It seldom ceases to amaze me how often I come across arguments against some of the most damaging features in our education system today, but that were made many decades ago. This would include one of the works by British scholar Sir Richard Livingstone (1880-1960) written and published in the throes of World War II. In two small books, The Future in Education (1941) and Education for a World Adrift (1943), Livingstone took exception to a lack of education and tried to challenge his countrymen to look ahead towards a better system of learning.
In the latter publication, he challenged the growing use of what he calls “examinations” as a driving force that in effect was steering education in the wrong direction. These so-called examinations would be similar to our narrow state-mandated “achievement” tests. The excerpts that follow were his key concerns addressed in a chapter appropriately titled, “Two Dragons in the Road” (italics indicate direct quotations):
“The examination system is both an opiate and a poison. It is an opiate because it lulls us into believing that all is well when most is ill.”
On the surface, the public gets an impression from test scores and graduation rates that “something is clearly happening; the school is doing its job.”
“Something no doubt is happening; but it may not be education; it may be the administration of a poison which paralyses or at least slows down the natural activities of the healthy mind. The healthy human being, finding himself a creature of unknown capacities in an unknown world, wants to learn what the world is like, and what he should be and do in it. To help him in answering these questions is the one and only purpose of education.”
“But that is not the prime aim of the ordinary pupil…for whom the examination becomes much more important than seeing ‘visions of greatness,’ and ‘getting through’ excuses all shortcomings and disguises all omissions.”
“Examinations are harmless when the examinee is indifferent to their result, but as soon as they matter, they begin to distort his attitude to education and conceal its purpose. The more depends on them, the worse their effect.”
He claims that the child who is behind or may have a learning disability “suffers most, since preparing for the ordeal occupies more of its time and mind.” But also, for even the student who is achieving at a higher level, “examinations become an obsession.”
“It is not only the pupil but -- and this is far more serious -- the teacher, who finds his energies and attention drawn from education to examination needs. No doubt there are schools and teachers which resist the insidious pressure, teach their subject for its interest and for nothing else and burn no incense on the examination altar. But the pressure is hard. Most people judge a school by its examination results. Its reputation, however well-established, is affected by them; and a school with a name to make or competitors to face has an overpowering temptation to commend itself to the world,” by striving towards the highest test results and graduation rates.
“The teacher is tempted to show his competence by securing a big list of awards, the headmaster is tempted to demand them in the interest of the school.”
“Any evils that might follow from the disappearance of examinations are nothing to the harm they do. They are in fact a refined form of the old and now universally condemned system of ‘payment by results:’ … tak(ing) the form of prestige to the school and to the pupil.”
The examination system and its system of awards and punishments “restrict(s) the field of education by causing schools to concentrate on ‘profitable’ subjects….They procure ‘far to frequently mechanical results….Subjects can have meaning only as they are treated as aspects of active and living experience….It is as impossible to examine in the most vital parts of education as to anatomize life on a dissecting table, and therefore the pressure of examinations continually pushes them into the background or out of sight. Further, it tends to restrict education to the subjects of the examination in question…”
“Unfortunately there is a risk of the importance of examinations increasing….And if so, education becomes a savage competitive system. It ceases to be education and (simply) becomes a road to a career.”