Spring has sprung, many schools have ended or are ending soon, and seniors are graduating into the real world and looking for jobs. In a few months, the nightly news will air a report on the difficulty some are having finding jobs and the mental strain that causes. Magazine and journalism shows will put together feature stories on the quarter-life crisis, the post-college malaise that many in their twenties feel as they search for meaningful existence in the “real world.” Analysts will blame the struggling economy, the ubiquitous internet, and coddling parents. Politicians will blame each other; twenty-somethings will blame themselves. But very few will focus on the real problem.
The real problem is that there are no more tests.
The idea sounds counterintuitive. Tests are stressful and induce anxiety. They demand our time and attention and distract us from the things we’d like to do instead. When I first heard the idea that having no more tests had some tragic element, I laughed. So did the rest of the seniors in my American film class when our professor William Krier walked in one day toward the end of the semester and announced, “I feel so sorry for all of you. Pretty soon, there will be no more tests.”
Now, I see how astute his statement was. So much of schooling is about the test at the end. That creates a lot of pressure, but it also manufactures an cathartic emotional experience that lends meaning to the education process. If the test goes well, you feel great about yourself and your intelligence. If the test goes poorly, at least it’s over. You can find relief in the fact that there won’t be another one for several weeks. Either way the test provides self knowledge, an opportunity to confirm hopes or fears about our potential, and a capstone to the previous educational experience that gives it some artificial value.
When schooling is finished, there are no more tests. No more opportunities to sit down for a couple of hours, write down all that you’ve learned in the last few weeks, and receive some reward.
Instead, most graduates have to go off and search for meaning on their own. That can be traumatic, especially if they were hoping to just flash their diploma and have a job handed to them. So many fall for this fallacy. Too frequently, students believe they are in school to get a great job, and many are vastly disappointed by the entry level position that they end up in.
I graduated from college without any job offers on the table. Still, having always found success in academic life, I figured all I needed to do was get my name out there. I thought I was the perfect candidate for the type reverse job search that Monster.com was offering. I posted a resume and waited for employers to contact me. None did. I started writing cover letters targeting specific jobs and sent those out. Again, few employers responded.
In school, tests always saved me. I underachieved at several points in college and high school, procrastinating, not seeking help when I needed it, allowing myself to get overwhelmed. However, I always finished well. I equated exam time to my academic World Series, Super Bowl, or Stanley Cup, and I praised myself for always pulling through in the clutch.
When high school ended, I didn’t pay the price for not putting in a consistent effort. I still got into a great college because my standardized tests scores were off the charts. However, when I got out of college, I ran out of tests to take.
In the real world, no company was offering a standardized test that I could take to get a job so naturally, I contemplated more schooling. I even applied to law schools figuring that a good score on the LSAT would let me get into my top choice despite some of my other weaknesses. It didn’t.
Having no more tests to take hit me pretty hard. I drifted into depression, mostly because the lack of job offers felt like a mark against me as a person and made me doubt the value of having gotten a degree. Growing up, I felt my intellect would lead me to a successful, meaningful position. I thought I’d do something that would bring recognition, if not fame. I targeted jobs with magazines because I felt I’d be able to take my English degree and make my name as a writer. I tried to “follow my passion” and applied for jobs in sports, and never got anywhere with it. When none of these types of job offers was forthcoming, partly because I relied too much on my tests scores and never actually pursued the plethora of opportunities to gain other experience while in college, I felt like the world had been telling me lies throughout my education.
When my health insurance was set to expire, I signed up with a temp company and took a string of short assignments. These brought back some feelings of being a productive person, but the jobs themselves were a far cry from where I thought my tests scores would have brought me.
In one of these temp jobs, I found myself processing customer service emails. My day consisting of manually unsubscribing people from email lists after the automatic unsubscribe program spit them back into the queue.
I tried to assign meaning to the work by keeping a log of how many emails I’d answered, which led me to aspire to higher and higher numbers each day. By the end of my assignment, I was processing 2000 emails a day, mostly by clever sorting and searching techniques, identifying which emails could be deleted and which needed actual attention. The words of the customers lost any significance. Some wrote long missives about the invasion of privacy they felt having to receive newsletters in their inbox each day. I spent less than a second identifying what each block of text was about and then unsubscribed them, leaving the rest of their earnestly crafted message unread and unconsidered.
The irony was not lost on me. Only a few months after laughing at the idea of not having anymore tests to take, I invented a new test, and a fairly meaningless one at that.
In school, I always thought that I was working to become someone special, a writer or a change agent in the world. When I left, I was none of these. Instead, my education created a test addict. I had no tests to provide meaning to my experiences, and I’d lost the ability to find that meaning on my own. Consequently, I lived what felt like a pointless life.
This is not a call to arms to change education to abolish tests. Tests are good things. We need challenges and obstacles to overcome and goals to strive for. But it’s important to understand what happens in an education system where everything focuses on the end result. Such a focus puts an inordinate amount of weight on these things to provide meaning for the whole experience. That approach hinders students’ ability to create their own meaningful experiences and kills the enthusiasm and effort they might have put into the rest of the learning process.
Learning can be a pleasure and a pathway to positive emotional experiences. I tell students that and when they don’t believe me, I ask them to recall how proud they felt of themselves when they first learned to tie their shoes. Somewhere along the line we lose that, but perhaps the solution to the “no more tests” problem is to return to that type of learning.
If I were talking to a courtyard of graduating students (though perhaps the best audience for this should be matriculating first-year students), I’d encourage them to prepare for the time when there will be no more tests. I’d urge them to rediscover the pleasure of learning and the sense of accomplishment that goes with it. And I’d tell them that if they want to be truly happy, they’ll work on setting up new kinds of tests, challenges, and obstacles that reward the process and not the end result.