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“CRAM.”∗ - William Stanley Jevons, Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers 
Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers (London: Macmillan, 1883).
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Ahuman institution has, like man, its seven ages. In its infancy, unknown and unnoticed, it excites in youth some interest and surprise. Advancing towards manhood, everyone is forward in praising its usefulness. As it grows up and becomes established, the popular tone begins to change. Some people are unavoidably offended or actually injured by a new institution, and as it grows older and more powerful, these people become more numerous. In proportion to the success of an undertaking, will be the difficulties and jealousies which are encountered. It becomes the interest of certain persons to find out the weak points of the system, and turn them to their private advantage. Thus the institution reaches its critical age, which, safely surmounted, it progresses through a prosperous middle life to a venerable old age of infirmities and abuses, dying out in the form of a mere survival.
There is no difficulty in seeing what period of life the examination system has now reached. It is that critical age at which its progress is so marked as to raise wide-spread irritation. To abuse examinations is one of the most popular commonplaces of public speeches and after-dinner conversation. Everybody has something to say in dispraise, and the reason is pretty obvious. Many persons have been inconvenienced by examinations; some regret the loss of patronage; others the loss of patrons and appointments; schoolmasters do not like having their work rudely tested: they feel the competition of more far-sighted teachers who have adapted themselves betimes to a new state of things. In these and other ways it arises that a formidable minority actually have good grounds for hating examinations. They make their feelings widely known, and the general public, ever ready to grumble at a novelty of which they hear too much, and do not precisely appreciate the advantages, take up the burden of the complaint.
Fortunately, too, for the opponents of examination, an admirable “cry” has been found. Examination, they say, leads to “Cram,” and “Cram” is the destruction of true study. People who know nothing else about examination know well enough that it is “Cram.” The word has all the attributes of a perfect question-begging epithet. It is short, emphatic, and happily derived from a disagreeable physical metaphor. Accordingly, there is not a respectable gentleman distributing prizes to a body of scholars at the end of the session, and at a loss for something to say, who does not think of this word “Cram,” and proceed to expatiate on the evils of the examination system.
I intend in this article to take up the less popular view of the subject, and say what I can in favour of examinations. I wish to analyse the meaning of the word “Cram,” and decide if possible, whether it is the baneful thing that so many people say. There is no difficulty in seeing at once that “Cram” means two different things, which I will call “good Cram” and “bad Cram.” A candidate, preparing for an important competitive examination, may put himself under a tutor well skilled in preparing for that examination. This tutor looks for success by carefully directing the candidate's studies into the most “paying” lines, and restricting them rigorously to those lines. The training given may be of an arduous thorough character, so that the faculties of the pupil are stretched and exercised to their utmost in those lines. This would be called “Cram,” because it involves exclusive devotion to the answering of certain examination-papers. I call it “good Cram.”
“Bad Cram,” on the other hand, consists in temporarily impressing upon the candidate's mind a collection of facts, dates, or formulæ, held in a wholly undigested state and ready to be disgorged in the examination-room by an act of mere memory. A candidate, unable to apprehend the bearing of Euclid's reasoning in the first book of his “Elements,” may learn the propositions off by heart, diagrams, letters, and all, like a Sunday scholar learning the collects and gospels. Dates, rules of grammar, and the like, may be “crammed” by mnemonic lines, or by one of those wretched systems of artificial memory, teachers of which are always going about. In such ways it is, I believe, possible to give answers which simulate knowledge, and no more prove true knowledge than the chattering of a parrot proves intellect.
I am far from denying the existence of “bad Cram” of this character, but I hold that it can never be advantageously resorted to by those who are capable of “good Cram.” To learn a proposition of Euclid by heart is far more laborious than for a student of moderate capacity to master the nature of the reasoning. It is obvious that all advantages, even in an examinational point of view, are on the side of real knowledge. The slightest lapse of memory in the bad “crammer,” for instance, the putting of wrong letters in the diagram, will disclose the simulated character of his work, and the least change in the conditions of the proposition set will frustrate his mnemonic devices altogether. If papers be set which really can be answered by mere memory, the badness is in the examiners.
Thorough blockheads may be driven to the worst kind of “Cram,” simply because they can do nothing better. Nor do the blockheads suffer harm; to exercise the memory is better than to leave the brain wholly at rest. Some qualities of endurance and resolution must be called into existence, before a youth can go through the dreary work of learning off by heart things of which he has no comprehension. Nor with examiners of the least intelligence is there any reason to fear that the best directed “bad Cram” will enable a really stupid candidate to carry off honours and appointments due to others. No examination-papers even for junior candidates should consist entirely of “book-work,” such as to be answered by the simple reproduction of the words in a text-book. In every properly conducted examination, questions are, as a matter of course, set to test the candidate's power of applying his knowledge to cases more or less different from those described in the books. Moreover, good examiners always judge answers by their general style as well as by their contents. It is really impossible that a stupid, slovenly candidate can by any art of “cramming” be enabled to produce the neat, brief, pertinent essay, a page or two long, which wins marks from the admiring examiners.
If we may judge from experience, too, “bad Cram” does not pay from the tutor's point of view. That this is so we may learn from the fact that slow ignorant pupils are ruthlessly rejected by the great “coaches.” Those who have their reputation and their living to make by the success of their candidates cannot afford to waste their labour upon bad material. Thus it is not the stupid who go to the “cramming” tutors to be forced over the heads of the clever, but it is the clever ones who go to secure the highest places. Long before the critical days of the official examination, the experienced “coach” selected his men almost as carefully as if he were making up the University boat. There is hardly a University or a College in the kingdom which imposes any selective process of the sort. An entrance or matriculation examination, if it exists at all, is little better than a sham. All comers are gladly received to give more fees and the appearance of prosperity. Thus it too often happens that the bulk of a college class consists of untutored youths through whose ears the learned instructions of the professor pass, harmlessly it may be, but uselessly. Parents and the public have little idea how close a resemblance there is between teaching and writing on the sands of the sea, unless either there is a distinct capacity for learning on the part of the pupil, or some system of examination and reward to force the pupil to apply.
For these and other reasons which might be urged, I do not consider it worth while to consider “bad Cram” any further. I pass on to inquire whether “good Cram” is an objectionable form of education. The good “cramming” tutor or lecturer is one whose object is to enable his pupils to take a high place in the list. With this object he carefully ascertains the scope of the examination, scrutinises past papers, and estimates in every possible way the probable character of future papers. He then trains his pupils in each branch of study with an intensity proportioned to the probability that questions will be asked in that branch. It is too much to assume that this training will be superficial. On the contrary, though narrow it will probably be intense and deep. It will usually consist to a considerable extent in preliminary examinations intended both to test and train the pupil in the art of writing answers. The great “coaches” at Cambridge in former days might be said to proceed by a constant system of examination, oral instruction or simple reading being subordinate to the solving of innumerable problems. The main question which I have to discuss, then, resolves itself into this: whether intense training directed to the passing of certain defined examinations constitutes real education. The popular opponents of “Cram” imply that it does not; I maintain that it does.
It happened that, just as I was about to write this article, the Home Secretary presided at the annual prize-distribution in the Liverpool College, on the 22nd December, 1876, and took occasion to make the usual remarks about “Cram.” He expressed with admirable clearness the prevailing complaints against examinations, and I shall therefore take the liberty of making his speech in some degree my text. “Examination is not education,” he said. “You require a great deal more than that. As well as being examined, you must be taught. . . . In the great scramble for life there is a notion at the present moment of getting hold of as much general superficial knowledge as you can. That to my mind is a fatal mistake. On the other hand, there is a great notion that if you can get through your examination and ‘cram up’ a subject very well, you are being educated. That, too, is a most fatal mistake. There is nothing which would delight me so much, if I were an examiner, as to baffle all the ‘cramming’ teachers whose pupils came before me.” (Laughter.)
Let us consider what Mr. Cross really means. “Examination,” he says, “is not education; we require a great deal more; we must be taught as well as be examined.” With equal meaning I might say: “Beef is not dinner; we want a great deal more; we must have potatoes, bread, pudding, and the like.” Nevertheless, beef is a principal part of dinner. Nobody, I should think, ever asserted or imagined that examination alone was education, but I nevertheless hold that it is one of the chief elements of an effective education. As Mr. Cross himself said, in an earlier part of his speech, “The examination is a touchstone and test which shows the broad distinction between good and bad. . . . You may manage to scramble through your lessons in the ‘half,’ but I will defy you to get through your examinations if you do not know the subjects.”
Another remark of Mr. Cross leads me to the main point of the subject. He said: “It is quite necessary in the matter of teaching that whatever is taught must be taught well, and nothing that is taught well can be taught in a hurry. It must be taught, not simply for the examination, but it must sink into your minds, and stay there for life.”
Both in this and his other remarks Mr. Cross commits himself to the popular but wholly erroneous notion that what boys learn at school and college should be useful knowledge indelibly impressed upon the mind, so as to stay there all their lives, and be ready at their fingers' ends. The real point of the objections to examination commonly is, that the candidate learns things for the examination only, which, when it is safely passed, he forgets again as speedily as possible. Mr. Cross would teach so deliberately and thoroughly that the very facts taught could not be forgotten, but must ever after crop up in the mind whatever we are doing.
I hold that remarks such as these proceed from a wholly false view of the nature and purposes of education. It is implied that the mind in early life is to be stored with the identical facts and bits of knowledge which are to be used in after-life. It is, in fact, Mr. Cross and those who think with him who advocate a kind of “Cram,” enduring, it is true, but still “bad Cram.” The true view of education, on the contrary, is to regard it as a course of training. The youth in a gymuasium practises upon the horizontal bar, in order to develop his muscular powers generally; he does not intend to go on posturing upon horizontal bars all through life. School is a place where the mental fibres are to be exercised, trained, expanded, developed, and strengthened, not “crammed” or loaded with “useful knowledge.”
The whole of a youth's subsequent career is one long course of technical “cramming,” in which any quantity of useful facts are supplied to him nolens volens. The merchant gets his technical knowledge at the clerk's desk, the barrister in the conveyancer's offices or the law courts, the engineer in the workshop and the field. It is the very purpose of a liberal education, as it is correctly called, to develop and train the plastic fibres of the youthful brain, so as to prevent them taking too early a definite “set,” which will afterwards narrow and restrict the range of acquisition and judgment. I will even go so far as to say that it is hardly desirable for the actual things taught at school to stay in the mind for life. The source of error is the failure to distinguish between the form and the matter of knowledge, between the facts themselves and the manner in which the mental powers deal with facts.
It is wonderful that Mr. Cross and those who moralise in his strain do not perceive that the actual facts which a man deals with in life are infinite in number, and cannot be remembered in a finite brain. The psychologists, too, seem to me to be at fault in this matter, for they have not sufficiently drawn attention to the varying degrees of duration required in a well-organised memory. We commonly use the word memory so as to cover the faculties of Retention, Reproduction, and Representation, as described by Hamilton, and very little consideration will show that in different cases we need the powers of retention, of suggestion, and of imagination in very different degrees. In some cases we require to remember a thing only a few moments, or a few minutes; in other cases a few hours or days; in yet other cases a few weeks or months: it is an infinitesimally small part of all our mental impressions which can be profitably remembered for years. Memory may be too retentive, and facility of forgetting and of driving out one train of ideas by a new train is almost as essential to a well-trained intellect as facility of retention.
Take the case of a barrister in full practice, who deals with several cases in a day. His business is to acquire as rapidly as possible the facts of the case immediately before him. With the powers of representation of a well-trained mind, he holds these facts steadily before him, comparing them with each other, discovering their relations, applying to them the principles and rules of law more deeply graven on his memory, or bringing them into connection with a few of the more prominent facts of previous cases which he happens to remember. For the details of laws and precedents he trusts to his text-writers, the statute-book, and his law library. Even before the case is finished, his mind has probably sifted out the facts and rejected the unimportant ones by the law of obliviscence. One case done with, he takes up a wholly new series of facts, and so from day to day, and from month to month, the matter before him is constantly changing. The same remarks are even more true of a busy and able administrator like Mr. Cross. The points which come before him are infinite in variety. The facts of each case are rapidly brought to his notice by subordinates, by correspondence, by debates in the House, by deputations and interviews, or by newspaper reports. Applying well-trained powers of judgment to the matter in hand, he makes a rapid decision and passes to the next piece of business. It would be fatal to Mr. Cross if he were to allow things to sink deep into his mind and stay there. There would be no difficulty in showing that in like manner, but in varying degrees, the engineer, the physician, the merchant, even the tradesman or the intelligent artisan, deal every day with various combinations of facts which cannot all be stored up in the cerebral framework, and certainly need not be so.
The bearing of these considerations upon the subject of examinations ought to be very evident. For what is “cram” but the rapid acquisition of a series of facts, the vigorous getting up of a case, in order to exhibit well-trained powers of comprehension, of judgment, and of retention before an examiner? The practised barrister “crams” up his “brief” (so-called because, as some suppose, made brief for the purpose) and stands an examination in it before a judge and jury. The candidate is not so hurried; he spends months, or it may be two or three years, in getting up his differential calculus or his inorganic chemistry. It is quite likely that when the ordeal is passed, and the favourable verdict delivered, he will dismiss the equations and the salts and compounds from his mind as rapidly as possible; but it does not follow that the useful effect of his training vanishes at the same time. If so, it follows that almost all the most able and successful men of the present day threw away their pains at school and college. I suppose that no one ever heard of a differential equation solving a nice point of law, nor is it common to hear Sophocles and Tacitus quoted by a leading counsel. Yet it can hardly be denied that our greatest barristers and judges were trained in the mathematical sciences, or if not, that their teachers thought the classics a better training ground. If things taught at school and college are to stay in the mind to serve us in the business of life, then almost all the higher education yet given in this kingdom has missed its mark.
I come to the conclusion, then, that well-ordered education is a severe system of well-sustained “Cram.” Mr. Herbert Spencer holds that the child's play stimulates the actions and exercises of the man. So I would hold that the agony of the examination-room is an anticipation of the struggles of life. All life is a long series of competitive examinations. The barrister before the jury; the preacher in his pulpit; the merchant on the Exchange flags; the member in the House—all are going in for their “little-goes,” and their “great-goes,” and their “triposes.” And I unhesitatingly assert that as far as experience can guide us, or any kind of reasoning enable us to infer, well-conducted competitive examinations before able examiners, are the best means of training, and the best method of selection for those who are to be foremost in the battle of life.
I will go a step further, and assert that examination in one form or another is not only an indispensable test of results, but it is a main element in training. It represents the active use of faculties as contrasted with that passive use which too often resolves itself into letting things come in at one ear and go out at the other. Those who discuss examinations in the public papers, seem to think that they are held occasionally and for the sole purpose of awarding prizes and appointments; but in every well-ordered course of instruction there ought to be, and there usually are, frequent less formal examinations of which outsiders hear nothing. The purposes of these examinations are manifold; they test the progress of the class, and enable the teacher to judge whether he is pursuing a right course at a right speed; they excite emulation in the active and able; they touch the pride even of those who do not love knowledge much, but still do not like to write themselves down absolute blockheads; and they are in themselves an exercise in English composition, in the control of the thoughts, and the useful employment of knowledge. In direct educational effect a written examination may be worth half-a-dozen lectures. Mr. Cross says that examination is not education; I say that it is. Of course you cannot examine upon nothing, just as you cannot grind flour in a mill unless you put the grain in. Nevertheless, examination in some form or other represents the really active grinding process in the pupil's mind.
It is not merely that which goes into the eyes and ears of a student which educates him; it is that which comes out. A student may sit on the lecture-room beuches and hear every word the teacher utters; but he may carry away as much useful effect as the drowsy auditor of a curate's sermon. To instruct a youth in gymnastics, you do not merely explain orally that he is to climb up one pole, and come down another, and leap over a third. You make him do these motions over and over again, and the education is in the exertion. So intellectual education is measured, not by words heard or read, but by thoughts excited. In some subjects mental exertion in the pupil is called forth by the working of problems and exercises. These form a kind of continuous examination, which should accompany every lecture. Arithmetic is only to be learnt by sums upon the schoolboy's slate, and it is the infinite variety of mathematical tasks from common addition upwards which makes mathematical science the most powerful training-ground of the intellect. The late Professor De Morgan was probably the greatest teacher of mathematics who ever lived. He considered it requisite that students should attend his expository lectures for an hour and a quarter every day; but he always gave an abundance of exercises as well, which, if fully worked out, would take at least as long, and often twice as long a time. Exercises are the sheet-anchor of the teacher, and in this way only can we explain the extraordinary propensity of classical teachers towards Latin verses. As I have heard such teachers explain, verses, though useless in every other way, afford a definite measurable amount of exercise—a manageable classical treadmill. For many years past it was my duty to teach several subjects—Logic, Mental and Moral Philosophy, and Political Economy. Experience made me acutely aware of the very different educational values of these diverse subjects. Logic is by far the best, because when properly taught it admits of the same active training by exercises and problems that we find in mathematics. It is no doubt necessary that some instruction should also be given to senior students in philosophy and political economy; but it is difficult in these subjects to make the student think for himself. Examination, then, represents the active as opposed to the passive part of education, and in answer to Mr. Cross's statement that examination is not education, I venture to repeat that, in some form or other, examination is the most powerful and essential means of training the intellect.
I now pass on to the wholly different question whether open competitive examinations are the best means of selecting men for important appointments. In this view of examinations the educational results are merely incidental, and the main object is to find an impartial mode of putting the right man into the right place, and thus avoiding the nepotism and corruption which are almost inseparable from other methods of appointment. At first sight it might seem absurd to put a man in a position requiring judgment and tact and knowledge of the world because he answers rightly a few questions about mathematics and Greek. The head-master of a great school succeeds, not by the teaching of the higher forms, but by the general vigour and discretion of his management. He is an administrator, not a pedagogue; then why choose a high wrangler, because of his command over differential equations? Why make a young man a magistrate in Bengal, because of his creditable translations from the classics, or his knowledge of English history? Would it not be far better to select men directly for any success which they have shown in the management of business exactly analogous to that they will have to perform?
Experience must decide in such matters, and it seems to decide conclusively in favour of examinations. Public opinion and practice at any rate are in favour of this conclusion. For a long time back the honours' degrees of Oxford and Cambridge have been employed as a means of selection. It does not of course follow that a high wrangler, or a double first, will suit every important position; but it is almost always expected nowadays that a man applying for a high post shall have some high degree. Even those who are unfettered in their powers of appointment will seldom now appoint a young man to a conspicuous post unless his degree will justify the appointment in the eyes of the public. The President of the Council, for instance, is unrestricted in the choice of School Inspectors, but he practically makes a high degree a sine quâ non. Not only does he thus lessen his responsibility very greatly, and almost entirely avoid suspicion of undue influence, but the general success and ability of those appointed in this manner fully bear out the wisdom of the practice.
The fact seems to be that the powers which enable a man to take a conspicuous place in a fierce competitive examination are closely correlated, if they be not identical, with those leading to success in the battle of life. It might be expected that a high wrangler or a double first would generally be a weakly bookworm, prematurely exhausted by intense study, unable to expand his mind beyond his books, and deficient in all the tact and worldly knowledge to be acquired by mixing in the business of life. But experience seems to negative such ideas. The weakly men are weeded out before they get to the final struggle, or break down in the course of it. The true bookworm shows himself to be a bookworm, and does not fight his way to a high place. Success in a severe examination requires, as a general rule, a combination of robust physical health, good nerve, great general energy, and powers of endurance and perseverance, added to pure intellectual ability. There are of course exceptions in all matters of this sort, but, so far as we can lay down rules in human affairs, it is the mens sana in corpore sano which carries a candidate to the higher part of the list.
A man must not always be set down as a blockhead because he cannot stand the examination-room. Some men of extensive knowledge and much intelligence lose their presence of mind altogether when they see the dreadful paper. They cannot command their thoughts during the few hours when their success in life is at stake. The man who trembles at the sight of the paper is probably defective in the nerve and moral courage so often needed in the business of life. It by no means follows, again, that the man of real genius will take a conspicuous place in the list. His peculiar abilities will often lie in a narrow line and be correlated with weakness in other directions. His powers can only be rendered patent in the course of time. It is well known that some of the most original mathematicians were not senior wranglers. Public examinations must be looked upon as tests of general rather than special abilities; talent, strength, and soundness of constitution win the high place, powers which can be developed in any direction in after-life.
If evidence were needed to support this view of the matter it is amply afforded by the recent Parliamentary Report on the education and training of candidates for the Indian Civil Service. Whatever may be thought as to the details of the methods of training, which have been recently modified, there can be no doubt that this Report is conclusive as to the success of examinational selection. The ability of the statements furnished to this Report by officers appointed by open competition goes far to prove the success of the system. It is impossible to imagine a severer test than that system has passed through in the case of the Indian Civil Service. Young men selected for the amount of Latin, Greek, Mathematics, French, German, Logic, Political Economy, and so forth, which they could “cram up,” have been sent out at twenty-one or twenty-three years of age, and thrown at once into a new world, where it is difficult to imagine that their “crammed” knowledge could be of the least direct use. There they have been brought into contact with a large body of older officers, appointed under a different system, and little prejudiced in favour of these “Competition Wallahs.” Yet the evidence is overwhelming to the effect that these victims of “Cram” have been successful in governing India. A large number of the best appointments have already been secured by them, although the system has only been in existence for twenty-two years, and seniority is naturally of much account. The number who are failures is very small, certainly smaller than it would be under the patronage system. It is impossible that I should, within the limits of this article, present the evidence accumulated on this subject. I must refer the reader to the Blue Book itself, which is full of interest for all concerned in education.∗ I must also refer the reader to the remarkably able essays on the subject published by Mr. Alfred Cotterell Tupp, B.A., of the Bengal Civil Service,† to which essays I am indebted for some of my ideas on this subject. Mr. Tupp gives a powerful answer to the celebrated attack on the competitive system contained in the Edinburgh Review of April, 1874. He gives statistical tables and details concerning the careers of the men selected by competition, and a general account of the examinations and of the organisation in which the Civil servant takes his place. The evidence against selection by competition seems to come to this, that, after a most complete inquiry, the worst that can be made out against the “Competition Wallahs” is that some of them do not ride well, and that there is a doubt in some cases about the polish of their manners, or the sweetness of their culture.
Doubt, indeed, was thrown by some writers upon the physical suitability of selected candidates; but on this point a most remarkable fact was brought to light. All the candidates for the Indian Civil Service have to undergo two strict medical examinations before Sir William Gull, so that this eminent physician is able to speak with rare authority as to the physical health of the candidates. This is what he says (Report, p. 36): “I still continue to be impressed with the fact that a sound physical constitution is a necessary element of success in these competitive examinations. The men who have been rejected have not failed from mere weakness of constitution, but (with only a solitary exception or two) from a mechanical defect in the valves of the heart in otherwise strong men, and for the most part traceable to over-muscular exercises. . . . There is a somewhat prevalent opinion, that the courses of study now required for the public service are calculated to weaken the physical strength of candidates. Experience does not only not confirm this, but abundantly proves that the course of life which conduces to sound intellectual training, is equally favourable to the physical health of the student.”
Unless then we are prepared to reject the opinion of the physician who has had the best possible means of forming a sound conclusion, a competitive examination is actually a good mode of selecting men of good physical health, so closely are the mental and bodily powers correlated as a general rule.
It is impossible that I should in a single article treat of more than two or three of the principal arguments which may be urged in defence of the examination system. Did space admit I might go on to point out the great improvement which has taken place in education since effective examinations were established. The condition of Oxford and Cambridge as regards study in the present day may not be satisfactory, but it is certainly far better than at the close of the last century. The middle-class schools are yet far from what they ought to be, but the examination system set on foot by the old universities is doing immense good, giving vigorous and definite purpose where before a schoolmaster had hardly any other object than to get easily through the “half.” Primary schools would for the most part be as bad as the old dameschools, did not the visits of Her Majesty's Inspectors stir them up to something better. In one and all of the grades of English education, to the best of my belief, examination is the sheet-anchor to which we must look.
I will not conclude without adverting briefly to a few of the objections urged against the examination system. Some of these are quite illusory; others are real, though possibly exaggerated. No institution can be an unmixed good, and we must always strike a balance of advantage and disadvantage. One illusory objection, for instance, is urged by those who take the high moral ground and assert that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake, and not for the ulterior rewards connected with a high place in the examination list. The remarks of these people bring before the mind's eye the pleasing picture of a youth burning the midnight oil, after a successful search for his favourite authors. We have all of us heard how some young man became a great author, or a great philosopher, because, in the impressible time of boyhood, he was allowed to ransack the shelves of his ancestral library. I do not like to be cynical, but I cannot help asserting that these youths, full of the sacred love of knowledge, do not practically exist. Some no doubt there are, but so small is the number with which the school or college teacher will meet in the course of his labours, that it is impossible to take them into account in the general system. Every teacher knows that the bulk of a junior class usually consists of intellects so blunt or so inactive that every kind of spur is useful to incite them to exertion.
Nor do I believe that the few who are by nature ardent students need suffer harm from a well-devised system of university examinations. It is very pleasant to think of a young man pursuing a free and open range of reading in his ancestral library, following his native bent, and so forth; but such study directed to no definite objects would generally be desultory and unproductive. He might obtain a good deal of elegant culture, but it is very doubtful whether he would acquire those powers of application and concentration of thought which are the basis of success in life. If a man really loves study and has genius in him, he will find opportunities in after-life for indulging his peculiar tastes, and will not regret the three or four years when his reading was severely restricted to the lines of examination. Of course it is not desirable to force all minds through exactly the same grooves, and the immense predominance formerly given to mathematics at Cambridge could not be defended. But the schemes of examination at all the principal universities now offer many different branches in which distinction may be gained.
The main difficulty which I see in the examination system is that it makes the examiner the director of education in place of the teacher, whose liberty of instruction is certainly very much curtailed. The teacher must teach with a constant eye to the questions likely to be asked, if he is to give his pupils a fair chance of success, compared with others who are being specially “crammed” for the purpose. It is true that the teacher may himself be the examiner, but this destroys the value of the examination as a test or means of public selection. Much discussion might be spent, were space available, upon the question whether the teacher or the examiner is the proper person to define the lines of study. No doubt a teacher will generally teach best, and with most satisfaction to himself, when he can teach what he likes, and, in the case of University professors or other teachers of great eminence, any restriction upon their freedom may be undesirable. But as a general rule examiners will be more able men than teachers, and the lines of examination are laid down either by the joint judgment of a board of eminent examiners, or by authorities who only decide after much consultation. The question therefore assumes this shape—Whether a single teacher, guided only by his own discretion, or whether a board of competent judges, is most to be trusted in selecting profitable courses of study?
Few have had better opportunity than I have enjoyed both as teacher and examiner in philosophical and economical subjects, of feeling the difficulties connected with a system of examination in these subjects. Some of these difficulties have been clearly expounded in the series of articles upon the state of philosophical study at the different Universities published in Mind. It is hardly needful to refer to the excellent discussion of the philosophical examination in the London University by the Editor in No. IV. I should not venture to defend University examinations against all the objections which may be brought against them. My purpose is accomplished in attempting to show that examination is the most effective way of enforcing a severe and definite training upon the intellect, and of selecting those for high position who show themselves best able to bear this severe test. It is the popular cry against “Cram” that I have answered, and I will conclude by expressing my belief that any mode of education which enables a candidate to take a leading place in a severe and well-conducted open examination, must be a good system of education. Name it what you like, but it is impossible to deny that it calls forth intellectual, moral, and even physical powers, which are proved by unquestionable experience to fit men for the business of life.
This is what I hold to be Education. We cannot consider it the work of teachers to make philosophers and scholars and geniuses of various sorts: these, like poets, are born not made. Nor, as I have shown, is it the business of the educator to impress indelibly upon the mind the useful knowledge which is to guide the pupil through life. This would be “Cram” indeed. It is the purpose of education so to exercise the faculties of mind that the infinitely various experience of afterlife may be observed and reasoned upon to the best effect. What is popularly condemned as “Cram” is often the best-devised and best-conducted system of training towards this all-important end.
[∗]“The Selection and Training of Candidates for the Indian Civil Service” (C. 1446) 1876. Price 3s. 5d.
[†]“The Indian Civil Service and the Competitive System: a Discussion on the Examinations and the Training in England.” London: R. W. Brydges, 137, Gower Street. 1876.
[∗]Delivered by request of the Trades Unionists' Political Association in the Co-operative Hall, Upper Medlock Street, Hulme, Manchester, March 31st, 1868.