A Charlotte Mason Education, Charlotte Mason, Examinations
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Cheers for Examinations by Carroll Smith

Recently, Andy was reading in Parents and Children by Charlotte Mason.  She came across the following quote.  Mason in this quote seems to be addressing entrance examinations for universities.  Her words, I believe, can be applied to our situation today particularly here in the US in which so much testing is being done because states are measuring the accomplishment of standards through testing.  Read carefully and slowly her words.  I hope to write a paper on this quote before too long.

It would also be interesting to know from educators outside the US whether or not the same testing mania is evident and what are the consequences for this mania.

From Parents and Children, pp. 215-218

Tom passes his ‘Exams.’—  By-and-by comes a report the main delight of which is, that Tommy has gained six places; more places are gained, prizes, removes (see below)—by-and-by scholarships.  Before he is twelve Tommy is able to earn the whole of his future schooling by his skill in that industry of the young popularly known as Exams.  Now he aims at larger game; ‘exams’ still, but ‘exams’ big with possibilities, ‘exams’ which will carry him through his University career.  His success is pretty certain, because you get into the trick of ‘exams’ as of other crafts.  His parents are congratulated, Tom is more or less of a hero in his own eyes and in those of his compeers.  Examinations for ever!  Hip, hip! Never was a more facile way for a youth to distinguish himself, that is, if his parents have sent him into the world blessed with any inheritance of brains.  For the boy not so blessed—why, he may go to the Colonies and that will make a man of him.

So do the Girls — The girls come in a close second.  The ‘Junior,’ the ‘Senior,’ the ‘Higher,’ the ‘Intermediate,’ the ‘B.A.,’ and what else you will, mark the epochs in most girls’ lives.  Better, say you, than having no epochs at all.  Unquestionably, yes.  But the fact that a successful examination of one sort or another is the goal towards which most of our young people are labouring with feverish haste and with undue anxiety, is one which possibly calls for the scrutiny of the investigating Why?

In the first place, people rarely accomplish beyond their own aims.  Their aim is a pass, not knowledge; ‘they cram to pass and not to know; they do pass and they don’t know,’ says Mr. Ruskin; and most of us who know the ‘candidate’ will admit that there is some truth in the epigram.  There are, doubtless, people who pass and who also know, but, even so, it is open to question, whether passing is the most direct, simple, natural and efficacious way of securing knowledge, or whether the persons who pass and know are not those keen and original minds which would get blood out of a stone,—anyway, sap out of sawdust.

The Tendency of Grind.—Again—except for the fine power of resistance possessed by the human mind, which secures that most persons who go through examination grind come out as they went in, absolutely unbiassed towards any intellectual pursuits whatever—except for this, the tendency of the grind is to imperial that individuality which is the one incomparably precious birthright of each of us.  The very fact of a public examination compels that all who go in for it must study on the same lines. (Emphasis mine.)

No Choice as to the Matter or Manner of Studies.—It will be urged that there is no necessary limitation to studies outside the examination syllabus, nor any restrictions whatever as to the direction of study even upon the syllabus; but this is a mistake.  Whatever public examinations a given school takes, the whole momentum of pupils and staff urges towards the great issue.  As to the manner of study, this is ruled by the style of questions set in a given subject; and Dry-as-dust wins the day because it is easier and fairer to give marks upon definite facts than upon mere ebullitions of fancy or genius.  So it comes to pass that there is absolutely no choice as to the matter or manner of their studies for most boys and girls who go to school, nor for many of those who work at home.  For so great is the convenience of a set syllabus that parents and teachers are equally glad to avail themselves of it.

Tyranny of Competitive Examination Support by Parents.—It appears, then, that the boy is in bondage to the schoolmaster, and the schoolmaster to the examiner, and the parents do no more than acquiesce.  Would parents be astounded if they found themselves in this matter a little like the man who had talked prose all his life without knowing it?  The tyranny of the competitive examination is supported for the most part by parents.  We do not say altogether.  Teachers do their part manfully; but, in the first place, teachers unsupported by parents have no power at all in the matter; not a single candidate could they present beyond their own sons and daughters; in the next place, we do not hesitate to say that the whole system is forced upon teachers (though, perhaps, by no means against their will) by certain ugly qualities of human nature as manifested in parents.  Ignorance, idleness, vanity, avarice, do not carry a pleasant sound; and if we, who believe in parents, have the temerity to suggest such shadows to the father basking in the sunshine of his boy’s success, we would add that the rest of us who are not parents are still more to blame; that it is terribly hard to run counter to the current of the hour; and that ‘harm is wrought through want of thought.’

The Evil Lies in the Competition.—Ignorance is excusable, but willful ignorance is culpable, and the time has come for the thoughtful parent to examine himself and see whether or not it be his duty to make a stand against the competitive examination system.  Observe, the evil lies in the competition, not in the examination.  If the old axiom be true, that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind itself, it is relatively true that knowledge conveyed from without must needs be tested from without.  Probably, work on a given syllabus tested by a final examination is the condition of definite knowledge and steady progress.  All we contend for is that the examination shall not be competitive.

Postscript:  Today I was working at Gillingham Charter School and eating my lunch in the Den (a multipurpose room) with another teacher.  She said to me, “I reminded the children this morning that examinations start on Wednesday.  They cheered.”  Knowing that the children get out of school early on examination days, I said, “They are really excited about going home early.”  “No,” she said, “They don’t like to go home early.  They cheered for the examinations.”  Being a sceptic I had immediately assumed that their cheering had nothing to do with examinations, when in reality the cheers were exactly for that.  Mason is correct when examinations are done properly, children delight in telling us what they know.

The word “removes” from the Free Dictionary Online seems to mean:

9. (Education) Brit (in certain schools) a class or form, esp one for children of about 14 years, designed to introduce them to the greater responsibilities of a more senior position in the school.

© 2014 by Carroll Smith


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

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