Sunday, 22 June 2014

manifest-destiny or the pineapple speaks

At the risk of being accused of crying sour-grapes—and despite being very glad that I tried to refresh my knowledge of US history and civics, reviewing world capitals, major treaties, colonialism, recent wars and trying to memorize the amendments to the US constitution and presidential line-of-succession—I found myself really at a loss as how to rate my experience essaying the diplomatic corps' written exam. The anticipation and being escorted through the cavernous consulate compound and speaking to the other hopefuls, who were mostly young, recent international relations students with interesting backgrounds, was really exciting and memorable. The test itself, however, struck me as a bit of a disappointment—not implying that I aced it or completely bulloxed it up, since it was one of those standarised exams where it is difficult to differentiate between the best or the right answer and the test's author's intent. A few questions seemed so poorly constructed, I could only guess at the question, and I got several verbatim repeats, plus technical difficulties at the start did not exactly instill confidence when it came to the custody of the proctors. Next, there was a whole battery of biographical questions, some of which required a narrative though many did not, that was mostly just a self-assessment of ones leadership ability.
Those questions that did call for some contextual justification were limited to two-hundred characters—barely more than a tweet, and generally fell far short, in my opinion, of soliciting any sort of complete or insightful answer. Though this exam was only the first step of many in the selection-process, it did seem like an unnecessary and expensive obstacle, not really any sort of value-added or scientific sieve for potential candidates. It all seemed a little naรฏve, like realising that the motives that run economies into the ground are really, really basic and nothing more than greed and corruption and one expects such a grand failure to have a better rationale. Noticing that the practise drills were more rigorous and old-school (peppered with questions that some might consider trivia, whereas the only question that could not be answered without basic literacy or elimination had to do with the Thirteenth Amendment), I come to find out that this was one of the first iterations of the exam to be given by an educational corporation recently awarded the government contract to administer and grade this entry test for the US Department of State. This concern is infamous for its mismanagement of standardised testing in public schools, for requiring teachers to teach to the test and the expense of genuine education and for introducing such confounding concepts as fuzzy maths, known as Common Core. I am no educator or social-engineer, but I do strongly suspect that it is more indemnifying for pupils to struggle with straightforward logical operators, for instance, before inventing their own short-cuts to cope with basic arithmetic. Though students, teachers and parents in America alike are pretty helpless against such tyrants, the question that really tested everyone's patience was a strange fable (the company later admitted to plagiarising from a real American story-teller, Daniel Pinkwater) involving a sessile pineapple that challenged a rabbit to a race. Suspecting that the pineapple had some trick (or sophistry) to ensure its win, the other animals of the forest bet against the rabbit. When the rabbit actually won in the end, however, the animals ceremoniously devoured the pineapple. The test then asks grade school students to divine the thoughts of the characters of this poorly re-told story and imagine, under the category of reading-comprehension, what would have happened the pineapple not challenged the rabbit. Maybe that is an apt parable for the commercialization of teaching and learning. Education and experience are not in themselves limited and have to wonder, cringing loping up to fear, what it means to put bounds (or to take them away wholesale) on what is supposed to be a meaningful assessment.