Friday, May 06, 2011

`The Beginning of the Awareness of Truth'

This week students take state-mandated tests, known euphemistically as “assessments.” Most use laptop computers, seated in class and conference rooms, in unaccustomed silence. I supervised the math testing for two fourth-grade boys. For two hours, both concentrated quietly except when yawning. One used scratch paper and pencil. Neither used the ruler or protractor. The questions were multiple-choice and the instructions urged them to choose the “best” answers, not correct ones. Jacques Barzun writes in “The Tyranny of Testing” (1962; collected in The Jacques Barzun Reader, 2002):

“Multiple-choice tests, whether of fact or skill, break up the unity of knowledge and isolate the pieces; nothing follows on anything else, and a student’s mind must keep jumping.”

The slower and less mature of the boys, when I asked if he felt confident of his answers, replied: “Mostly I guessed. I didn’t understand a lot of it.” Barzun writes in the same essay:

“…a pupil does not really know what he has learned till he has organized and explained it to someone else. The mere recognition of what is right in someone else’s wording is only the beginning of the awareness of truth.”

Educators, including some at my school, for whom public education is a branch of social work, would snort at the quaintness of Barzun’s language: “the unity of knowledge,” “truth.” Testing, for those who tutor and proctor – that is, babysit – starts to look like an elaborate game organized to gratify someone, certainly not students, though perhaps cousins to those Yvor Winters calls “the insensate, calm / Performers of the hour.” Surely they are not the sort of teacher David Mason celebrates in “Mrs. Vitt,” who says:

No child I taught was any grief to me.”

1 comment:

George said...

I believe that the multiple-choice test owes its popularity to American characteristics: the desire to replace labor by automation; the fear of exercising judgment & desire to appeal to a standard. For the second, somebody, somewhere, will assert that Montaigne's essay did not develop according to the book, or that Gauss did not show his work. But if you can point to the the fact that the answer sheet says that a) is correct for 25, or even (as ETS has done) that in general those who answered item 45 incorrectly scored better than the eccentrics who got it right, then who will argue?