"Every man has the right to have his ideas
examined one at a time." (Ezra Pound)

Even very established scholars sometimes describe themselves as “students of” their subjects. This isn’t an expression of (even false) humility; they are merely acknowledging that they “study” things. Something similar can be said of words like “test” and “examine”, which can be applied both to people and to ideas. At first pass, these seem to be radically different senses of “student” and “examine”, but I think it’s worth noting their connections. Students and scholars are, after all, engaged in the same cultural activity, namely, “learning.” Though here, again, we’re tempted to say that the word is used in two very different senses, I think it’s important to keep in mind that, not only is our instruction based on our scholarship, we are, in part, instructing our students in the craft of scholarship. Examination is an integral part of academic life, even when it’s not part of the process of assigning a grade.

That said, I sometimes suspect that scholars resent the exam-like conditions of, for example, the peer-review process. While it makes sense to want to put “school” behind you, that desire is easier for people who leave the university (for one of the professions or the arts or anything else) to declare than it is for academics to wanly announce. In fact, academics ideally chose their career path because they genuinely respect the exam situation. We might say that the university ought to attract people who, precisely, don’t resent examination, i.e., people who see the value of testing the knowledge of someone whose job it is to know things. The deepest way of addressing this problem, then, is to explain why no one, not even a student, should resent being examined.

Why are exams a good thing?

We can begin with the easy cases. We want our doctors to know what they’re doing. We want them to get very good educations, and we want their licenses to practice medicine to depend on this education. We’re not satisfied with their merely getting into, or even dutifully attending, medical school. We want to know that they actually learned what their teachers were trying to teach them. So we expect those teachers to examine our future doctors’ understanding of the current state of medical knowledge. These days, many of us are discovering (some of us, to our surprise) the depth of our respect for medicine, and this implies a respect for the institutions that train our medical professionals. We believe that they’ve done a good job of ensuring that the people who treat us when we are ill know what they’re doing.

This is why I don’t like it when established academics side with students who “hate school” (allegedly out of their “love of learning”). It’s perfectly legitimate, and often no doubt reasonable, to dislike going to school. All social institutions are imperfect, and none can fulfill its mission entirely without some residual nuisance and boredom, but higher education is for people who have actively put up with those imperfections for the sake of a greater goal, indeed, a higher purpose.

Testing a student is merely a somewhat artificial instance of testing ideas. Ezra Pound invoked his “right” to have his ideas tested (he had his reasons), but there is also, among academics in any case, a duty to let them be tested. At the limit, we might posit a Socratic duty to oneself to examine one’s own ideas, lest one’s own life be not worth living. But, as I reminded us above, the unexamined doctor is certainly not worthy of a medical practice. Highly educated professionals deserve our respect because they once allowed themselves to be examined by people who were qualified to tell them they were wrong. Academics, I never tire of saying, are people who are permanently committed to this regime of “testing” by their peers.

2 thoughts on “Examination

  1. Thomas:

    This reminds me of the fear of loss is said to be a great motivator for other people, but we rarely think it’s good for us. Generations of economists have written about the way in which a bit of financial insecurity is good for workers, because it motivates them to work hard and improve themselves. But people who hold this view for others seem perfectly comfortable hoarding million-dollar bank accounts for themselves. Few people want to be in perpetual fear of being fired or homeless.

    Similarly, as teachers, we see (or think we see) the many benefits to students of being evaluated, graded, tested, etc., over and over again. But as professionals, sure we don’t mind the occasional performance review, but only if we’re pretty sure we’re gonna be in that 7-10 range (on a 1-10 scale), not if we think that a low review will get us canned.

    As to peer review: It can be wonderful; it’s motivated some of my best and most influential work. Also, I hate it.

    1. That’s a good point, Andrew. I wonder which way you’re most inclined to drive it home. Should teachers be more willing to subject themselves to peer-review or less eager to test their students? (Maybe a bit of both?)

      (I should say that I’m not trying to promote the formal institution of anonymous peer-review as we know it. I’m talking more about the sort of post-publication review of ideas that I know you take as well as you give.)

      As to the economic analogy. I think I’m being consistent when I say that I believe in universal basic income and grading on a curve. That is, I think 20-25% of per capita GDP should be handed out to everyone for free without having to work for it. There should be a lot of part-time, low-skilled, low-pay work in the economy as well. Ds should be handed out quite liberally, and Cs should be easy to get with a modicum of effort. We don’t need poverty or Fs to motivate people. (They should only exist for people who actually refuse to show up.) But there has to be competition at the top to foster real competence.

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