Sunday, February 28, 2010

An 'A' isn't what it used to be: a rant about student performance in examinations

The following is based on a sermon delivered at B'nai Israel on Friday, February 26th, 2010.

I've been pondering recently some of the many debates about the quality of education today.  Such debates are widespread, whether it be regarding Jewish education in day schools or supplementary schools, or public schools in general.  The consensus seems to be clear - students just seem to be more stupid than they were in the 'good old days'.  The general lack of achievement seems to be an international phenomena... I have been aware for years of the annual ritual in the UK whenever the national examination results come out and we see large numbers of high grades that appear to be quite unexpected for such a stupid student body that commentators everywhere come to the only possible conclusion: An 'A' just doesn't mean what an 'A' used to mean.  We've been lowering the bar to the extent that just about anyone with the ability to spell their name at the top of the page is within reach of what was once the highly sought after but difficult to pull off 'A' grade.

Clearly, issues of educational quality are of great concern among the Jewish community.  We have always believed strongly in the importance of a good education, and there is much to be found in rabbinic literature that offers guidance on how to ensure the best possible education is available for our children.  As I pondered what words of advice I might have on these issues of concern, I decided that I should first do some real research to see whether or not these concerns are actually backed up by data and hard facts, or simply commentators being nostalgic for an era of slide rules and long division, of a time when all could differentiate between an active and a passive clause.  But there, right on the pages of the British Council, reporting on some of the findings from British History exams*, the evidence was laid bare.  I share with you a selection of their findings, and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Answers to exam questions written by history students

1. Ancient Egypt was inhabited by mummies and they all wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere.

2. The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible, Guinessis, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

3. Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

4. Solomom had three hundred wives and seven hundred porcupines.

5. The Greeks were a highly sculptured people, and without them we wouldn't have history. The Greeks also had myths. A myth is a female moth.

6. Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

7. Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.After his death, his career suffered a dramatic decline.

8. In the Olympic games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the biscuits, and threw the java.

9. Eventually, the Romans conquered the Greeks. History calls people Romans because they never stayed in one place for very long.

13. In midevil times most people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the futile ages was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses and also wrote literature.

15. Queen Elizabeth was the "Virgin Queen." As a queen she was a success. When she exposed herself before her troops they all shouted "hurrah."

16. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented removable type and the Bible. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes and started smoking. And Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100 foot clipper.

17. The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespeare. He was born in the year 1564, supposedly on his birthday. He never made much money and is famous only because of his plays. He wrote tragedies, comedies, and hysterectomies, all in Islamic pentameter. Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet. Romeo's last wish was to be laid by Juliet.

18. Writing at the same time as Shakespeare was Miguel Cervantes. He wrote Donkey Hote. The next great author was John Milton. Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Then his wife died and he wrote Paradise Regained.

21. One of the causes of the Revolutionary War was the English put tacks in their tea. Also, the colonists would send their parcels through the post without stamps. Finally the colonists won the War and no longer had to pay for taxis. Delegates from the original 13 states formed the Contented Congress. Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin discovered electricity by rubbing two cats backwards and declared, "A horse divided against itself cannot stand." Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead.

23. Abraham Lincoln became America's greatest Precedent. His mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the Emasculation Proclamation.

25. Gravity was invented by Issac Walton. It is chiefly noticeable in the autumn when the apples are falling off the trees.

26. Johann Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number of children. In between he practiced on an old spinster which he kept up in his attic. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Bach was the most famous composer in the world and so was Handel. Handel was half German half Italian and half English. He was very large.

29. The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West.

*For the original context, see here.
P.S.  Happy Purim!

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