With education, I’m on the progressive train. By progressive, I mean that assessments should ideally be continual, rather than compressed into the be-all and end-all of the Final Exam. It is perhaps the popular stance to take, unless Tiger Mums are your thing. The delight, then, when I realized I’ll have no exams to sit through on my exchange in the Australian National University!
Last week, I met a fellow Sociology student who thought otherwise. He rued the lack of exams with conviction. Exams, he believed, are entirely necessary to ensure a mastery of theories and concepts. Loathe them as you might, but without exams, most knowledge will rest only within our essays, and not make the journey to long-term memory.
Memory as Intelligence
Despite the disjuncture I was inclined to agree – not just out of politeness. Theories are hard to digest without distortion, and exams are best-placed to force them down our gullets. A significant weakness I identify in myself as a student is the reluctance to fixate on particular theories and make judgments on them. When there are exams – even closed-book ones – I have no choice but to compile and rehearse detailed notes. A painful, but worthwhile process.
Yet how important is it, really, to always hold ideas at your braintips?
Sometime earlier, I sat in on a discussion about intelligence. The others seemed to agree that intelligence is best shown from sharp thinking and articulation. One example: Lee Kuan Yew. Not a bad role model to have, at all. Again, I was inclined to agree. But agreement with this definition equates to a concession that I’m not quite intelligent: A concession I’m ever happy to make, until someone accuses me of sarcasm.
It is only a matter of time, though, that I come round to disputing these judgments (a.k.a. finding excuses).
How is Knowledge Embodied?
Knowledge arises when we are able to make sense of competing information. Yet the manner of assimilation varies across individuals. Logic, whether rational or emotional, brings us down different paths depending on our ideologies. Heck, even the configurations of our internal logics change over time, and with them our brand of knowledge.
The respect for exam testing and sharp thinking share in common an assumption: That knowledge is embodied in individuals. It is (wo)man who makes knowledge, and so it is the (wo)man who is consistent or inconsistent; either intelligent or unintelligent. What purpose is there for classifying other individuals, except for picking those who are “worthy” of our time and effort?
But what if we see knowledge as embodied in texts?
We can have highly intelligent discussions over the dining table, but the audience rarely exceeds a half dozen. We can film interviews, but more often than not, the ideas we derive are approximate. Speech is approximate because it is spontaneous. Writing, however, allows us to expand our ideas, edit them into a different beast, and edify larger audiences. That’s why we have to read and write for most exams, not listen and speak.
So what’s wrong with take-home essays? Perhaps the student has forgotten what s/he has written. But the essay continues to exist, and it can be judged in itself. The essay can turn out to be a reference for future learners, just like the works of thinkers and writers and artists who have long ceased to exist. The exam is but a short-lived reference for markers. You don’t even get feedback for your efforts.
Knowledge is actively constructed within individuals, yes. But between generations, knowledge is mostly transmitted via texts. Why begrudge the student who has managed to create something special, even if it was only during a particular weekend of inspired Alt-Tabbing? What has faded in individual memory just needs to remain in collective memory.
Final Thoughts (for now)
Everyday knowledge is not something you attain and attempt to sustain – that suggests a closed mind. It is an endless process of sense-making, in individuals and in communities. We do hope for a degree of consistency in others, but also a sense of malleability. Does it really matter whether one achieves this balance through reliability or suggestibility?
Be it essay or exam, speech or writing, I think intelligence is not a threshold you hit once and for all, but a capacity you have to activate with each new situation. We need not keep in mind what we know or how to argue, as long as it can be summoned when needed – not necessarily at the dinner table.
At least that’s what I comfort myself with, haha.