My favorite academic novel is Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. I reread it every couple of years. My wife can always tell that I have succumbed to the urge revisit the book because it is the only book that makes me giggle out loud.
Each time I reread it, I notice something new. This year it was my spring break travel book and it was this conversation between the book’s protagonist Jim Dixon (a first year history lecturer) and his friend Beesley (lecturer in English) that stuck out.
‘It’s the same everywhere you look; not only this place, but all the provincial universities are going the same way…go to most places and try to get someone turfed out merely because he’s too stupid to pass his exams—it’d be easier to sack a prof. That’s the trouble with having so many people here on Education Authority grants, you see.’
‘How do you mean? The students have to get their money from somewhere.’
‘Well, you know, Jim. You can see the Authorities’ point in a way. “We pay for John Smith to enter College here and now you tell us, after seven years, that he’ll never get a degree. You’re wasting our money.” If we institute an entrance exam to keep out the ones who can’t read or write, the entry goes down by half, and half of us lose our jobs. And then the other demand: “We want two hundred teachers this year and we mean to have them.” All right, we’ll lower the pass mark to twenty percent and give you the quantity you want, but for God’s sake don’t start complaining in two years’ time that your schools are full of teachers who couldn’t pass the General Certificate themselves, much less teach anyone to pass it. It’s a wonderful position, isn’t it?’
One of the conceits of the various reform movements, which of course includes assessment, is that there was once a time when grades were not inflated, when students were serious, engaged and well-prepared, and they learned lots of stuff in College. Lucky Jim was written right after the war when Amis was a lecturer at provincial red brick much like the unnamed university where Dixon teaches. Clearly the same types of concerns that surround standards, grades, completion rates, and student preparation were just as prevalent in 1953 as they are now. No doubt if someone were to look though Peter Abelard’s personal diary medieval scholastics would be found to have had all the same concerns.