Can We Talk?

December 8, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Molly Worthen begins her column in the Sunday Times Opinion section by quoting a student who said that if she had known her intro sociology class required oral exams, “I’m not sure I would have taken the class.”  Worthen goes on at length (2500 words) in favor of oral exams.  

I think she’s right in principle, though I cannot speak from experience. I had no oral exams as an undergraduate — Worthen is talking mostly about undergrad courses — and even for the Ph.D., my department did not require an oral defense.

“American universities tend to infantilize students,” says Worthen, “taking attendance in class, employing fleets of student affairs bureaucrats to tend to their needs.” She neglects to mention the most infantilizing and bureaucratic practice of all – multiple-choice exams. Bureaucratic because in the interests of efficiency and universalism (objectivity) multiple-choice exams force students to minimize the information they present. Infantilizing because multiple-choice exams treat students as though they are incapable of complex thought. To take a multiple-choice exam, you don’t have to be able to think about and discuss ideas and evidence. You don’t even have to know the material, though it helps.

Multiple-choice exams replace the original goal of education — learning — with the ability to answer simple questions. My favorite example of the difference is again from grad school, in this case the foreign language requirement. The idea underlying this requirement is that not everything relevant in your field is written in English, especially work that is more recent and not written by superstars like Bourdieu or Foucault.

My French at the time was so feeble that I doubt I could have read a newspaper, certainly not Le Monde, probably not even the French counterpart of the New York Post. But to fulfill the language requirement, all I had to do was get a #2 pencil and pass the standardized test from (if I recall correctly) ETS. I don’t know how low the bar was set, but I passed.

A friend who had gotten his degree at Brandeis told me what the language exam there was like. “You go see Hughes [Everett C. Hughes] and he gives you a piece of paper with a citation for an article in a foreign journal.. ‘Go read this, come back Wednesday, and we’ll talk about it.’”

As Worthen says, “The most empowering thing a teacher can do for her students has nothing to do with constant surveillance of their academic engagement . . . . It is to simply talk with them, face to face, as fellow thinkers.”

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