06 November 2006

More about taking exams

(copy of a letter)

Whenever I meet people I get reminded of things I need to say about my present and past life which might seem to me too obvious to state explicitly. This is useful in a way; I am still trying to squeeze out my autobiography (up to the age of 21) and other books with painful slowness, and one day will try to force them upon the attention of society.

You said “I must have been pleased" about getting a distinction in the mock maths exam when I was 14. A point that escaped everyone’s attention then, and still does, was that it illustrated how realistic was my bitterness at the contrast between the rate at which I could and should have been acquiring qualifications if I had not been caught by an age-limit (so that I could not even quarrel with people to be allowed to take the exams I proposed to take instantly), and the supervised slow-track of sensory deprivation (doing far too few subjects) into which I had been forced against my will.

You said I had "only done schoolwork" in physics and chemistry. That was the cunning of the conspiracy against me (whether conscious or subconscious). If I was never allowed to get any qualifications for real, I could never prove to anyone how close I had been to taking them. You said "I had read the A-level textbooks". Well, actually, only skippily, but I could see they would be no problem – nor would there be with any degree level textbooks I had managed to obtain. Reading them for real when there was a real goal in prospect would take a few weeks for each subject – say a couple of months for the degree-level exams to be really generous – and I did not want to spoil things for myself by doing anything prematurely, i.e. before it was a matter of preparing for a real, public exam as fast and as hard as possible.

Other people with high IQs sometimes do the same thing, however they rationalise it to themselves. Fabian, for example, made jokes in the back row at lessons at his boring and demoralising school, to pass the time as best he could, and did not do any work until the exam was imminent. Then, preparing for the exam was a challenge (in the old-fashioned sense – not the sense in which gifted children are nowadays said to ‘need challenging’ by sadistic teachers) and what got him distinctions on his S-level (scholarship level) papers was a few weeks of really intensive work.

Remember, this is the high-IQ ghetto.

As the decades have passed, things have got worse. Now there is even more conflation of supervised preparation with exam-taking. It is true that in the end I could not overcome the adverse effects of the nightmarish stress of taking only one degree exam, too late in life, in the subject most vulnerable to stress. The exam-taking was the only potentially positive part of the operation, but by then my situation was too bad. What had made it so was the long years of supervised frustration. So of course it is no solution at all to use the stress of the final exam as an excuse for eliminating it altogether and substituting the supervised ‘preparation’ as being what the degree is about. This supervised ‘preparation’ was the bad part of it that finally made it impossible for me to recover sufficiently for the exam-taking part.

Inverting the situation as usual, of course they increasingly want to spare candidates the possibility of stress in the exam by making their degree depend entirely on the supervised preparation, whereas in fact a complete disjunction is required. What is needed is the possibility for taking or retaking the exam without preliminary social interference.

As it was, I knew that the stress had become too great and tried to secure a fail-safe strategy for myself so that I could go on and take another degree immediately in maths or otherwise if I did not do well enough. But everyone wanted it to be a matter of life or death, so that the stress would be as bad as possible, and no one would give me any financial or even moral support in my attempts to set up a fail-safe plan.

So I knew I could count on no support from anyone; but even so I could not have foreseen that the furious hostility and desire to degrade vented upon me would be as bad as it eventually was.

I have known of other people at Somerville who had always done well in exams by coming over inspirational at the last moment, and hoped/expected to be able to do this for their final degree exam, but found that they could not generate the motivation at so late a stage in their lives, and got seconds instead of firsts.

It is easier to work for reward than to avoid punishment, and working to avoid a punishment of unthinkable horror (which is what exile from an academic career was for me) may be totally incapacitating.