Exams: beer and swords

Pause for Thought: BBC Radio 2 May 14th 2008

Why is it that exams always take place at the warmest time of the year, when the heat saps your energy and concentration? It reminds me of a story about a student who was sitting his final exams at a well-established English university. Just after the exam started, he summoned the invigilator and demanded his free pint of beer, as stated in an archaic set of university exam rules he had discovered. After much debate, his pint of beer was begrudgingly delivered. The following day, the same student was summoned to the office of the university chancellor and fined for sitting the exam without wearing a sword…

My thoughts and sympathies go out to all those students taking SATs, GCSEs, ‘A’ levels and who knows what other tests we put our children through in this summer heat. I don’t know about you, Johnnie, but I have pretty unpleasant memories of my exams. The desperate attempt to remember information, that gut-wrenching feeling that everyone around me knew more than I did. I think that one of the reasons I spent several years teaching before I became a rabbi was to get my own back on a system that seemed determined only to test how much we could remember and regurgitate rather than ascertain what kind of people we were and could become.

In the examination halls across the country, there won’t be pints of beer being ordered or swords being worn this summer. But there will be several empty tables that should be occupied by teenagers who have lost their lives in our troubled, violent society. The absence of Jimmy Mizen and so many other innocent victims like him who could have given so much more to the world than a few correct answers on a piece of paper, who have been let down by a society that seems determined to label people as successes or failures.

I don’t know how or even if it’s possible to construct exams that offer encouragement and hope to our teenagers. But there seems little doubt that we have to find a way of valuing people based on who they are and what they can become rather than on what they can remember and write down. If we don’t, the levels of frustration, disappointment and anger will continue to rise in the summer heat and there will be more pints of beer being ordered and more swords being worn by young people encouraged to regard themselves as failures.

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