Sun, Jul 01, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Orwellian nonsense of another sort

By Herbert Hanreich

The final exams are approaching at universities and this is not good news for me. It is not that I dread the time-consuming designing and correcting of an infinite number of exam sheets; that is manageable.

What is worrying is that if I applied standards for the evaluation of exams that deserve the predicate “academic” I would have to fail an estimated 90 percent of my students, and this of course is not possible under the given circumstances; it would not even be fair.

Note that I am referring to situations one can easily find at many of the non-elite universities in Taiwan.

It is not that the students do not prepare — most of them do — but there is no sense of academic standard involved in their preparations. Most exams in Taiwan are designed to prove that examinees have properly memorized textbook content, for which understanding is not necessary.

An integration of new ideas and facts in the student’s mind, and turning information into knowledge, is not on the agenda.

This fact is hardly breaking news. Many commentators have been observing this situation for decades — to no avail. There is no easy solution to improve this educational malaise, but there can at least be a beginning.

One might start with the remodeling of exams, especially entrance exams, since their design shapes the method and content of preparations. The problem is that most of these exams require the reproduction of content that students should be learning only after having entered the desired institution.

For if exams could no longer be prepared by cramming content into mindless brains, requiring instead “only” an ability to analyze a given problem, schools, in turn, would have to redesign teaching methods as well. Learning and testing would eventually become more meaningful and more significant.

However, there is an even more serious educational concern at stake than the acquisition of academic skills: the ongoing disabling of basic operations of the mind.

Taiwanese students, in general, find it difficult to think logically and coherently. Often, they are not really aware of contradicting or circular statements; they do not correct opinions after refutation of their premises; they cannot grasp the main ideas of a simple text; and they are not able to put what they have read into their own words.

Irony, parody, innuendos, analogy and metaphors are unusable in class if trying to avoid insurmountable misunderstandings.

It is not really a language problem. It is a culturally induced mental dullness and intellectual obtuseness — condoned by most local educators and politicians — which has reached tragic dimensions. The main culprits are prevailing local paradigms of what is called learning, studying and teaching.

I have just reread George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. One passage in that novel explains how a totalitarian or “Orwellian” society controls the thoughts of its educated people, stultifying them by a method labeled “Crimestop.”

It “includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc [the ruling Party’s doctrine], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

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