In that I haven’t been; fit for purpose, that is. First I had surgery (results, inconclusive, difference to health, indeterminable owing to vast quantities of drugs I am plying myself with), then I caught flu and spent two weeks staring bewildered at the thermometer which seemed to have got itself stuck in the hyperactive range, and then I developed eczema all over my hands, and meanwhile I went back to work and everyone else promptly went on holiday, leaving six of us to carry on preparing for the ceremonial re-opening of the New! Improved! Now with added Omega 3! version of the library in a fog of dust, paint-fumes and collapsing shelves, which left me with an unnatural quantity of bruises and a general desire to slap the next person who told me they couldn’t help out as the dust upset their breathing.
But what was that thing I quite enjoyed doing, back in the dim and distant past when my belly-button was quite a different shape? Oh, yes, blogging.
So, chez Reed, we are adjusting ourselves on the tenterhooks for the sake of Youngest Sister’s A-levels, apparently in postal transit somewhere about the South East of England. While Youngest Sister is spending her days in completely ignoring the subject, oh wise young mortal that she is, her mother and I are gleefully working ourselves up into a foam of anticipatory worry.
Which makes this as good a time as any to discuss A-levels. As for the annual Journalist’s Jamboree of blame, opprobrium, aspersions, whining and self-congratulation that engulfs the comment pages, I can remember it repeating itself word-for-word when I did my A-levels, *ahem*tumpty years ago. I put it down to jealousy. These students, look at them, they get to be 18, have iPods, have sex, they can afford to drink like the proverbial Lord one is as drunk as, and still, still they do better year on year. Bastards.
No, the problem with A-levels, truly, is most certainly not that they are getting easier. Rather, I think it likely that teachers are getting cannier and students are being more carefully groomed to be able to do said A-levels. The year is spent learning what sort of information to retain, and how best to regurgitate it – exam-passing is a skill, and the kids are picking that up superlatively. Talented little oiks.
I am far more distressed by the stories about students with ninety-seven As and an A* turning up at the portals of OxbriLondrews to do Literary Literature and Philosophical Musings Thereon and finding themselves utterly floored by the Gerund. Or Science Genii of the future having to spend their first year being painstakingly taught to spell ‘Socioeconomic constraints on biological determinism’. (Incidentally, is this truly true? Do universities now offer remedial classes in Writing Like a Person of Normal Intelligence and Maths Without Fingers? [In which case, can we enroll Reed in the maths one? - Ed]). While it seems to me perfectly obvious that the Teenager of Today is perfectly capable of learning a great deal of stuff and, vitally, being able to regurgitate under conditions of controlled torment, it is not nearly so obvious that they are being taught anything they really need to know. I know of English students who simply don’t know who Samuel Richardson is [Lucky, lucky swine], Biology students whose grasp of Darwinian Evolution is somewhat more shot than my own, and in any case have never heard of Alfred Russell Wallace, Politics students who leap back with shock on being told that Fascism and Communism are not after all one and the same thing, despite historical results, and therefore calling me a communist because I won’t let them take a reference book home makes me laugh hysterically for quite some minutes, because, dear reader, I was.
Back in the year *vigorous coughing*, when I attended my very first lecture, admittedly in a narcotic haze of aspirin and liver toxins, because after all I do believe in doing things properly and that includes spending Fresher’s Week plastered, I did have a vague notion of how to spell every author on the curriculum, and a vaguer notion of what exactly their books were about, as such, except in the case of James Joyce, but then, that was the point, and indeed anyone claiming to understand Ulysses in the first year was made to clean the Arts Block toilets. And this was because my English A-level was mostly dedicated to two Shakespeare plays, two Victorian novels and an untidy heap of poetry, the teaching of which entailed things like ‘context’ and ‘background’ and ‘what everyone else was up to at the time’; a somewhat old-fashioned proceeding, admittedly, but one that was fit for purpose, in that while I did indeed spend most of my first year at University feeling stupid and overwhelmed, I knew what I was feeling stupid and overwhelmed about and how to improve the shining hour [i.e. live in the library, and now your life is irredeemably blighted]. The Student of Today does not even know what they do not know. For the A-level they took was not intended to give them a shallow and somewhat patchy grounding in the subject while hammering the set texts in with the Hammer of Desperation and the chisel of Midnight Espresso. Their A-levels were about passing A-levels. For that is what everyone, students, parents, teachers, governors, ministers, all wanted. For students to pass their exams. And now they do.
And now they must work out how to understand what they’ve learnt, all by themselves.
[Apologies for any fall in standards in this blog - the Fragile Flower is still draped over the ottoman, so to speak, and can't take much kicking. Which is boring of her]