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Such Were Orwell’s Joys, and Ours

In his dark, bitter, and wonderful essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell reports on his boyhood prep school[1], St. Cyprian’s, which he attended before and during World War I. His stories about bullying, poor food, shabby facilities, and overbearing administrators suggest a slight but disquieting kinship between his Edwardian school and the schools of our own time, yet in one respect they are close kin indeed.

That is in their teaching to what we now call high-stakes tests. In his day they were the entrance exams for Eton College and the Harrow School or the exam for the Harrow History Prize; in ours, proficiency exams mandated by No Child Left Behind and RAce to the Top. In both cases I think we may use Orwell’s excellent description: “a sort of preparation for a confidence trick.” The trick is that both Orwell and his modern counterparts are gorged like geese with “a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts” (Orwell’s words) that might, with some happy guesswork, lead to a satisfactory score on a test without regard to whether a coherent subject was actually being taught. The reason it is a confidence trick is to persuade the test marker that you know a coherent subject, when in fact you only know a bag of facts.

In the history chapter of The Paideia Program Professor Barzun proposes that in teaching history we start with “once upon a time” and “many years ago,” proceeding in the study of history until, at the age of 13 or 14, we start to draw on “casual noises from the big world and unite them into an increasingly coherent recital of their meaning, which is to say their origins and purposes.” At the same time, while keeping the element of the story in history, the course shifts to “the essence of genuine history,” which is continuity.

These qualities of history were ignored or undercut in the kind of preparation Orwell received, which consisted mainly of going over old exams and conning answers from them irrespective of storyline or continuity–in much the same way people “prepare” for high stakes tests today by learning shovel-loads of data. Orwell reports that the initials of the mnemonic “A black Negress was my aunt: there’s her house behind the barn” correspond to the initials of the battles of the War of the Roses (1455 – 1485). Does the study of detached mnemonics differ in any important respect from the discontinuities experienced by contemporary children studying test-preparation books? Not really. The main difference I see is in what courses are shortchanged in testing mania. In today’s climate it means that history, any history, is likely to be shortchanged in favor of English and math, the two playing surfaces on which the Three-card Monte of testing is now being rigged.

(That some subjects give way to others was the same in Orwell’s day and in ours. It is not just that the “black Negress” mnemonic would not be used today, but that we are throwing out history itself along with such mnemonics. In Orwell’s day science was thrown out—science! This in the youthful heyday of the Cavendish Laboratory. Changing fads of specialization suggest that the transfer effect is valid and that early specialization is not as necessary in education as some people and programs demanding it lead us to think. Let me therefore plug the idea, now increasingly alien in practice, of general or liberal education. Besides, if the kind of specialization implied in heavy “test preparation” worked, wouldn’t the U. S. have better results in English and math to show for it? If you think we do, look at PISA’s comparative results.)

Orwell, using his judgment to handle material he experienced directly, arrives at an insight generalized many years later by a social scientist. One of the “scandalous” facts reported by Donald Campbell in his paper “Assessing the Impacts of Planned Social Change,” which led him to formulate Campbell’s Law[2] in that paper, was that a private profit-making contractor, hired to administer a program of compensatory education in a public school system, gamed the system with a gamey program of test preparation (I discuss this in my posting ℞: Stone Tablets). The Texarkana schools couldn’t have known that they (or Orwell’s Flip and Sambo for that matter) were pioneers on the low road followed by the New York City Schools and other school districts of today in their efforts to “prove” student “achievement” in intellectually and morally suspect programs of testing-and-accountability.

A quick postscript on the accountability part of the terrible twosome. The Los Angeles Times has published lists of L.A. teachers found unsatisfactory in “their” efforts at “value-added learning[3],” and The New York Times is said to want to do the same for teachers in New York. One value that might be added to the consciousness, if not consciences, of people who want to give teachers such publicity, is a disdain for the kind of public shaming without trial that one associates with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Are published lists much different in their effects from yellow robes or dunce caps?


[1]That is, a grade school preparing its pupils for English public schools such as Harrow or Eton.

[2] “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

[3] Dealt with in my posting  “Added What?”

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