Caveat: the metaphysic of the test

Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the test.

pictureThis blog entry emerges from a typo I found in a book I’m rather casually perusing.  The book is Formalism and Marxism, by Tony Bennett.  The book is one of those lit-crit books that I picked up out of my mother’s collection during my last visit to Queensland in January.  It examines the relationship between the Russian Formalists and more recent works – I was attracted to it because it discusses Althusser and Eagleton, specifically.

Anyway, I’m not reading it very deeply.  Some of it is familiar if somewhat stale territory, and certainly the fact that it’s now almost 40 years old dates it somewhat in the realm of lit-crit.  But actually I don’t want to talk about marxist literary criticism or Terry Eagleton (who would have been one of my marxist muses had I ever written that PhD thesis on Cervantes, perhaps, along with Frederic Jameson and Gilles Deleuze).

You see, on page 157 of the paperback edition of Bennett’s book, there is a typo.  Instead of saying “metaphysic of the text” it says “metaphysic of the test.”  And the thing is, I’ve been thinking about tests a lot lately.  Tests are a big part of work in education, and especially, Korean education, and more especially, Korean hagwon-based eduction.  The test is the thingthe only thing.

I have been developing a new feeling about testing.  Part of this is influenced by certain fragments of data emerging from the bigger world (see my  blog entry from a few weeks ago, for example).   Part of it is trying to make peace with the huge discrepancy between my dreams and ideals about education (which are vaguely Waldorfian and deeply influenced by my own unusual educational experiences in alternative “hippy schools” during my elementary years, during which tests were essentially verboten) and the reality-on-the-ground here in Korea (which is that testing is god and all bow down before it).

Running across this typo, in Bennett’s text, caused me to perform a bizarre mental experiment.  Instead of replacing the word “test” with “text” in the evident error, I decided to replace the word “text” with “test” in the subsequent paragraph.  Here is my sublime paraphrasing of Bennett’s idea, then, reframed as being about tests, rather than texts (I’ve italicized the original typo and bolded my substitutions).   Bennett is writing about the thought of Pierre Macherey, so my substitution game has inflicted on Macherey some thoughts about tests that I’m sure he never had.

More radically, Macherey breaks unequivocally with what we have called ‘the metaphysic of the test‘.  Urging that the concept of the ‘test‘ or the ‘work’ that has for so long been the mainstay of criticism should be abandoned, he advances the argument we have noted above: that there are no such ‘things’ as works or tests which exist independently of the functions which they serve or the uses to which they are put and that these latter should constitute the focal point of analysis.  The test must be studied not as an abstraction but in the light of the determinations which, in the course of its history, successfully rework that test, producing for it different and historically concrete in modifying the conditions of its reception.

The thing is, the quote mostly still works fine, despite this substitution.  This is because texts and tests are obviously related, from a metaphysical standpoint.  They both are functional, performative emissions of a broader cultural and ideological context.   And it leads me to an insight about my changing attitude to testing:  tests are not abstractions, but emerge from concrete cultural conditions and serve broad social purposes above and beyond just pedagogy:  they’re disciplinary systems and indoctrination engines as much as they are evaluative tools.

Here’s what I’m beginning to think:  it’s not so wrong to “teach to the test” as we say.  But let’s teach to the test in an enlightened way, making kids aware of the functions these tests serve, and openly discussing the role they serve in society and their strengths and weaknesses.  I recall, specifically, some concepts about “conscientization” in the context of Liberation Theology, to which I owe a huge debt to a certain professor Hernan Vidal at the University of Minnesota – one of those incredible teachers that leaves a permanent change with a person’s way of thinking about and seeing the world.

The idea of teaching to the test with an admixture of “conscientization” regarding the ideologies of the modes of production that are embedded in these tests, in the context of trying to be an elementary and middle school English as a Foreign Language teacher in Korea – well… let’s just summarize by saying:  “easier said than done.”

But… it’s possible.  With a modicum of humor, hints can be dropped.  Smart kids get it – I’ve done it before.  Now, I’m starting to feel I have a philosophical frame or justification for doing so.  And I’m making peace with the test.


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