I dealt with some of the justifications outlined for ‘high-stakes’ testing, and the testing culture, in the previous part. In this part, I want to peel back the surface justifications, to deal with the real reason why formal examinations – and qualifications – are deemed such an important part of the education system.
A capitalist society is one in which there is hierarchy, and scarcity. There are good jobs, bad jobs and no jobs. You can go to an ‘elite’ university, a merely ‘good’ university, an also-ran or not to university at all. Creating this hierarchy (and resulting from it) is the limited number of people that can fill the ‘good’ jobs, or go to the ‘elite’ universities. There therefore needs to be a sorting mechanism. Without underplaying the ‘old school tie’ factor, which is as strong as it ever was (look at the proportions of lawyers, judges, top journalists, bankers, politicians etc. who went to private schools), examinations perform the function of sorting applicants, by assigning to them letters or numbers – grades and UCAS scores for instance.
I outlined briefly in the previous post how these letters and numbers give us an inadequate view of ability and potential. It should suffice to simply add that success in one educational context (formal schooling) will not necessarily ensure success in another (the freer environment of a university), and the same applies for the world of work. Employers and universities need quick and nasty ways to sort people, and these methods are inadequate, inefficient and take no account of the individual’s development and potential contributions.
A far better system would mean acting as if both individuals and society mattered. Individuals have a need for meaningful study and work. Society needs to ensure that it gets from individuals their best. These goals can coincide. But they cannot in an anarchic, self-interested short-termist system like capitalism. Treating individuals as complex wholes, with various capacities and potentialities, interests, motivations and talents at varying degrees of development, rather than abstract things to which numbers can be attached for the purposes of fitting them into probably ill-suited roles, would be good for the health and functioning of a society, as well as the health and wellbeing of individuals.
In what seems to be a developing theme across some of my posts, I state that actually, rather than privileging the collective over the individual, Marxism, in it’s goal to abolish capitalism, actually resolves the contradiction between collective and individual. The bourgeois idealists (champions of individualism!) ended up creating a system which depersonalised and gutted the individual, while simulataneously creating problems – and offering precious few solutions – for the collective, for society. Marxists see the development and progression of individuals and the collective as two sides of the same coin.
That’s why I want to abolish exams. Because I would like to live in a society where the society creates well rounded, healthy, happy individuals who are able to develop themselves to the fullest extent for their own and society’s benefit. Exams – those crude sorting mechanisms borne of a socioeconomic system based on and generating hierarchy and the scarcity of routes to the good life – are too vulgar tools for such a task, and will not be needed.