There’s been a controversy this summer over university placement exams in the UK. Apparently the high school students taking the top-level history exam, having been assigned a topic to study and prepare for, were asked on the test day to write an essay analyzing a source text. The question they were asked about the text was, “How far do you agree that Hitlerâ€™s role 1933-45 was one of despotic tyranny?”
The question flummoxed several of the students. Specifically, the term “despotic tyranny” blindsided the honors students and made them drop their pencils. According to some of their reports after the test, they did not recognize these obscure, specialist terms, had not encountered them either in the textbooks or in the “wider reading” requirements, and were unable to make sense of the question. One student thought “despotic” must mean “chaotic,” and wrote an essay about chaotic tyranny. The two-word combination was a kind of semantic logjam that blocked up all the other knowledge the students were eager to demonstrate on the test.
When the thousands of students left the testing sites, they went home, fired up their computers, and heated up the social networks with complaints about the unfairness of the test. They started a Facebook group called Despotic Tyranny ruined my life, with 1600 members. To be fair, the Facebook groups Despotic Tyranny Was Fine, Actually and Despotic Tyranny Did NOT Ruin My Life have about fifteen members each.
In these groups, and in numerous other microblog venues, and in the comments sections of any newspaper or blog that reports on their plight unsympathetically, the students continue to lament. They tend to switch rapidly among their arguments, swear a lot, claim that the older generation doesn’t understand them, insist that they worked very very very hard, and blame the testing company for devising such a stupid test.
Many of them continue to complain that the two-word snarl is simply inscrutable, or is at least so obscure that they shouldn’t have been expected to know “despotic” combined with “tyranny.” But others have backed off of that claim, possibly because kids these days can google as well as anybody, and can find the phrase in all sorts of political and historical discourse, like Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws or Blackstone’s Commentaries. So they’ve changed their appeal to the irrelevance of the quoted text, or to “you had to be there, you terrible old people.”
As an American without UK experience, I don’t know enough about the cultural context to say much about this. The whole story is full of British expressions that confuse me. Apparently over there they “revise” and then “sit” exams which are “A-level” for “uni placement,” and this is all administered in a standardized system by something called EDEXCEL (awful name!). I’m sure the American system is just as perplexing to outsiders, with its adjusted SATs and all. I did learn one new word, apparently in use over there but not as common over here: To “whinge” means “to complain or protest, especially in an annoying or persistent manner.”
But by using context clues, analogical reasoning, and some guesswork, I can tell what’s going on. The testers are trying to get students to think on their feet by giving them a question that uses unfamiliar words. The students are all for thinking on their feet, in theory, but they’ve just been through months of studying exactly what EDEXCEL told them to study, and some of them have even been given vocabulary lists to master, and had specific books assigned as part of a “wider reading” component of test preparation. Then they were asked to think more flexibly, more like real life or actual research. Some of them couldn’t make the jump. They are now speculating that EDEXCEL was trying to weed them out, or that, more likely, everybody did equally poorly and the scores will all fall on the right places along the bell curve.
Over here, the summer is winding down and we in the Torrey Honors Institute have more than a hundred freshmen coming our way in about a month. I have to admit it is a little frightening to reflect on how similar our incoming honors students probably are, demographically speaking, to the Despotic Tyranny group. But I am optimistic that the similarities don’t extend to whinging and swearing. We faculty are all looking forward to meeting them and spending the next four years reading together, talking about big ideas from the great books, and learning to express our thoughts well. They had to take the SAT and do well on it, and meet some other benchmarks that are somewhat standardized. But once they’re on campus, we promise not to give the impression that education is something that can be standardized. And, note to self: Easy on the despotic tyranny.