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E for excellently exposing the bias of the education system

Via Bishop Hill, I learn that Christopher Booker has an interesting little story up about a student who got a (nearly) fail for expressing insubordinate climatic opinions in an exam.

Her son is “an excellent scientist” who got “straight As” on his other science papers, but he is also “very knowledgeable about climate change and very sceptical about man-made global warming”. His questioning of the sources earned an “E”, the lowest possible score. His mother then paid £60 for his paper to be re-marked. It was judged to be “articulate, well-structured” and clearly well-informed, but again he was marked down with “E” for fail.

I realise that the ideal to which educationalists ought, in an ideal world, to aspire to is to measure how well a student understands and can explicate a particular body of alleged knowledge, rather than merely noting whether he agrees with that alleged knowledge. But this is a lot to expect. I have always regarded exams as measuring not so much actual rightness about things, as the ability to find out what the examiners want to be told, and to put that as fluently and ingratiatingly as possible. Exams have always been about identifying articulate yes-men. It’s just that what examinees have to say yes to changes from decade to decade.

But maybe this will change with the arrival of the internet, now that anyone who gets failed for saying “no”, fluently and persuasively, can now, as in this case, expose the inevitable biases of the education system to outside scrutiny and derision.

I look forward to learning who this young man is, what he actually wrote in his exam, and more about exactly who the examiners were who failed him. If he displayed a real knowledge of official opinion about climate change, before then explaining why he did not share this opinion, he might yet come out of this spat very well, better than if he had merely got straight As.

He might, for instance, get himself a job as a scientific journalist.

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20 comments to E for excellently exposing the bias of the education system

  • Alisa

    Eppur si muove.

  • Alan Peakall

    Herman Wouk captured the point memorably in “The Caine Mutiny”. The protagonist’s 1942 midshipman class is examined on naval doctrine as set out in a 1935 textbook mandating the answer “… because of their limited cruising range submarines are chiefly useful for coastal defence.”. Meanwhile the U-boat pack is busily sinking tonnes of shipping off Cape Hatteras.

  • Tedd

    I have always regarded exams as measuring not so much actual rightness about things, as the ability to find out what the examiners want to be told, and to put that as fluently and ingratiatingly as possible.

    I conducted a mini experiment on this in one of my university courses. The course was “technology and society,” ostensibly a philosophy course. For the first half of the course I wrote my conscience, so to speak, challenging what I saw as flawed arguments, regardless of their source. In the second half I followed Brian’s advice, flattering the professor by agreeing with the arguments and sources he admired, and challenging the ones he did not. I forget the exact change in average essay mark, but it was huge. I’m pretty sure my best essay from the first half scored below my worse essay from the second half.

    But isn’t it a bit odd to have an essay question on a science exam, in the first place?

  • But isn’t it a bit odd to have an essay question on a science exam, in the first place?

    Not really!

  • It was a General Studies exam, not a science exam. I’m not sure whether that makes it better or worse… thinking aloud (well, as I type), I think it makes it worse.

    In a pure science exam I would think it acceptable to mark down a candidate who expressed a Biblical literalist view regarding the age of the earth or evolution despite the candidate having every right politically to hold those views. Although I think that global warming is a zillion times more of an open question than the above, I can sort of see the point of saying that a candidate *can* be marked down for opposing the scientific consensus. It’s an exam. There’s a syllabus. Departure from regurgitating the syllabus means you don’t get the qualification. A Grade A GCSE in physics means you adhere to the syllabus as specified by that particular exam board, be it wrong or right. If you don’t like it the only real recourse is to start your own qualification. What I’m saying is that the question of whether examiners can mark down GW / AGW scepticism or related ideas that they think are wrong is the same *sort* of question as to whether examiners can mark down Biblical evolution, irrespective of the actual merits of either idea.

    In contrast General Studies is meant to be, in so far as it is about anything, about forming well-structured, logical arguments – the very thing he is admitted to have done well.

    The more I think about it the more outrageous it is. The only consolation is that your grade in General Studies only matters if you are borderline on a university offer, and it sounds as though this young man isn’t.

  • Just out of interest, Tedd, so far as I know none of the A-Level science exams in the UK offer actual essay questions. Nor does the International Baccalaureate. The IB would allow you to do a science project with an accompanying essay / explanation. What their attitude to well-argued heterodox opinion would be I don’t know.

    The old Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams used to involve science essays, but they don’t have that route now.

    What some modern science exams do have is a small proportion of marks, and hence study time, wasted on things such as asking in a physics paper why people are so bad at estimating risks due to radiation. An interesting question but not physics. I ranted further here.

  • Thanks, Brian or Samizdata elf, for unsmiting in record time.

    In my post of 10:17 “Biblical evolution” was a brainfade. It should have read “Biblical literalism”.

  • We do not have Samizdata elves, we have a small but sleepy workforce of LOL Cats genetically engineered to have opposable thumbs. They are the ones who turn the cranks and push the buttons to operate SmiteBot. They are feed on a diet of raw spam.

  • veryretired

    It’s not an educational system, it’s an indoctrination system.

    If any common household appliance maker produced products as faulty and incomplete as this bizarre mess we laughingly call an educational system, they would be out of business faster than Ford dropped the edsel.

    The entire concept of the 19th century factory style school is obsolete and intellectually bankrupt. The little instrument in front of you is the educational system of the future, which will only arrive when all the current mandarins of education are kicked out and their incompetent theories are thrown out with them.

    (OT—I have a lengthy response to the question, “What century are we in?” over at chicagoboyz, for anyone who’s interested.)

  • Alisa

    FWIW, any education system is necessarily also an indoctrination system. The question is, who is it that should be doing the indoctrination. Personally, I’d rather that choice was left to parents, and later on to the young adults themselves

  • veryretired

    Alisa, I agree but your point is banal. My point was that the system no longer educates in any real sense, but only indoctrinates.

    If it was truly educating the new generation in the classical values and subjects of higher western culture from the point of view of their innate wisdom and worth, then, by definition, they would be helping to create the very independent minds that make indoctrination impossible.

    It is the difference between teaching American history by reading and discussing the Federalist Papers, or simply leading the class through the swamp of Zinn’s collectivist tome while ridiculing any contrary viewpints.

    Guess which method is more common, if any history course is taught at all?

  • Alisa

    Banality is my middle name, VR:-)

  • veryretired

    I doubt that very much indeed, Alisa.

  • Paul Marks

    Paul climbs on one of his pet hobby horses….. (about the only sort of horse he can ride these days).

    This is the fault of John Stuart Mill!

    Whether a child goes to a state school or a private school, and whether there are many examination boards or only one…..

    If a state backed tribe of intellectuals decide what the “correct” answer is – the freedom undermined.

    By all means allow people to create an examination paper where the only “correct” answer (no matter how well reasoned the argument of the child is) is that humans produced C02 is going to turn the Earth into a second Venus.

    But also allow people to create an examination system where the skill shown in creating a logical argument (not just in agreeing with the established position) is rewarded.

    And allow private employers to decide which examination system they prefer – and to employ people accordingly.

    And J.S. Mill?

    It was he (above all others) who got the Germanic (Frederick the Great and so on) idea of the state in an oversight role in examinations – and made it acceptable to English liberal opinion.

    I will resist getting on my “Prussia is EVIL” hobby horse at this point.

  • Paul Marks


    It is ironic (to say the least) that the very principles that the people who supported state education (such as Samual Adams) wanted taught (and feared would not be taught if parents and private employers were paying for people to be taught to read and write and so on) – relgion and Western Civilisation……

    These are the very principles that modern govenrment schools most mock and hold in contempt.

    Nor is this recent – after all some of the Supreme Court judgements against teaching religion go back to the 1940s (and even if they had been no Supreme Court judgements we both know that the goernment schools would be teaching “social justice” education now, they would be “social gospel” strongholds) and the statist (Progressive) interpretation of history became fashionable in the elite universities a century ago.

    True the Progressives (Beard with his “economic interpretation of the Constitution” and so on) were not Marxists – but they paved the way for the take over of the Marxists from the 1960s onwards (the last real resistance against Marxist power being in the early 1950s – and ending in betrayal by the establishment and cultural defeat).

    Want schools where the writings of John Jay (and so on) are treated with respect? Indeed are taught at all?

    Then (and you know I was going to say this) then do not put your trust in the state.

    Not just not in the modern state (post 1960s), but in any state – after all in Mass “religion of humanity” types (such as H. Mann) were having an influence in education as far back as the 1830s. And they used state administration (the administrative structure is the natural habitat of the collectivist) to spread their ideas into the heads of the young.

    Sam Adams was wrong – trusting the indivdual parents and independent churches (yes even including the Roman Catholic Church) is the least worst option.

  • veryretired

    Yes, Paul, your concluding sentence is exactly right. As in so many other errors by the elites of the founders’ age, or any age, their distrust of the basic common sense of the ordinary citizen led them astray in this case.

    I was raised in the Catholic church, and attended private schools that my mother scrimped and sacrificed to pay for. I sent my children to the best private schools I could manage, “best” being defined as “most academically rigorous”, not most expensive or trendiest.

    The public school idea is one more permutation of the progressive, collectivist assertion that “there is a crisis in this area and only the state can solve it”, which is their response to anything and everything.

    While I understand the impulse, the statist solution is a trap. Once handed over to impersonal state cadres, only the formalism of the officially approved system is important, and the true welfare and improvement of the children’s situation in the world becomes a secondary, or even tertiary, objective.

    My wife and I sometimes ran into the attitude of the “professional educator” that they were all-knowing, and we were mere boobs who happened to be lucky enough to have kids in their care. We pulled two of the kids out of shools that gave us that bs and enrolled them somewhere else.

    A I have said in other contexts, if the most vicious enemies of young children were given the right to design a system to (ostensibly) educate the young, but whose true purpose was to torture and miseducate them, they couldn’t have done much better than the current abomination.

    My second son has been a high school teacher for several years now, in several locales as they’ve moved around, but he’s fed up with it. He’s gone back to school to get a master’s in business administration, and once that happens, the schools will lose a very good young teacher who simply couldn’t abide the endemic malpractice of the educational community any longer.

    My hope is that the very students who have been so ill-served by the system that has degenerated to its current low state over the past few decades will lead the reform movement as they become parents themselves.

    It is one more very thick black mark against my generation that we have presided over the terrible decline that education has suffered.

  • Paul Marks

    veryretired – very good.