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View: Why passing exams are more important for Indian families than overcoming Covid
这似乎说明了竞争性考试是一种赋权的来源。然而，泰戈尔只有在家族财富和人脉的支持下才能做到这一点，尽管他不得不花费大量时间获取在印度毫无用处的知识。这就是对考试的持续批评——考试加剧了不平等，没有实际意义。这是最近美国几所大学宣布降低对一度至关重要的学术能力倾向测试（SAT）的重视，法国总统马克龙（Emmanuel Macron）希望废除国家行政学院（Ecole National d'Administration）的基础，这是一所精英学院，通过竞争性考试入学。
As India descended into the Covid chaos we hoped to avoid, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to be more interested in exams. When he could have been explaining availability of vaccines, he was telling students to try harder questions first. And as TV networks showed crematorium queues, the main issue before the government appeared to be postponing the CBSE exams.
In this, as in so much else, the PM may know what really matters to his legions of supporters. Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC, famously said he was disappointed some people felt that football was a matter of life and death: “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Similarly, many Indian families might agree that exams are more important than the effects of a passing pandemic.
Most families with children resign themselves to having their collective lives governed by exam schedules and demands. Exams fuel a huge economy of private tutors and coaching classes. They even shape entertainment, with spelling competitions and quizzes based on the same intense ingestion of abstruse knowledge.
This is another questionable inheritance from China. The idea of a written exam to determine merit and find administrators started in the Zhou dynasty (1048-256 BCE), which is when Confucius lived, but its real growth oddly follows the Christian millennium. In John Keay’s China: a History, he credits Wang Mang, an official of the Han empire who revered Confucius, with institutionalising written exams especially after he usurped power and became emperor from 9-23 CE: “The imperial academy opened its doors to even more examination candidates and ever more examining ‘erudites’; a colony with housing for 10,000, a market and a granary were established for them in Chang’an [the capital, now Xian].”
As the Chinese state spread, the importance of the exam increased. In “Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System”, a paper published by Teng Ssu-Yu in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies in 1943, he notes how this attracted the interest of growing Western empires. Lord Macartney, once governor of Madras, was appointed the first British envoy to Imperial China in 1792 and when his group reached the city of Nanchang they were put up “in a spacious public edifice, with a large hall in the centre of it where the provincial candidates for literary degrees (which alone qualify for civil services in China) are examined.”
Teng notes that Western examinations at that time were nearly all oral, usually in the form of questioning by judges. The Chinese system seemed more impartial and also, crucially, as the need for administrators increased, capable of being scaled up far more quickly than oral exams.
This was of particular interest to the East India Company, whose training college at Haileybury was proving inadequate. In 1853 entry by competitive examination was instituted which, in theory, was even open to Indians. In practice the scales were loaded against Indian candidates, who had to travel to London and study entirely Western subjects like Greek and Latin. Despite this, Satyendranath Tagore, the elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore, managed to clear the exam in 1863 and become the first Indian member of the Indian Civil Service.
This might seem to make the case for competitive exams being a source of empowerment. Yet Tagore only managed this with the backing of his family’s wealth and connections, and despite having to spend much time acquiring knowledge that was of no use in India. And this is the persistent criticism made against exams – that they reinforce inequality and serve no practical purpose. This underlies recent announcements that several American universities are reducing the importance given to the once critical Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and that France’s President Emmanuel Macron wants to abolish the Ecole National d’Administration, the elite academy whose entrance is by a competitive exam.
Even the original Chinese examination was accused of being a way for bureaucratic elites to perpetuate power, by passing on their knowledge of how to pass the exam to their children. And how was knowledge of ancient Chinese literary classics – or Greek and Latin – a proper preparation for real life? But Philip Mason in The Men Who Ruled India, his history of the ICS, points out that the aim was never to create scholars, but rather “the ability to get up on a subject at short notice and remember enough of it to give the impression of knowing more.” The real test was of how fast and well the candidate could understand abstruse data enough to make a decision based on it, and this was essentially what an administrator had to do.
And the control of elites, while undeniable, was never absolute. Tagore managed to overcome the hurdles in his way, and in subsequent years so did many other Indians, like Romesh Chandra Dutt, who had none of Tagore’s advantages. In a sense this is the point of why exams have to affect whole families, not just the actual candidates. Less desperate ones, who are often the elites, tend to lose interest and cede their place to aspiring new elites, and in turn the same happens to them. It is brutal, unfair and exhausting, rather like electoral politics but, as the PM might argue, like electoral politics are the alternatives really likely to be better?