If doing well in exams is racist, then where does that leave Britain?

Children stting an exam
Children stting an exam

There are a lot of things we know to be true about exams. They’re hard. They’re stressful. They make people – whisper it – anxious.

In our cotton-wool-cushioned age, these three things alone should necessitate instant cancellation. And over the past few years, people have tried to do away with various forms of standardised testing for those and myriad other reasons. But the definitive bout of mudslinging came on Sunday, when a scientist at the University of Sussex declared exams racist.

In an illuminating article published in the Trends in Higher Education journal, Dr Zahid Pranjol – deputy head of the School of Life Sciences at the university – argued that timed exams are a “manifestation of colonisation in present-day higher education”, because the practice is rooted in the British empire’s belief in its “cultural and intellectual superiority”.

Bound up in our shockingly outdated belief that superiority is a good thing (inferiority is surely what we should all be striving for) is the fact that students are made to use – insert trigger warning for the faint hearted here – “proper English” in exams.

This, the good doctor says, is a flagrant attempt to force diverse students to conform to a “Eurocentric standard.”

If you’re having trouble with some of these terms, rest assured that you are not alone. Their opaqueness and amorphousness is deliberate, designed to make us feel wrongfooted even if we don’t quite understand why.

Indeed, it’s better that we don’t probe too deeply. Slap a derivative of the word “colonial” on anything, and it makes us feel guilt and shame.

We’re not clear why birdwatching, exercise, master bedrooms or good grammar are colonialist and racist, but we’re aware that our heritage is steeped in sin, and if some erudite figure somewhere says these things are evil, it must be true.

For the purposes of this piece, however, I feel we should make a valiant attempt to understand what Dr Pranjol is on about.

Although I continued to draw a blank at “Eurocentric standards” the basic point seems to be this: any form of academic standards – gauges, criteria, yardsticks – are bad.

This, because anyone who either doesn’t meet them or has difficulty in doing so is ‘excluded’, and obviously we can’t have that. Carry this to its natural conclusion and doing well is bad. Striving to do well is bad. Success and everything that leads to it – aspirations, hard graft, dedication – is colonialist, racist. With such an approach, what could possibly go wrong?

Never mind that Dr Pranjol himself will have had to meet a series of standards over the course of his professional ascent and taken a succession of standardised tests in which presumably, his dedication paid off, others should not be forced to confront such challenges – lest they fail.

In the article, he criticises the unfair advantage given to students who can “recall information quickly under pressure and those who can concentrate immediately, maintain focus, perform the task quickly, and perform well under stress.”

And anyone who has ever taken an exam will confirm that there is an unfairness there: some of us perform better under pressure than others. But attempts to find a fairer system have failed, and although UK students are now increasingly getting their degrees without sitting any traditional exams, through coursework alone, we now know that with the rise of cheating and AI software, this is also unfair.

Moreover, the implication that students from diverse backgrounds are less able to focus or perform within a specific time frame “is itself racist,” said Dr Stuart Waiton from Abertay University yesterday – one of several academics left either baffled or angered by Dr Pranjol’s stance.

It “assumes a skin colour or different culture means you can’t do exams,” explained the senior lecturer in sociology and criminology, adding: “Unless we get back to actual, real exams, British educational standards will plummet.”

Beyond that, there is of course the small matter of standards to be met and upheld throughout life. Should we banish lessons, homework, job interviews, jobs (which do tend to insist on a certain level of performance)? Should we banish the driving tests that exclude poor drivers from our roads?

“Performing well under stress” isn’t a colonialist concept. It wasn’t about “intellectual superiority” for our cavemen ancestors, but survival.

When confronted by a sabre-toothed tiger, it was that moment of intense focus that got them out of there alive. Now, it goes without saying that those cavemen were fledgling, unconscious colonialists.

That they were racist, exclusionary and rooted in their own “cultural superiority”. You do have to wonder what they would make of us – and our fear of being confronted by a piece of paper and a pen – now.