Sunday, 16 May 2010

Power, knowledge and the anti-exam movement

On 8th November 1973 more than 300 students at the University of New England in the regional NSW town of Armidale held a “Peasants’ Revolt” against exams:
Students were in the role of peasants, there were lords and peasants…and professors would expropriate people’s work and use it in a very feudal way.
Upon marching to the administrative building where they intended to make their case against exams, they found locked doors. Undeterred, and after a violent struggle, students occupied the administrative building for 24 hours. 

The University of New England was not alone in this – examinations were a focus of student movements across Australian universities. Melbourne University formed an “SRC Exam Reform Group” and published articles entitled “Abolish Exams”.  They distributed protest stickers that students could put in their exam booklets:
I consider this exam to serve no educational purpose as all. I sit it under duress, because no creative alternative has been offered.
Students at the Australian National University in Canberra were also unhappy about exams in 1973, having campaigned unsuccessfully for four years to reduce the quantity of assessment assigned to examination.  By 1973 some students were boycotting exams, which was portrayed as analogous to Vietnam War draft resistance, and they publicised an “Exam Resister’s Manifesto”.  By 1974 Australian National University students occupied university buildings to protest against exams, as did students in the History Department at Flinders University in South Australia. 

“The examination”, according to Foucault, “opened up two correlative possibilities”:
Firstly, the constitution of the individual as a describable, analysable object…in order to maintain him in his individual features … under the gaze of a permanent corpus of knowledge; and, secondly, the constitution of a comparative system that made possible the measure of overall phenomena … the calculation of gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given ‘population’
Through exams, students were either monitored for their individual achievement against a canon of knowledge, or they were measured against one another in order to rank and sort them. Examinations assert power and deny students ownership of the knowledge that is both the measure and the measured, of their success (or failure).

“Most students do not feel that they are able to control their own destiny”, read the Educational Policy of the Australian Union of Students, in which exams were described as “repressive” instruments.  In rejecting examination as a means of assessment, students felt that they also shed the shackles of an educational system that “indoctrinated” rather than “educated”.  Resisting exams was, for them, one means of claiming a knowledge that was their own and which in turn provided a sense of self-determination of both knowledge and life. At the University of New England, the importance reclaiming their knowledge emerges in Rod Noble’s description of the Peasant’s Revolt occupation:
It was an incredible, creative time with people writing poetry. For the first time students had control of something that was ours. Actually it is incredible what creativity comes out of people when they’re in control of even a small part of their destiny.
The anti-exam protests continued beyond the occupation in various ways, including treating the main exam centre carpet with foul-smelling chemicals so the room could not be used.  For the Classical Marxism II exam, students “in the true spirit of Marxism” drew their chairs together to complete the exam collaboratively. The exam supervisor, understandably, did not know what to do and fetched the Dean of the Arts Faculty, who alerted the Vice-Chancellor. The Armidale police were called:
Three detectives and eight uniformed police with paddy wagons were ready. Interestingly, they were prepared to use the armed forces of the state to uphold the examination system. 
While not arrested, some students then spent the remainder of the exam period – around 3 weeks – dodging officials trying to serve them with injunctions while they also supported increased student resistance against exams.

Especially sinister, according to students, was the perceived impact of exams on learning. Preparation for exams substitutes for learning in an exam-dominating educational system , screamed the student publications, determining the knowledge selected for learning and enhancing the power of those who select it:
Learning has developed into a one way traffic from powerful to powerless. Students have been conditioned all their lives to believe the god teachers and be good receivers of knowledge. Students’ self-confidence is constantly undermined by teachers until they reach the stage where they will not challenge the teachers.
The Exam Resisters Collective at the Australian National University felt that abolishing exams would enable a “reinvigoration” of teaching and learning, by removing the driver that (falsely) determined what knowledge was. Students hoped that removal of exams as a teleological agent would enable more diverse and personal forms of assessment, under an assumption that knowledge is individual rather than absolute:
To speak of the calculation, quantification and measurement of one’s personal development or fulfilment is nonsense.
Evidence of the failure of exams to fulfil their role in the educating mission, was their negative impact on students, according to anti-exam activists. Higher stress levels were attached to a single exam as the only means of assessment, resulting in unfortunate suicides.  Moreover, students questioned the validity of exams as assessment of knowledge given the types of preparation for exams – examination only evaluated memorisation, they claimed. Assessment, it was increasingly felt, should support learning by individuals, rather than sorting and categorising them. It was hoped that, if any assessment was used at all (and only a minority felt that there should be none), then it would support individual empowerment rather than function as an instrument of power. 

“God is an exam”, read one student article, an indication of the power students identified in the examination system. Exams were the tool by which the university exercised its power over students. Exams enabled the university to compare and map the landscape of knowers in the guise of an objective chart of student achievement. This measurement of student success both exercised and legitimised a stable body of knowledge. Students claimed that the stress of exams was evidence of its violent power – it moulded students’ intellectual selves according to an established canon. Rather than inspiring learning, exams killed it, requiring instead a habit of cramming to memorise dead knowledge. Sydney’s professor of philosophy, David Armstrong, saw it differently:
Exams enable students to put off their work until the end of the year and that strikes me as an immensely valuable thing...if you [have] a system of continuous have a pretty hard life. I like for the Faculty of Arts the idea that you sit around for a long time discussing things in coffee shops and pubs and quadrangles and anywhere else that you can get some seating and, finally, towards the end of the year you've got to get some work done... That's a good way, I think, to conduct an Arts education; students educate each other in the course of this.
We will come back to Armstrong, who personified the god-professor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for despite the flexibility advocated in this interview Armstrong was also determined to claim the power of recognised expertise. For, as well as asserting power over students, exams proclaimed the authority of the university over knowledge of the world – the authority of the knower over that which was to be known.

[footnotes have been removed. please contact me if you are interested in them]

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