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Tested to the limit

15 July 2016


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IT IS a privilege of age that one is allowed to pour scorn on the young and their idea of what con­stitutes hard work. Thus, around exam season, it is a pleasure from which I rarely abstain to tell my undergraduate students how easy they have it nowadays. Only four exams in a row — we used to have nine.

But, having heard Mary Beard’s discourse on examinations, You May Now Turn Over Your Papers (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), I am now put firmly in my place by the experience of seventh-century civil servants in China, whose exams took three straight days and nights. The only comfort you could bring into your exam “cell” was a cham­ber pot; and if you happened to die during the three days, then your body would be thrown un­cere­moniously over the compound wall.

Beard’s piece provided a salu­tary historical overview. Exams might be dull, and test only test­able things; but at least things have moved on from the 19th century, when children in a geo­graphy exam might be required to “State the boundaries of Austria and name its principal rivers, giv­ing some account of the course of each.” Google Maps has liberated us from the drudgery of having to memorise those kinds of facts, but has put pressure on educators to identify forms of knowledge which can be implanted into an exam script.

There are any number of examples of intellectual celebrities who were bad at exams, from Darwin to Brian Cox. Beard’s acad­emic guests felt that exams should be regarded as a game: one of strategy which you play with the exam board. If you can get an extra mark for including a reflexive verb in your French oral, then put it in; “work the mark scheme” is the message.

That is all very well, if you are looking at it from the position of a Cambridge academic, who has completed all the exams he or she is ever going to take. There is little comfort here for those for whom exams represent the only indicator of educational status. For all the pleasurable disdain one might ex­­press for modern exams, it is also clear that today’s students work harder for them than was the case a couple of genera­­tions ago.

All this nostalgia for student days drew me to Viz: An unfeasibly large success (Radio 4, Saturday), a celebration of the comic magazine that provided the antidote to many an undergraduate’s revision.

Nick Baker’s account took a largely indulgent line, despite the fact that much of Viz’s material would not be broadcastable before or after the watershed. The cre­ators’ own test of whether a joke was acceptable or not was whether they laughed or winced first. Laugh first, and it’s in.

There were and are plenty of people who don’t get the humour. Notable among them has been the United Nations, which objected to the comic’s depiction of the gypsy community. It was one fight from which the publication backed down. Frankly, I was surprised to hear that Viz is still going, though with much reduced circulation. Its website throws at you more ads — and for more distasteful brands — than the Mail Online. Just as with the anxiety of exams, it is some­thing best left behind.

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