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Testing Times


Source: Eleanor Bentall Corbis

Public exams almost always coincide with the season of Pentecost although this year, given the early positioning of Easter, this happy coincidence may not quite happen. The official starting date for GCSE’s is the 14th of May, just a few days after the Feast of the Ascension and still a few days short of Pentecost.

University exams in the UK often coincide with the May bank holiday, or what used to be known as Whitsun, and with the first, and possibly only, summer weather. Trying to tell yourself that you’re revising when you are actually dozing in the sun leaves you feeling guilty, and even less confident about what you have understood than when you started. Added to this, some revisers will have been dreading the exam season since Christmas.

I have often found myself asking whether this kind of testing is really appropriate, whether it proves anything about a person’s innate intelligence, allowing for certain scientific disciplines, such as medicine and engineering, when it really is important that you know certain concrete facts, and how to go about establishing that they are correct. But do exams, for the most part, prove a person’s ability to stay task-focused and work to deadlines (important in any real-life working context), their usefulness and adaptability in terms of what subjects they have studied, and their general appearance of having some sort of a ‘grip’ on life as it is now, and on whatever it may have dealt them in the way of surprises, good or bad, so far? A brilliant person may have none of these attributes, even if they come away from their exams with a First or with straight A’s.

Another brilliant person, who has them all, may fail exams and thereby consider themselves to be a failure in life. They will live with the idea that their very existence is a mistake. The feeling of having failed as a person is one they will no doubt have had to live with since the first ‘put down’ experienced in childhood. ‘Put downs’, jokes taken too far, being marked out as different in even the most trivial detail of dress or personality, or of the weightier difference of gender orientation, sets a person up for failure long before they sit any exam. How then can such a person live?

Two things are needed here: First, that the idea of testing, which is always a narrow form of judgment, be re-assessed. Is it really the only criterion for deciding a person’s innate worth or suitability for a given profession or course of life? Second, that those who are sitting exams, and most of us have to at one time or another, know their own innate giftedness.

This is something they must ‘mark, learn, and inwardly digest’ (to borrow part of a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer) from the minute they open a book or a file of notes with a view to revising for exams. Laying hold of one’s giftedness is a form of prayer. It involves an ‘inward digesting’ of what might be called grace, or wisdom, a coming to terms with deep knowledge from within the hidden self. That hidden self is often where most of our goodness and giftedness lie, so we need to shed or remove the lies and delusions which obscure them from us when we are busy feeling afraid of failure, or giving into it. In other words, we have to ‘die’ to these often cherished delusions. This is probably best done while lying on that patch of grass in the sun – if the sun is still there, May being a fickle month. This being achieved, even if only for a nanogram of a second, it is time to return to those revision notes.

Those who have read this post so far may have noticed that I omitted a word from the phrase I quoted from the Book of Common Prayer. The full quote should be ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’. So now the reviser needs to pick up their notes and start ‘reading’ them in a different way. In order to do this, she or he will need to first give themselves permission to rediscover what they once loved about the subject (before their anxiety about exams took over), or about this particular aspect of it. We have to love what we are learning, or it will never become part of us and we shall never learn in the fullest sense.

If we can be open to our innate worth, our deeper intelligence, and to our belonging, where belonging means our fitness for the task set before us, we can begin to be a blessing to others. Passing exams is a part of this beginning and in certain chosen professions it is absolutely essential. But there is always something else that must come with it and that is the quiet confidence that we are already counted worthy, that there are things that we are chosen to do or become, but for which we may need qualifications. The qualification is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. That end, or purpose, is, for the moment, hidden in the life of God, where we are loved, honoured, and ‘enlivened’, which is perhaps why the exam season broadly coincides with Pentecost.

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