Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Testing, testing

            The trouble with advertising “whatever comes into my mind” as the subject matter of my blog is that episodes of writer’s block demonstrate to the world that there is nothing there—in my mind, I mean.  Actually, two events of the past week—the reunions that immediately precede the Princeton graduation ceremonies and the observance of our wedding anniversary—have come together there to give birth to an heretical opinion on the subject much in the educational news of late: school tests.

            I do have an axe to grind.  For several years I was a member of the committee charged with constructing the Advanced Placement test in the subject of English Language and Literature.  There were, as I recall, about ten people on the committee, carefully chosen to cover the usual categories of “diversity” and to represent a wide variety of secondary schools and colleges.  The membership was organized into “classes” on fixed terms to guarantee both the benefits of experience and the vigor of “new blood”.  The great disparagement of “standardized tests” that is now common was less so then, but we spent a good deal of thought and time in trying to anticipate criticisms.  I thought the tests we came up with, though obviously the product of compromises and tradeoffs, were pretty good.

            For as you know, since you are probably a right-thinking person, the use of standardized tests in our schools to assess students’ progress is at best a dubious practice and probably a Bad Thing pure and simple.  I’m sure you know the arguments.  The “test culture”—nearly everything now being a culture--stifles “creativity” on the part of teachers and fosters “rote learning” instead of “critical thinking” on the part of the students.  Testing deforms the curriculum, terrorizes students, and can even transform teachers, whose actual salaries made be indexed to test results, into white collar criminals.  A bunch of them in Atlanta have just been given significant prison sentences for racketeering.  They were cooking their grade books.

            Well, this past weekend I spent a couple of days at the reunion of the APGA (Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni), and my thoughts not unnaturally turned to my own years as a graduate student—both of them.  My graduate education, being particularly brief, was particularly intense.  I completed the work for my Ph. D. in two years.  During the first, my only year in residence in Princeton, I was taking seminars and preparing for a big test (known as the “General Examination”, or simply “Generals” as it had many parts) administered in May.  The second year was spent delightfully in Europe, first looking at manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose in libraries from the Hague to Valencia, and then writing a dissertation about them while ensconced in a delightful Proven├žal village.

            Lest the situation of my residential year should lack a sufficient degree of psychological pressure, Joan and I added a supplementary personal dimension.  While we were still at Oxford we had decided that we wanted to get married, but agreed that I would pass the General Examination before we did so.  Thus it happens that the date of our wedding anniversary is always quite close to the Princeton Commencement day.  Every now and again, as in this year for instance, they coincide.

            Well, I did pass the General Examination fifty-three years ago, and the rest is either history or silence, depending upon your perspective.  And passing that exam was probably the most “creative” moment in a long scholarly career.  (A close second was preparing for the similar “Final Schools” at Oxford).  The Princeton graduate students in English in my day were a collection of brilliant odd-balls.  Though varied in their tastes, opinions, and intellectual enthusiasms, and though capable of gestures of ferocious competitiveness, their attitude in face of the General Examination was one of communal cooperation. 

            Everyone was required to prepare in some depth four “minor” fields in addition to their declared specializations.  All the students worked together in preparing study guides—somewhat inelegantly known as “poop sheets”—covering the various historical fields and special topics.  The departmental secretaries colluded with us by giving us mimeograph stencils and allowing us to use their funny old rotary machine after hours.  The results, for some reason invariably printed in purple, were little masterpieces of intellectual force-feeding or “teaching to the test”.  The poop sheets paid especial attention to the particular interests and eccentricities of the graduate faculty and reviewed the content of every graduate seminar taught within the previous five years.

            There were giants in the earth in those days.  One of the dozen or more great men of the English faculty at that time was Louis Landa, the scholar of eighteenth-century literature.  Like most of my professors he was awesomely erudite, but also gentle, kindly and slightly exotic.  There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Texas accent, which I distinguish in my mind as the “southern” and the “western”.  He had the former, and it was delightful.  What a Jewish family was doing in Hallettsville, Texas, around the year 1900 is one of those little mysteries of American sociology that makes our nation so interesting.  (Many years later I would encounter the figure of Diego de Landa, the sixteenth-century Franciscan historian of the Mayans, probably from a converso Sephardic family.)

            Louis (always pronounced in the French manner, Loo-ee) Landa was a great expert on Swift, and extremely knowledgeable about the Church of Ireland in the eighteenth century generally.  But as I later deduced from the oral part of my examination, I probably owed the high score I achieved on the eighteenth-century section to my learned citation of one of his favorite books, a history of the potato.  Needless to say I had not actually read this book; I was leaning on the account of it by one of my classmates in the poop sheets.  I probably never knew more in my life than on the day I finished my generals.