Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Unenlightening EFL Exams

Ostensibly EFL exams are simply tests of linguistic ability. But they are not just that. They are themselves a form of political education, although this may seem a rather grand term to describe the way they oblige people to adopt particular attitudes to texts in the exam. The way we deal with texts in the classroom is part of the way youngsters are prepared for the political culture they will participate in in adult life – a culture which may be more or less authoritarian, more or less conservative. Now, what sort of preparation do younsters get from the way texts are dealt with in EFL exams? To sum up the effect: The youngsters get the message that all the marks go to those who are uncritical and efficient and unconcerned about leaving the world exactly as they find it. If it were just a matter of an exam taken only once and lasting only a few hours, this would be insignificant, but the expected exam usually sets the tone for the entire course so that teachers and writers of EFL materials oblige students to adopt the same dubious attitudes in virtually every lesson. Of course, if the EFL course were the only influence in this direction, it could safely be ignored, but it is far from being the only influence.

The political conservativism of EFL exams is evident in their treatment of texts. Firstly, there is the choice of texts, which tend to stick to a presentation of the facts about something: the latest statistics or the findings of the latest research, for instance. In a recent ECCE paper one reading passage was about the marriage customs of the Amish – a passage sticking strictly to the ethnographic details of what is customarily done. In its place the University of Michigan would never have chosen a passage expressing a controversial opinion about the importance of preserving the old customs or about the decay of the traditional family or about the value of monogamy or about the role of religion in marriage. No, the texts must stick to the incontrovertible facts.

And what do students have to do with these texts? Don't the texts touch on issues – albeit ever so tentatively – that the student ought to have an opinion about? Doesn't the writer make claims that the student could agree or disagree with? Doesn't the student have a whole world of experience and understanding in terms of which some parts of the text could have a powerful appeal or persuasive force and others not? But in EFL exams such considerations – it seems – are irrelevant. The questions do nothing more than ask students to accurately discern the facts – not compare the claims of the text with the facts of the matter, but just identify the facts as described by the author, whose authority and veracity are never called into question.

Then there is the influence of the time constaint in EFL exams. The Michigan ECPE is probably the worst culprit, expecting its candidates to get through questions at the fastest rate of knots. Throughout their course students will have to be trained to cope with exams like these, and with EFL texts they will have to develop the habit of reading fast – of looking for the answers and then moving on without a second thought. What this entails is that students learn to be uninterested in the texts. Students have to take no interest in the texts. They have to lose the expectation that a text might be interesting otherwise when it proves to be uninteresting they will be disappointed and will lose the frame of mind required to tick the right boxes at the maximum speed. Students must perform the task allotted to them as efficiently as possible, ignoring any exquisite turns of phrase that less efficient readers might linger over and ponder.

Marshall McLuhan once reminded us that the invention of printing and the emergence of a culture of the written word gave rise to a more critical mentality – a mentality that was foundational both for what we call the Enlightenment and liberalism. People could privately reflect on arguments in print without the forceful presence of orators and cheering crowds. In a quiet room of one's own texts could be compared and arguments weighed up in a process that also deepened the individual's self-assurance as someone with a mind of his own – as someone with a right to say 'yeah' or 'nay' to the prevailing opinions of the day, and as someone with the ability to see through the idiocies that pass for conventional wisdom.

Ambassadors of the English language who also know of the connection between the written word and the enlightened culture of critique are inevitably a little disappointed that EFL classes – under the influence of exams designed according to bureaucratic and commercial criteria – so readily encourage youngsters to become both uninterested and uncritical – content to leave both texts and the world exactly as they found them.

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