts you think will most likely be wrong.

[Whitehead’s understanding of culture: “Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it.” My knowledge of the “study guide” comes from conversations over the past few years with students who have studied in many different institutions. A “study guide” often includes both questions and answers.]

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