The following is an extract from Ansgar Allen’s book Benign Violence (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 10 – 20.

To speak of the history of examination makes little sense. As a concept, examination is neither bland nor universal enough for such a history to be written.

It cannot stretch across time gathering together all related events as their collecting term. Like the history it confronts, this is an unstable concept. It is, moreover, insufficiently distinct from close associates such as ‘assessment’. At times the words assessment and examination can be used almost synonymously. At others they drift apart. Whilst examination is often used to refer to the formal process by which candidates are judged for a particular qualification or post, assessment has a more general meaning and can refer to informal as well as formal activities.

There are other differences. In medieval alchemy, examination refers to the attempt to test or assay a precious metal in order to determine its purity. It is also associated with close scrutiny or investigation by inspection in order to establish the truth or qualities of an object, statement or calculation. Finally, examination refers to the interrogation of a person in order to determine his or her state of mind, knowledge or capacity. Assessment, by contrast, has been associated with the determination of a fine, charge or tax. It is also linked to the valuation of property. Whilst examination in its various uses is about inspection and truth, assessment adds to this the idea of distribution, remuneration and desert. Depending on my focus, I will switch terms. This chapter refers chiefly to examination, dealing as it does with the history of a device used to generate truth through inspection. Later chapters are concerned more directly with assessment: they investigate the valuation and distribution of human worth. This switch from examination to assessment is not without consequence, reflecting as it does a diminishing concern for truth.

*   *   *

In the West, two distinct traditions of examination can be identified, these being modern examination and its medieval precursor. Both were brought into being as institutional devices, assisting those institutions in games of subjugation.

Arriving during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Europe, medieval examination beat the Bubonic Plague by a century. This is not to boast on behalf of examination; it merely sets a scene. The pandemic was certainly a fearsome episode in human history, and yet there was a far more dangerous sickness already endemic in 1348 that is to be feared precisely because we do not experience it as such.

The plague arrived, so they say, on merchant ships upon which Oriental rats and their fleas hitched a ride. Examination has similar intercontinental connections, but we will remain in the West along with the fleas. Here we commonly perceive those who existed before medieval examination, and certainly those who existed before modern examination, as comparatively healthy. The ancients were particularly so; at least, this is how the story goes, where the hardy ancestor par excellence would be Socrates.

The medievalist Charles Haskins once quipped that a ‘great teacher like Socrates gave no diplomas; if a modern student sat at his feet for three months, he would demand a certificate, something tangible and external to show for it’. Unlike Socrates’ companions, who were the victims of Socratic dialogue, modern students are the victims of institutional life, having been so formed that they cannot but share the expectations of organised education. ‘Only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’, Haskins continues, ‘do there emerge in the world those features of organised education with which we are most familiar, all that machinery of instruction represented by faculties and colleges and courses of study, examinations and commencements and academic degrees.’

*   *   *

Almost 900 years ago, the first medieval universities were established, their early development being closely associated with a certain pre-modern ritual of examination. Formal medieval education was a minority privilege. The favoured few entered a system that we may struggle to understand in retrospect because it failed to employ many of those features that we associate with formal education today. There were few graduated steps in the subjects taught. These subjects were not broken down into discrete units and then ordered into a hierarchy of difficulty from the most elementary components to the most difficult concepts. Also absent was the significance we now ascribe to age. A variety of ages were taught together. So, whilst the life of a medieval student can be divided into three main phases, these divisions did not contain a graded hierarchy of steps and they are not best represented by age.

Roughly, then, the elite students of the first phase were called scholars. Four or more years were spent listening to lectures. These were delivered from a list of prescribed texts, with the number of times each text should be heard being defined in advance: ‘Hard, close drill on a few wellthumbed books was the rule.’ But the required books were rare, and so the education was largely an oral one, divided between ordinary lectures that were delivered by masters and cursory lectures that were given by bachelors. The former expounded the text, whilst the latter offered little more than a running commentary on it. Lectures were augmented by disputations, in which the master would resolve any difficulties raised with respect to an authoritative text. A scholar would attend the disputations of his master for two years or so, during which period he would respond to questions posed by the master and receive training in textual reconciliation.

The second phase in the student’s career was that of bachelor, a status that had been borrowed from the terminology of the Guilds, that is, a candidate for Mastership. The transition from scholar to bachelor was known as the determination, and eligibility for this step was ascertained through a series of preliminary examinations, called ‘responsions’. The candidate and his master were then asked to swear an oath that the former had fulfilled the requirements, including attendance at the prescribed lectures. Determination itself involved the candidate holding a series of public disputations during Lent. Having successfully determined, the bachelor resumed attendance at his master’s lectures. He was required to take part in further disputations over the next year and take on some teaching responsibilities by delivering a course of cursory lectures.

The next objective was to become a master. After several more years of study and teaching, the bachelor of promise reached the process of inception, through which admission could be gained to the masters’ guild. The candidate would hold an inaugural lecture together with a disputation, following which there was a banquet held at the inceptor’s expense.

*   *   *

All these examinations, commencements and academic degrees may sound rather tedious. On those occasions when I find myself subjected to some ceremony or other, either participating in the ritual or standing by, I like to think that we would all rather be elsewhere. Those who find themselves fired up by such events exhibit, for me, the surface traits of a more troubling inclination.

It is with little pleasure that I spend effort recounting long-dead rituals, such as those detailed above. It would be far more entertaining, perhaps, to explore what medieval students got up to in their spare time. But the ceremonial particulars are important, and we should not allow our gaze to follow that of the wayward student. These events served a wider, moral purpose. At the very least, candidates could be rejected for inappropriate behaviour. Gambling and taking part in a knife-fight with local tailors were both recorded as reasons for rejection. Paying undue attention to the solemnity of the event itself was another reason for dismissal. In fifteenth-century Vienna one candidate made the unforgivable mistake of nipping out to see an execution during the examination – an irresistible spectacle, one assumes. The threat of rejection for inappropriate behaviour was, nevertheless, only a blunt device for the regulation of personal conduct. The ceremonies themselves, these sites of medieval examination, were far more intricate in their effects as moral devices. To understand how they worked we must appreciate the regime of truth within which the medieval scholar was confined.

*   *   *

The medieval theologian and his student follower faced a basic difficulty: the various church canons contradicted one another. In this period a great deal of scholarly effort was expended to resolve these conflicts. Often since dismissed as ‘mere scholasticism’, this form of scriptural debate is so alien to our notions of rational discourse that we may indeed struggle to judge the scholastic agenda on its own merits. With an agenda that sets him at odds with our present, Alasdair MacIntyre provides a more sympathetic account. The key figure for MacIntyre was the influential theologian Thomas Aquinas (born 1225; levitated 1273; deceased 1274). Aquinas practiced a mode of scholasticism that coupled deep respect for authority with an effort to resolve contradiction and thereby reaffirm the pre-eminence of the church fathers. This was also the object of university disputations at which scriptural difficulties could be tidied up through dialectical argument. These carefully orchestrated disputes did provide a certain degree of creative space to develop counterarguments (for the sake of argument) before the final resolutions were applied in summing up. This opportunity was, nevertheless, short-lived, being cut short by the concluding remarks.

The medieval examination was an opportunity to demonstrate in discursive form the closeness and subtlety of one’s understanding of and adherence to received tradition. ‘Research’ in the modern sense did not yet exist, with the ‘research university’ a thing of the distant future. Knowledge of the truth did not emerge from an accumulation of facts; it was revealed following the correct reading of texts by someone who had developed those understandings that were valued by existing tradition. This is an affront to many ears today due to the enduring Enlightenment belief that rational thought must emancipate itself from the ‘tutelage of authority’. It is still often presumed that to be rational one must think for oneself. By contrast, scholastic rationalism was built on understandings that were largely tacit. These were absorbed gradually through, for example, attendance at and participation in the disputations that followed lectures. The bachelor would slowly learn through experience how to apply the acknowledged standards of his craft, and identify mistakes. The apprentice for mastership would also gradually learn to locate his efforts within the wider orbit of the scholastic universe, distinguishing between the ‘kind of excellence which both others and he [for it would be a male] can expect of himself here and now, and that ultimate excellence which furnishes both apprentices and master-craftsmen with their telos’, where the telos is their highest object or aim.

Intellectual and moral virtues were deemed inseparable, where the effects of personal desires and inclinations were of particular concern when it came to textual interpretation. These tendencies were to be governed through an education in personal conduct. The apprentice would learn to self-regulate in working towards an ideal that was, in part, exemplified by the work of the craft masters in whom the apprentice placed trust. Personal ‘defects and limitations in habits of judgement and habits of evaluation’  that were ‘rooted in corruptions and inadequacies of desire, taste, habit and judgement’ would become evident through training. Though the individual concerned would develop a thorough appreciation of those personal attributes that were to be managed, the process was not individualising, and it would be a mistake to read it as such. Increased self-knowledge did not separate the individual from his or her environment as an increasingly distinct self-referential unit. The scholar was to become enmeshed, adopting the particular rationality or Weltanschauung of the craft. The apprentice would learn what it is about himself ‘that has to be transformed, that is, what vices need to be eradicated, what intellectual and moral virtues need to be cultivated’ if he was to become a master practitioner and so reside among like-minded peers. The effects of medieval examination were deeply formative in this sense. This medieval ceremony was the culmination of a whole series of everyday personal reflections, inspections and petty ordeals. It was the medieval concentrate of a moral device that operated throughout the student experience.

*   *   *

The constraints of scholastic debate were not static; there was room for gradual transformation. Traditions adjusted over time, where the triumph of each successive stage came about under certain conditions. The superiority of a new interpretation was demonstrated if a later stage was ‘able to transcend the limitations and failures of an earlier stage’, according to ‘the standards of rationality of that earlier stage itself’. An earlier tradition could only be overthrown according to arguments that made sense to it, according to attacks that were advanced in its terms and according to its rituals of judgement. What this meant was that scholarship seeking the transformation of tradition demanded supreme efforts of self-cultivation in order to negotiate these complex transitions within a tradition. It would appear, then, that medieval change demanded an even deeper understanding of tradition than  what was required when merely submitting to its existing mores. The rebel scholar would need to be the most ardent and skilful practitioner of his tradition. The rebel was marked by his alignment and acculturation, rather than his disaffiliation and militant disregard. Only the vanity of Enlightenment thinkers allowed them to believe that radical thought must be ‘entirely deracinated’ from formative authority in order to deserve that epithet.

*   *   *

Histories are rhetorical deployments. For my purposes, medieval examination serves as a backcloth against which I hold up its successor. This history is not a progressive one. Indeed, my juxtapositions are designed to create a disturbance in the present.

*   *   *

As MacIntyre would have it, the scholastic order of discourse was largely replaced by a post-Cartesian, encyclopaedic worldview. Having awoken from our ‘medieval slumber’, we moderns no longer appeal to external authorities. Guided by reason, we are said to have developed independence from the tutelage of tradition.

*   *   *

That great mental sclerosis known as ‘tradition’ has been debunked, we say. A new freedom allows us to question without restraint and then verify our answers without prejudice. We love these answers dearly. We set them in typescript and file them away.

*   *   *

The cold and objective tools of modern examination would seem to epitomise the modern perspective. Examination, we believe, is no longer a device for cultivating a virtuous elite. It has become an impersonal, calculative tool. Examination, today, has little to do with the embodiment of moral virtues, in the medieval sense. It would seem that modern examination has displaced its pre-modern variant so completely that we can identify a total rupture in its history.

*   *   *

The logic of modern examination can be observed in a machine design once penned by the great utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham (who was born in 1748 and dissected at his behest for the purposes of science in 1832). As with the disputation, Bentham’s modern examination was to be an oral and public ordeal. In all other respects, however, it was entirely at odds with its medieval precursor. Bentham’s examination was not designed to secure entry to an order of masters; rather, as part of a constitutional code intended ‘for the use of all nations and all governments professing liberal opinions’, it would regulate admission to government posts. Here is an extract from his Constitutional Code:

SECTION 16: LOCABLE WHO, Enactive, ART.1. This section has for its object the providing, as soon as may be, and in so far as is necessary, – but no further, at the public expense, in relation to the business of all the several Subdepartments comprised in the Administration Department, a system of arrangements, whereby in the several official situations, appropriate aptitude in all its branches shall be maximised, and at the same time expense minimized; say, a SYSTEM OF OFFICIAL LOCATION, or, for shortness, THE LOCATION SYSTEM.

The abridged version is as follows. For each branch of art and science, a book would be provided in which ‘the whole matter of it, or such portion as shall have been deemed necessary and sufficient, has been cast in the form of questions, with correspondent answers’. The most advanced examinee would have the entire contents ‘stowed in his memory’ (for it would again be a
male) and might be asked to respond to any question contained therein.
 It would be ‘impracticable’ to examine the entire contents, and so only a selection of questions would be asked, these being selected by lot. This would ensure a ‘maximization of the inducement afforded to exertion on the part of learners’, and would also prevent the examiner from having any ‘power of favouring or disfavouring’ individuals.

All questions in the book would be numbered and accompanied by a corresponding set of square tickets. These would be arranged in numerical order, in the manner of squares on a chessboard, and enclosed in a square frame. This would ‘suffice to render it manifest, to the requisite number of eyes, at one view, that for every question there is a ticket: and that for no questions there are tickets more than one’.

The tickets would be placed in a cylindrical box and thoroughly shaken by a number of people in turn. For a cover, it would have a cloth, ‘in which is a slit, long enough to admit a hand: – fittest hand, that of a child, not old enough to be exposed to the suspicion of having received instructions enabling it to act with discrimination’. This would be a job for what Bentham describes as the non-discerning child. Finally, those who passed this test of aptitude would bid for the position advertised. In this way the overall machinery would maximise human resources at the minimum expense. He who passed, and was prepared to sell his services at the lowest price, would get the job.

*   *   *

It would appear from the overwrought novelty of these designs that the logic of examination they were attempting to describe was highly original. Whilst medieval examination cultivated the self – involving comparisons between the self being worked upon and surrounding tradition as exemplified by the craft masters – for Bentham, comparisons would take a different form; they would operate between individual learners. This would allow the efficient distribution and employment of individuals, maximising aptitude and minimising expense. Whilst the medieval disputation involved a competition of ideas, the aim of which was reconciliation and synthesis, the modern examination made a direct attempt to engender tensions between individuals, to stimulate their desires, instead of resolving tensions between their desires and the dictates of tradition. Modern examination appears to adopt a highly reductive logic, feeding from base inclinations to beat one’s neighbour. With modernity, so the story goes, a sense of virtue is lost.

*   *   *

A corrupted form of disputation survived well into the seventeenth century, further degenerating during the eighteenth century into prepared arguments, memorised beforehand. The graduate disputation at Cambridge finally disappeared in 1838, with students submitted to uniform written questions instead. The decline was gradual. But, if we were after significant milestones, 1763 would be one to pick. In this year the disputation became a mere preliminary method for matching examinees according to ability, following which differentiated groups of candidates would have questions dictated to them that they would answer together and in writing. Group dictation was eventually replaced in 1827 with printed questions, and, from 1792, questions were individually marked, generating increasingly fine divisions between examinees.

This has been identified as ‘a most momentous step, perhaps the major single step towards a mathematised model of reality’. Examinees were tested in batches, side by side with their competitors, alongside whom they would eventually be listed in order of attainment. A ranking procedure of ‘unparalleled intensity and precision’ had been developed, and with it came the possibility of a new scientific reckoning that would take the individual as its prime target. At this point, only an elite minority were subjected to these dividing practices. It would take a century or more to extend examination to the general populace.

*   *   *

For England, the 1850s are sometimes viewed as the point of inflection after which modern examination really took off. In 1853, the India Act established a precedent. Examination was to be used in the public service, confined at first to the machinery of imperial rule. As the Whig politician Thomas Macaulay argued in parliament, with ‘800 men charged with the happiness of 120,000,000 people’ there could be no room for incapacity; the aptitude of every imperial employee must be assured. In this respect, the trialling of examinations mirrored other imperial experiments, in which the effects of newly invented techniques and devices, including genocidal ones, were first tested overseas. With respect to government examinations, appointment through patronage or personal recommendation was now illegal: all ‘Powers, Rights or Privileges’ to ‘nominate persons to be admitted…shall cease’.

Within two years, the first examinations for posts in India were taking place. Meanwhile, William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, commissioned an enquiry that would recommend examinations for the Home Civil Service. The prototype examinations at this point were of university origin. Indeed, the Indian Civil Service Commissioners hoped to call upon the expertise of recent ‘moderators in the University of Cambridge’ who knew ‘by experience how to conduct the examination of large numbers of persons simultaneously’. In the same decade, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge began setting entrance examinations, marking one of the first incursions of qualifying examination into schooling.

Empire Day Sheffield Ansgar Allen Benign Violence

The rapid spread of modern examination generated a fear amongst some that selection by intellectual ability could not guarantee moral virtue (where such virtue was, of course, of a distinct breed in the context of imperialism). If modern examinations were to be the new gatekeepers, they might allow intellectually proficient, though morally deficient, inappropriate types into positions of influence. In correspondence with her Chancellor, the future Empress of India, Queen Victoria, gave vent to her fears:

The Queen, although not without considerable misgivings, sanctions the proposed plan, trusting that Mr Gladstone will do what he can, in the arrangements of the details of it, to guard against the dangers…A check, for instance, would be necessary upon the admission of candidates […] securing that they should be otherwise eligible, besides the display of knowledge which they may exhibit under examination.

Queen Victoria to Mr Gladstone:
Buckingham Palace 17th February 1854

The Chancellor of the Exchequer presents his humble duty to your Majesty, and has the honour to acknowledge your Majesty’s gracious letter. He takes blame himself for having caused your Majesty trouble by omitting to include in his short memorandum an explanation of the phrase ‘qualified persons’.

Experience at the universities and public schools of this country has shown that in a large majority of cases the test of open examination is also an effectual test of character; as, except in very remarkable cases, the previous industry and self-denial, which proficiency evinces, are rarely separated from the general habits of virtue.

But he humbly assures your Majesty that the utmost pains will be taken to provide not only for the majority but for all cases, by the strictest enquiries of which the case will admit; and he has the most confident belief that the securities of character under the system, although they cannot be unerring, will be stronger and more trustworthy than any of which the present method of appointment is susceptible.

Mr Gladstone to Queen Victoria:
Downing Street 17th February 1854

This plea for modern examination is repeated elsewhere. Assurance is given that the moral character of persons selected by examination could indeed be guaranteed. Additional virtues said to be nurtured by examination include; ‘a taste for pleasures not sensual’ and a ‘desire for honourable distinction’. Testimonies confirmed that for the newly examined universities ‘in more than nineteen cases out of twenty, men of attainments are also men of character’. The perseverance and self-discipline required for success in examination were ‘a great security that a young man has not led a dissolute life’. An intellectual test, so the argument went, was ‘the best moral test that can be devised’. Admittedly, these were mere defensive retorts. Nevertheless, they were also truer than their authors imagined.

*   *   *

Bentham’s non-discerning child was just a convenient device, serving as a minor actor within the architectures of a larger machinery. It is with some irony, then, that, despite the small role it occupied, this child figure would eventually become the agent of a new moral order. With one hand extended into that cylindrical box – into an interior governed by number, lot and probabilities – childhood soon found itself subject to a new set of rules and regulated by a new order of discourse.

The instruments of moral formation were refashioned and massified for a new age. As a result, the soul of the child became the object of modern examination, instruction and enquiry. Subjected to a far more intense regime of petty ordeals than hitherto, this modern soul became so well regulated, and achieved such an elevated position, that it eventually developed into a ‘prison of the body’. Here Foucault draws from Nietzsche, who observed how the soul once ‘looked contemptuously upon the body’, where all bodily diversions were suspected for their potential to corrupt the soul. With modernity this all changed; the problem today is its opposite. The soul has been so minutely prescribed, indeed, that the body should now regard the soul with great suspicion. Of course, we no longer speak of this soul as a ‘soul’, as we once did. It goes by other names. The modern soul is otherwise known as ‘your true self’ or ‘your inner being’.

The popular phrase, be true to yourself, serves as a violent constraint. Those who attempt to obey this command search in vain for their inner self (which must, of course, remain elusive). They satisfy themselves with imported ideas that provide a sense of depth. Their inner self arrives as a constructed and constraining illusion.

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