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The life-sucking vampire: exams and the logic of capitalism

CW: suicide, mental illness

There is good reason to believe that Mared Foulkes was going to enjoy her life as a pharmacist. At 21, she was a devoted pharmacy student at the University of Cardiff who was pursuing her career aspirations doggedly by also working part-time as a chemist. It all came to a halt on 8th July 2020. On that day, an automated email popped into her inbox folder, bearing no tidings other than that she had failed a practical exam with a score of 39%. Failing at an exam that she had re-sat in April 2020 did not simply compound her devastation, but shattered her outlook on the future ahead of her; the automated email read like a death warrant, indicating that she had failed the second year of her degree and would be unable to proceed to the third year. And a death warrant of sorts it was, as in the same evening that she received it, she voluntarily fell off Brittania Bridge, near the Welsh island of Anglesey, from where she hailed. It turned out that the fateful email did not include the re-sit mark, which was a perfectly decent 62%.

The incident generated considerable shock across several news outlets, raising what by now appear to be perennial questions regarding students’ mental health and universities’ responsibility toward that, the failings of institutional administration, and, of course, the tremendous pressure overwhelming students as soon as exams rear their ugly heads on the horizon. Speaking of Mared’s suicide to Cosmopolitan, Marwah El-Murad, Programme Manager for Children and Young People at the Mental Health Foundation, assessed the situation as follows: “The pressures put on students to achieve academically can lead to experiences of perfectionism. Worrying about either your own expectations of yourself or expectations others have of you can lead to feelings of panic and anxiety.”

The issue of administrative incompetence vis-à-vis students’ mental wellbeing is grave, but equally (if not more) terrifying is one exam’s enormous power over the life of a young, hard-working, ambitious woman. This one exam overshadowed every other source of joy in Mared’s life that many of us would have seen as sufficient to make her go on: her family, friends, hobbies… And yet, infuriatingly absurd as the thought of it is, it is far from implausible that a single number should have decided on whether Mared clung to life or not, determining as it potentially did whether she’d retain her job at the pharmacy and embark, in the long run, on a career that’d enable her to make ends meet and feel fulfilled. “Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is,” as Freud once said (to put myself on the line by using a cliché, not that clichés aren’t often just enough). Love depends on self-respect; self-respect stems from self-actualisation; self-actualisation is perhaps first and foremost tied to work and achievement. The chain makes up life’s linchpins and, should one link snap, the remnant may as well be of no use, beyond repair. This is no abstract syllogism but reflective of an alarming social reality: 29% of the 201 people aged between 10 and 19 who killed themselves in 2014 in the UK were facing exams or exam results, according to a study by the University of Manchester, while the University of the West of England Bristol released a report demonstrating that half of the suicides committed by young people studying there between 2010 and 2018 occurred between January and April, an exam preparation period.

Exams are no innocent societal instrument – merely a handy tool through which to quantify knowledge and, ultimately, filter out individuals of questionable competency from the top echelons of the labour market. They are that; but, precisely because they are that, they have also come to be a matter of life and death.

Dramatic as this may sound, it addresses a profoundly troubling logic intrinsic to exams, which, non-coincidentally, is also the logic of neoliberal capitalism. Capitalism functions as a multi-powered mechanism converting time, energy, and life quality into quantities: 95,000 Volkswagens produced in six months, 16 customised business psychology training courses offered in two days, 300 emails sent out in 15 hours, 20,000 Philip Morris cigarettes churned out in the space of a minute. Time and volume have come to evolve into neoliberal spectres, the mainstay of a bastardised value system, whereby the greater the volume produced within the shortest time possible, the more valuable a person’s service to society is and the worthier of remuneration they are. One data analyst in telecommunications may be no less skilled, intelligent, and motivated than her colleague in an adjacent cubicle, but, unlike her, she winds up failing to progress to a higher-paying role in the company because her manager’s evaluation report is not as positive as the one on her colleague’s performance. Her father’s recent illness has taken a heavy emotional toll on her that has impinged on her productivity levels by causing her concentration capacity to fluctuate: for seven consecutive minutes she can focus on cleaning an entire data set, while for the next five minutes thoughts of her family overwhelm her, stress and sadness gnaw at her stomach, and she gives up on her goal to interpret one more set compared to the day before. Through an unfortunate convergence of circumstances, her manager happens to drop by her cubicle for an update on that particular day rather than the previous one, and it is by another stroke of sheer bad luck that he decides to whip up that evaluation report that’s been somewhat overdue that same evening. Perhaps he had a bad day too? It doesn’t matter, really.

Productivity is not a metaphysical formula according to which a set of skills, once acquired, are ever retrievable at will in order to yield a predictable value. Productivity  is rooted in time, space, and sensation, and therefore prey to mood and mental wellbeing. A capitalist economy’s venerated equation of ‘minimal input (maximal effort squeezed into a minimal time span) = maximal output = highest-valued performance’ clashes jarringly with but cannot afford to take stock of factors beyond people’s control that interfere with their productivity capacity. If it did take account of those in practice, the system would end up malfunctioning.

Exams are founded on a similar value-driven logic that rewards maximal results generated in compact timeframes and whereby performativity factors separated from students’ volition such as emotion, health, luck (and even the weather), are subservient to the paramount need to ace the test on a particular day and at a particular time. You’ve been grinding away preparing for your Calculus II end-of-year examination for weeks, sacrificing sleep, rest, sociability, and other healthy sources of happiness because your ability to survive on your own in the future without depending on your parents is at stake with this one exam. A week before the test, you receive a text from your significant other saying they think it’s better you two have a break for a while following not a few rough patches recently. A week’s time is enough to assuage some of the initial pain, but with issues such as this, who can estimate how much time is enough to nurse a broken heart? The day before the exam, you’ve treated yourself to a salted caramel sundae, practiced some yoga exercises you found on YouTube that are reputed to do miracles, and dandled your best friend’s adorably chipper puppy; on the day, forty minutes before the exam, you spend some time browsing through goofy videos featuring critters whilst chomping on a chocolate bar (isn’t chocolate a joy stimulant by common wisdom?). To cut to the chase, all your tentative mood remedies prove unavailing at 11 a.m., when memories flitting before your mind’s eye are muddled up with dread over what’s in store for you next week and envisaged paintings of pitch-blackness (with a single white dot rotating in the middle) that are beyond bizarre – an explosive concoction chipping away at your brain at the most inopportune time. Needless to say, you flunk your calculus exam because you simply cannot crank up your brainpower to the fullest for a sustained period of an hour and a half on that particular day. You are acutely aware of your ‘failure’ and in absolute shame. You no longer know what to do with your life. And yet, despite the worst day of your young life happening to be an exam day, the highly intricate machine that is society has to go on functioning by recruiting talent to quantify it and produce mass services to meet people’s needs. Educational institutions are inevitably, of course, at the labour market’s own service, as the transcripts they yield are often the officially unacknowledged green passes authenticating which individuals are qualified professional candidates and for which career grades. The filtering and quantification strategies commencing with the simplest primary school English test and evolving into a multi-level executive leadership assessment used to identify suitability for C-suite level roles makes up one single process aimed at maximising output whilst wedging maximal effort into minimal time spans (e.g. solving thirty equations in under two hours; sending out nineteen customised emails to clients within an hour and twenty minutes).

The parallelism between the workings of capitalism and exams in education strikes one as less of a startling epiphany with the help of some historical brushing up. While it was ancient China that kicked off the world’s most popular mode of assessment, known at the time as the imperial examination set up by the Sui Dynasty in 605 AD and abolished in 1905, it wasn’t until the advent of industrialisation proper in the western world that exams came eventually to dominate education. In 1806, the midst of the Industrial Revolution, England adopted an examination system modelled on the Chinese imperial exam that was geared towards recruiting candidates for roles in Her Majesty’s Civil Service. This system was later co-opted by the educational system and had been standardised, by the end of the two World Wars, across the world. Exams gained traction as capitalism took over the West, one life-sucking “vampire” (in Karl Marx’s words) breeding another.

Alarming as the logic underpinning exams is, the question of their disposability hinges on how viable alternative methods of assessment are. Rather than through, say, six high-stakes tests at the end of the academic year, students could instead be evaluated via twelve smaller-scale projects or assignments over the course of nine months. Rutgers University’s Information Technology hub has come up with several alternative assessment types in lieu of proctored exams, including open-book, take-home questions, professional presentations, fact sheets, as well as peer- and self-reviewed weighted tests – each one a looming behemoth to be tamed. Having to tackle double as many, yet individually less weighted, assignments throughout an extended time period rather than in a compact timeline feels more manageable and is therefore better for your mental health. Your life does not seem as irrepressibly miserable. Stress being (literally) lethal, happier people should make for more productive students (and professionals).

More humane as non-traditional assessment methods may be in comparison to timed exams, they are not necessarily more conducive to long-term professional success nowadays. There is, perhaps, a semi-ethical question to be teased out of the matter: given that the recruitment procedure and job market are what they are these days, operating via a process of massive filtering out and generating voluminous output in increasingly fractional time spans, would educational institutions (especially universities) be justified in preparing the young adults they educate to face something other than this reality? Don’t exams simulate a job application process that is becoming more and more automated and stress-inducing? Major companies have begun migrating from interpersonal interviewing to automated video interview software such as HireVue, which expedite the hiring process by relying on assessment-scoring algorithms and special AI that analyse candidates’ tone of voice, mannerisms, and facial movements – “a profoundly disturbing development,” according to the co-founder of an AI research centre in New York. Formatted around rigid timing, very much as an exam is, HireVue provides the interviewee with thirty seconds in which to prepare for each question, alongside three minutes to answer each. It also gives candidates access to practice questions prior to the interview proper, in the same way that students often have the opportunity to accustom themselves to examination mode by working on practice or past tests. Alternative assessment methods would not, of course, detract from the kind or level of rigour with which professionals are evaluated in a given role during their career; consistent independent or collaborative projects hewed to deadlines are, after all, bread and butter as far as most jobs are concerned.

This does not, nevertheless, change the fact that contemporary employment is structured around a system that valorises speed and quantity, distinguishes (even discriminates in favour of) individuals that persevere through enormous stress as somehow ethically formidable, and which thrives on opposites (the more the input and the lesser the timeframe, the worthier the performance). Inuring young people in this process from their early formative years in education may be a blessing as much as it is a curse to mental wellbeing. Health, I see you’re about to object, should always trump success, career, and achievement. No doubt; a large portion of happiness, though, depends on employment. A stress-free life that is also devoid of fulfilling, remuneratively viable employment is a contradiction. Getting to enjoy the benefits of a job you’ve been through thick and thin to secure feels as gratifying as the mental and emotional state you get to dwell in after giving yourself fully to a hard and stressful exam. The more gruelling the conditions, the more viscerally fulfilling the eventual reward, and the greater the self-actualisation: the dangerously deceptive cornerstone of capitalism camouflaged as a well-meaning cliché and unmistakably wise life tenet, but also an often truthful observation.

As long as altering specific social functions (e.g. the current hiring process) remains impractical and even deleterious within the context of how societies operate, we might as well make do with certain contradictions, more so than with others. People have died as a result of exams, but so have people owing  to heartbreak, and I’ve yet to come across a magazine relationships columnist encouraging people to cease dating and turn to exclusively solo activities to fill the void of companionship. The logic of exams may infuriate you as degrading and humiliating (as a Guardian columnist suggests indirectly), but it is not quite as inhumane as corporal punishment. Heartbreak may well be harder.

This is a harsh response, however. Rather than justifying the educational assessment method in place on the grounds that it benefits students by programming them to survive in a professional world that depends on similar structures, it is in the name of human life and the value of human wellbeing that reform is an ethical imperative. I do not advocate for discarding exams altogether because, given how professional environments operate, they remain a system that facilitates social adaptation – for better or worse. What I do endorse is lessening the impact of exams on a student’s overall mark for a given class or course by putting greater weight on some of the non-traditional methods I referred to. Thankfully, there are existent such examples to be inspired by, and one needs look nowhere further afield than Oxford. The final mark for Oxford’s MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy emerges cumulatively out of three assessment components: two exams (25% each), a dissertation (25%), and two papers (12.5% each). In this structure, exams sensibly account for 50% of a student’s final mark, giving candidates who may be unsuited to the psychology of exams the opportunity to demonstrate their potential in different ways. Moreover, the university runs the so-called Student Support Plan, which provides certain students with adjustments in relation to how their course is evaluated or the conditions under which exams take place. The plan focuses primarily on modifying the ways in which exams are conducted to suit the needs of particular students (by presenting, for example, certain materials in enlarged formats, offering extra rest or writing time during an exam, etc.), but it does permit implementing an alternative method of assessment to unseen written examinations (e.g., extended essays, take-home papers) in certain cases. It is regrettable that qualifying for the Plan is a matter of extremely mitigating circumstances: the support is geared primarily towards students with disabilities. It responds, therefore, to a non-negotiable health imperative (certain people simply cannot sit an exam) rather than recognising the equally important issue of students’ mental wellbeing.

Still, that even a university like Oxford provides room for alternative assessment methods is a source of hope to those of us who have grown impatient (physically, emotionally, and ideologically) with exams’ frenziedly neoliberal ethic of productivity. One is left wondering about the potential correlation between particular governments and the assessment methods in place in a given national context; or, in the case of increasingly privatised educational institutions, that between the political leanings of an institution’s governing body and the greater or lesser prominence it gives to exams. It may ultimately be the case that clamouring for change in the ways in which students are assessed is inextricable from advocating change in the way in which institutions are governed.

Image credit: l2ho7p / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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