When I was in elementary school, I liked tests. There I was, a little ace, with my little Guiness Book of Records, my Funk n Wagnels Encyclopedia, the entertaining smart boy on the street. In High School, I stopped liking tests – partly cause I no longer aced them. In fact, I sank to the norm or below. And perhaps because I was no longer so good at them, I took a more level view of them. The longer I looked, the more it seemed to me that tests had to be on their way out in the age of nuclear power and space flight. They were so primitive. They were as bad an instrument for measuring learning as a spoon is for eating spaghetti. What you learned, what you know, is imbricated with what others know –it is social to the very core. And yet, the test was individuated and individuating from the get go. The only people who really understood this fact about learning, it seemed to me, were the cheaters – who, at least, exchanged answers with each other. But of course cheating is ultimately parasitic upon testing. No, I felt, tests had to go.
Later on I began to think that the problem was that tests had been displaced from the plane of experience to the plane of cognition. In experience, the test is essential. The self must be put, or must put itself, in a thousand alien circumstances in order to know itself – in order to unfold itself. Ultimately, the self has a plastic, flexible capability, an imaginative potential, that comes out when it is really tested. Unfortunately, the rule of cognitive tests has made it harder and harder to afford experiential ones. In the richest society in history, the U.S., it is now imperative to cut short the Wanderjahre and find a job with insurance, so that you can pay back the student loan. Life has been visibly diminished.
In France, which is as exam-ocentric as ancient China, the test form is everywhere – especially in childrearing. Our little nouveau-ne, Adam, had to pass his numbers – on weight – before we could leave the hospital, and the sage femme that visits us has said rather menacing things whenever we told her that Adam didn’t seem to be eating as much as he should. Poor tyke is a finicky eater, like his Pa. So yesterday, when Antonia took him to the clinic and it turned out that he had been secretly gaining weight – indeed, he passed the weight test 30 grams to spare!- we wept with joy. At the same time, it felt like already we are tracking him on the path that leads to the “bac” – and he hasn’t even gotten the visual apparatus in order, yet! Meanwhile, from the States, all I hear is parents complaining that their kids are underperforming the tests, which means that they won’t make the grade for the scholarships, which means that they will have to go to community college and then be stuck in some hamburger-flipping job at Mickey Dees the rest of their life.
The test regime is now a brainless monster, with tentacles in every heart. Yet, surely Rousseau was right in Emile – good childrearing is about using your hands, imagining, dawdling over the immediate data of nature (if you can find it).