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The current academic system should be a place for sparking creativity and increasing intellectual development. But it has become an examination factory
I have taught at the University of Copenhagen, on and off, for most of my adult life, and the changes I’ve witnessed have been enormous. When I first arrived here in the early 1970s I was amazed and also somewhat appalled at the laisser-faire culture of the academic system, if indeed it was a system. To be a student was a semi-permanent way of life, a stint which could last as long as 12 years. Students took loans to eke out what they could earn, bought flats and furniture, started families, sampled whatever courses took their fancy, never wrote essays, and finally, on the brink of middle age and heavily in debt, took a mammoth exam and launched themselves into the real world of employment.
“If your mind is flexible and well equipped, you will be able to acquire the skills demanded by your future job, and even transcend them. Innovation does not come about by following the cautious path.”
How different things are now. A student‘s university career is mapped out for her in detail, with syllabuses, schedules and numerous requirements, all of which must be satisfied within a rigid time frame. Essays and other prescribed assignments must be written so that they can be registered as done, but students are rarely given the kind of feedback which can help them to make progress. At the stages where there are elective subjects, the student may be placed in a course she isn’t committed to – because the one she chose was over-subscribed. And then there’s the arcane examination system.
As a teacher whose mission is to communicate my own enthusiasm for the subjects I teach I am sad that up to half of the questions students ask me have to do with interpreting regulations. Often the first question I’m asked in the introductory session to a course is about the exam. An atmosphere has been generated over the last few years in which paramount importance is attached to receiving high grades in the numerous exams – so play safe.
“It is a crime against the energy of youth that it is dulled by the fussiness of the system. Let’s encourage passion and originality rather than anxious conformity.”
The university has become an examination factory and quite blatantly part of the economic system. It’s as if the aim of university education is to jump through a number of bureaucratically defined hoops in order to gain a certificate at the end of five years which qualifies one to become a disciplined member of the workforce and a taxpayer. The emphasis in the official discourse is not on new and fascinating areas of knowledge but on acquiring competences.
But students! You are being cheated!
The best result of humanistic education is a well-developed mind, and that can best be attained by exploring the multiplicity of your subject. If your mind is flexible and well equipped, you will be able to acquire the skills demanded by your future job, and even transcend them. Innovation does not come about by following the cautious path.
It is a crime against the energy of youth that it is dulled by the fussiness of the system. Let’s encourage passion and originality rather than anxious conformity. Let’s cut down the number of exams, make room for education rather than registration. The time and resources which are now squandered on this oppressive examination system would be better spent on giving students feedback on their efforts and creative support in their intellectual development. But I can’t see any hope of that in the latest proposals for the structure of study programmes – quite the opposite, in fact.
No-one wants to return to the old lax, ways, which were wasteful in many respects. But those responsible for the development of higher education should bear in mind that students are both an important resource for the country’s future and also individual human beings with unpredictable potential.
Society should not model itself on the anthill.
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