Passing Thoughts on Damned EXAMS.
1969/70 & while others were taking Acid, I was taking A-Levels. Could I have been missing out on something? I remember feeling envious of a fellow classmate who had dropped out & got a job in then trendy Carnaby Street. He returned to taunt wearing the latest colourful, sartorial fashion, topped by a large & flamboyant hat. He seemed to be financially flush.
Who said schooldays are the best years of our lives? Futile & false nostalgia for an age made gold one by retrospective alchemy.
So, while the sun shone outside, we pupils focussed on study in the shadows, cramming to regurgitate.
Are you on the level? 'A' Levels- some esoteric relic of Masonic hierarchical mentality? Well, I got 3 of 'em & a distinction at 'S' Level too. More than enough for the minimum entry requirements I had been offered for U.C.L. - then the top Univ in Britain for English - academically the top 1% of the population. From Working Class to academic elite.
U.C.L. anti-exams campaign. The four of us in the Anarchist group made slogans on stickers: 'graded brains make finer power' (witty wordplay based on the then current advert - graded grains make finer flour), 'when you've won the rat race, you're still a rat' etc.
Public debate with provost Lord Annan. Departmental meeting with Frank Kermode whom some of us referred to as Special K, spoofing the then common Kellogg advert. I remember him as a pleasant, decent guy. He said 'we don't live in Utopia,' to which I replied 'why not?'
Exams at end of first year. Passed OK but found the experience very stressful. Heard that some people committed suicide to avoid taking exams. I didn't fancy facing Finals. In fact I swore I'd never take any more exams.
Decided to transfer to University of Stirling, at that time the only university in the country with no exams. Continuous assessment seemed fairer.
Finally took Acid!
I passed the 'Acid Test' without the Kool-aid. I was definitely golden!
At Stirling, in the final semester, instead of writing a critical thesis, I took the creative option. I was the first & last person to do so. According to their official rules I was allowed to. They tried to dissuade me. I was warned that doing so might jeopardise my final grade.
I submitted two small collections of poetry: an early, smaller, less developed version of what later became 'Songs of Frustrated Lust & Seduction' & another which I called 'Buds of Hope', in reference to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: 'when I had but little passed the verge of manhood, I published a small volume of juvenile poems. They were received with a degree of favour, which, young as I was, I well know was bestowed on them not so much for any positive merit, as because they were considered buds of hope, and promises of better works to come.'
To fulfil the academic requirement, I was instructed to produce a critical thesis about my creative work. Tongue in cheek, I entitled it 'A pitiful Defence of Poor Poetry' (quoting Sir Phillip Sidney)
[At the time, I was told that our Semester 8 Projects would be kept in the University Library. When I requested access to mine, some decades later, I was told they had been destroyed. Vandals! ]
It took me by surprise that they imposed an unexpected Viva Voce, oral examination, thesis defence. An external examiner in addition to a member of staff in the English Department.
I entered the Interrogation Chamber wrapped in a blanket & sat cross-legged in front of the inquisitors. After answering some tricky questions, I felt I'd had enough & announced that it was my 'Day of Silence' & wouldn't talk any more.
I was a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM) - my teacher Professor Richard Prosser who was a Quantum Physicist, who recommended Days of Silence.
Therefore, although I was awarded B.A., it was only a Second Class. I had been getting lots of Grade As for my essays & used to make intelligent contribution to seminars & tutorials. I suffered from a rather debilitating stammer (which took the form of vocal blockage, not being able to get my words out). Nerve (w)racking torture for me.
I failed to mention this or it might have been taken into consideration.
My Director of Studies, dear old Norman MacCaig, jokingly opined that I had fallen off my high IQ!
Also, in my final semester, while writing my Semester 8 Project, my relationship of several years with my then girl-friend broke up or down (ended anyway) when I found her in bed with another man. Good timing. I was devastated. Again, I didn't discuss that with my department.
On top of that, although financially poor, I paid a typist to type my thesis. The neat copy I had paid for & was expecting & which would have made the best impression was returned to me full of typos. At the last minute I had to hand write it. Although I had neat handwriting, some people consider it unprofessional. Ecologically aware, I made a point of using coloured recycled paper,
Without wishing to appear paranoid, I'd venture that some of my mainly Scottish tutors seemed to be somewhat racially prejudiced against this upstart Sassenach.
My problem with exams isn't that I can't pass them, 'cos I always did. It's rather that they are unfair & stressful & promote a competitive attitude. I believe in cooperation.
Exams only measure your ability to answer the exam questions at the particular time. It's not about arithmetical correctness but opinion & how it's expressed stylistically.
There is no other time in one's job or professional life, where one can't consult colleagues or textbooks or Google for that matter.