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Examinations and Academic Illiteracy; Philosophy and the World

Now it does seem to me that Norman does trade on this
“rationalist” view in his discussion of Tolstoy. For he does
say “Andrew’s ‘discovery’ is in each case”‘the acquisition of
an enlarged and clearer view of human nature and of man’s
relation to the world” (p.9)

“The ‘way of seeing the world’ (the “religious worid-view”)
does not necessitate or entail such moral values as chastity or
self-denial (it might eq~well lead to an attitude of sheer
pessimism and despair”.

Are things as tenuous as this? Surely if a “religious”
person is convinced that humans cannot be saved, or. that God
is indifferent to his misery, then he must be in despair. But
this pessimism is intelligible surely, in the light of some such
articulatable difference between him and an orthodox’ Christian.

And in any case there would be some explanation of this pessimism.

Like Christianity, pessimism doesn’t hang in mid-air.

But, can Norman say this? Can he go beyond the
impression of Andrew himself?

Would not the young Andrew
think these later sort of ideas ridiculous? How can he be
said to have (really) progressed?

So, it seems to me, the seeing-as analogies do not lend
independent support to the central thesis. All the weight,
then, falls on the specific discussion of moral views and
“basic orientations”. Here several problems arise many of
which will only he noted.

Moreover, chastity, discipline (Hobbes, Lenin) pessimism
about the flesh (Freud) are not necessarily religious notions;
they are intelligible in quite specific terms – the world is’

full of strange bedfellows. And this brings out the unclarity
of the notion of “a world-view”. Does the bourgeoisie have ~
characteristic world-view?

(a) Split-consciousness

Phenomenology and Phenomenalism

As philosopher, the Normanian pluralist, looking down from
the meta-world, sees that there is no validity in the claim of
any moral outlook to be “correct” – there are many “equally
valid” outlooks. As a being-in-the-world, however, as say,
Marxist humanist, he attacks and criticizes religious views as
repressive, even as superstitious. (This is recognised but not
resolved on p. 7) .

Despite the welcome and in the context of academic moral
philosophy unusual concern to treat concrete phenomena seriou’sly
there is I think a certain lack of seriousness about Norman’s
approach, a lack common to all. “phenomenological” writing.

Norman tends to leave things at the phenomenal or
ideological level – take each consciousness (save the critical
consciousness) at its face value, noting that other consciousnesses
exist too. The enquiry is not pushed to the level where we can
speak of ideology, of false consciousness.

(b) Truth
If truth is not a property of any “basic orientation” it
is difficult to see how it can he of any “specific” moral
belief, given that this helief only makes sense in terms of the
“basic orientation”. Is not Norman committed to a “true for us
– false for them” idea all down the line?

Radical writers of a phenomenological persuasion e.g. R.D.

Laing have pointed out the stupid incomprehension of straight
society in regard to madness. Their writings have tended to be
couched in relativistic terms (different “realities” or “worlds”).

It seems to me that these terms obscure the main lesson of
Laing’s work: that whole dimensions of experience are repressed
in “ordinary” bourgeois life – and are real lacks; that mental
illness has to be taken seriously to be understood.

(c) HyP0statisation
It seems to me that Norman tends to hypostatise world-views.

is strange since the chief point and virtue of the article
is to show how we cannot abstract particular moral propositions
for “assessment” without examining their ideological location.

But, rather than speaking in terms of a more or less systematic
structure of bel iefs he speaks of a “world-view” behind all
beliefs “giving rise to them”, “making them intelligible” etc.


Similarly it seems to me that, a real attempt to understand
divergent outlooks often imposes real shortcomings in our own
lives. But this sort of “self-criticism” would not be possible
if it were not also possible to criticize other outlooks. Ice
picks could not cut thin ice if ice picks could not cut thick ice.

This seems to me to connect with the idea that world-views
are heyond rational criticism. The suggestion is that if we
could “understand” another worldAview, (whatever that might
amount to) while we might not “adopt” it, we would see its
validity to be equal to our own.

But if we think in terms of more or less fundamental
“theoretical” beliefs so that, for example, the more fundamental
beliefs “define the terms” of the less fundamental, then although
we needn’t have the simplistic idea of general heliefs transparently entailing concrete judgements we are able to see how
rational assessment say of Schopenhauer’s death – philosophy is
possible – however tortuous and many layered it might be. This
after all is the idea of a cri tique.

Thus, I want to argue, the “religious attitude” can be
examined – the assumptions and experiences behind the “monkish
virtues” rationally assessed. Whether the monk will agree or
not is another matter. Nor is there any reason why the
“realist” has to look for some mythical “neutral” “sense-datum”
as is tendentiously suggested in Camus’ Outsider. Why should
“the facts” be neutral?


I have just finished marking exams. I was struck by the
illiteracy of the answers, and so was my co-examiner.

illiteracy is not confined to bad spelling or grammar, or even
to the lack of structure in sentences or whole essays – it is a
deeper sort of illiteracy: an illiteracy of thought. It seems
that this is no new feature of exam answers; it seems that year
after year examiners are faced with scripts in which it looks
as if students are struggling to express ideas which they do
not understand in a language they cannot use. Why is this?

There is no reason why there should not be contradictions
or at least serious tensions wi thin an outlook, whether it is
an “ideal type” or not. Thus for example there is often said
to be a tension in Christianity between its “other-worldliness”
and its humanism of “the incarnation”. World-views are not
ilbstract “Simpl·es”.

Thus it would be a substantial task to evaluate Norman’s
claims about the “world-views” that he talks about. The issue
needs to be settled in practice, through developing and examining!

serious critiques of religious and other reactionary ideologies. !

Objectivism and Experience
It is another question whether if Norman is right about
“world-views” he ought to think of his position as “ohj ecti vist”. ‘

In my view the links between “beliefs” and “experiences” are
too tenuous in his presentation to allow this. Thus in the
Tolstoy example Andrew thinks in terms of “discoveries” but
Tolstoy tends to write in terms of non-rational changes.

Norman is sensitive to this but gives no indication of how he
would distinguish illusions of discovery from real discovery.

And Norman stresses that experiences could lead “either way”.

What, in his view, would be “subjective”?

The role of the Wel tanschauung
If experiences are tenuously linked to beliefs, so are
“world-views” even though the latter “make sense of” the

Exams and
Academic Dliteracy
Sean Sayers


There has been surprisingly little thought about this
important question. The most common response among teachers
is to blame the student: ‘They are illiterate, they should
never have been allowed into University, our standards are not
strict enough, anything goes in Universities these days.’

Further questioning reveals the following ‘analysis’: ‘Students
are blowing their minds with drugs and rock music, what else
can you expect?’

This sort of answer may successfully insulate the teacher
from any sel f-doubt and confirm all his prejudices, but it
explains nothing.

I am amazed at the complacency with which
teachers regard the exams simply as confirming their intellectual
superiority over the students, and how they pontificate about
the need to re-assert standards and discipline.

Why is it that exam answers are so illiterate? Is it
because students read nothing but the Daily Mirror? Of course
it isn’t. The illiteracy of the answers is not that of the
Daily Mirror, but that of Academic Journals (in comparison with
which the Daily Mirror is lively and well written). Is it because
standards are not strict enough? No it is not; for it is these
standards themselves which produce the illiteracy.

Reprinted from Incant, 23rd June, 1971.

From reading the scripts it is clear that this
illiteracy is due to the a],sense of any interest or involvement
by the students in what they are writing. Sometimes this may
be attrihutable to the nersnnalities and habits of individual
students, but it is so !Jcn’asive a phenomenon that on~ must
seek its cause in the’ (·Jucational system itself. Here two
factor:; ·~,,-e apparent: the furm of education is authoritarian
and exam-oriented; and the content of higher education at
present is ac~demic and irrelevant to life.

and the GW”orld

In ;lJ~ .lUthori tarian, exam-dominated educational system,
students ‘·:ri t l’, not hecause they need to express themselves
and their ideas, but because writing is demanded of them.

Furthermore, and particularlv in the actual exam, they are not
encouraged to express what they think, but rather what they
think their teachers think they ought to think. Of course this
is going to be true to some extent in any educational system;
but at present, in Britain at least, there is a wide and
increasing divergence between what students think and what their
teachers think they ought to think (and thus what students
write for their teachers).

And it is this divergence which
is at the root of the illiteracy of the exams. No one, not
even the best writer, can write well when what he is writing
has no me:lning for him: his style disintegrates, his fluency
of expression dries up, he becomes ‘illiterate’.

In m” experience, many students today come to feel that
academic thclught forms a completely separate and detached world
of its own which has nothing to do with real life as they
experience it. They trust fee ling more than thought or ‘logic’;
they distrust ‘science’, which has been elevated by the academic
to become the sole source of ‘objective’ knowledge. This sort
of anti-intellectualism is a very worrying phenomenon in a
University, and it cannot be understood in terms of the laziness
and inferior ability of students. On the other hand, it becomes
intelligible when s~en as a response to the bankruptcy of
contemporary academic intellectual life. For academic intellectual life in this country is usually irrelevant and futile;
students are right to distrust ‘sciences’ which work blindly,
they are right to see as irrelevant ‘logic’ which is abstracted
from real and important thought about the world, and they are
right to regard as pointless the games with words which now
pass for thought in the Universities. How can the intelligent
student be anything but anti-intellectual if this is the only
sort of intellectuality he has known?

We are fortunate to be able to present a contribution
from a leading analyst who was able to take a few moments
off from his task of edi ting a collection of articles on
“Pricks and Tickles”.

What has the Philosopher to say about the World? Not much.

But he does have a lot to say ahout what other chaps, at one
time and another, in one place or another, have to say about
the world.

In a way, then, the Philosopher has a lot, though
indirectly, circumlocuitously, as it were, to say, though, in
another sense, he has nothing to say. This is a paradox.

It is striking, although usually unnoticed, that the best
sort of statements made about the world are factual statements true empirical statements (statements are sometimes incorrectly,
and foolishlv, called’ judgements’.

This causes only confusion,
since in th~ statement ‘in the flash he’d reached his judgement’

we could not substitute the word ‘statement’ without some sort
of ludicrous ahsurdity. Not that one reaches judgements in
quite the way one doe~ a plate in a cupboard or the end of one’s
tether. But this is a digression from m:’ central trajectory,
and a story for another article).

As stated above, then, the best things said ahout the
world are of a factual sort. This is easily perceived if we
contrast the statement: ‘There is a chair in this room’ (this
is only one from a large number of equally serviceable examples)
with a statement like ‘the world is too much with us late and

Now apart from the self-contradiction in this latter
statement the question we must first ask is: what are we to milke
of it? There are in this country clearly worked out procedures
avai labl e for determining the presence or absence of a chai r in
my room, at least in the normal case, but in statements like
‘the world is too much with us late and soon’ this is clearly
not so. Grammatically, we have a sentence, whose suhject
expression is the noun ‘the world’ and whose predicate expression is ‘is too much with us late and soon’.

Rut grammar, as
Wittgenstein said, is terribly misleading. We have a grammatically healthy sentence but a logically off-colour statement.

The illiteracy revealed in the exams is, then, partly the
product of the exam system itself. Reform of the exam system
is essential and it must be undertaken with a view to ensuring
that exams serve education rather than education serving exams.

In thinking about the exam system one must therefore look
beyond the actual exam itself, and see its wider effects on the
whole educational process. For in an exam-dominated education
learning is inevitably fragmented into question-sized chunks
and distorted in favour of snappy and memorable formulae.

Leavis is articulate about this:

But is this not a strange paradox? A statement about a
chair gets high marks from the Philosopher as a statement
about the world while the poet’s statement (perhaps this is
misnomer), getting very low marks indeed from the Philosopher,

‘The academic authorities believing in such a system
will tend to take as their first-class man a type that
may be described as the complete walking clich~ – the
man (its often a woman) who unloads with such confident
and accomplished ease in the examination-room because
he has never really grappled with anything, and is uninhi 1·i rod by any i~kling of the difference between the
reta 1 1ino of his amassed externalities and the effort
to think something out into a grasped and unified order
that he has made his own. Those who like this type will
recruit themselves from it, and will inevitably tend to
dislike, and to undervalue as a student, the man who
maJws them uncomfortable by implici tly challenging their
standards, their competance and their self-esteem; the
system is disastrous and self-perpetuating. So the
‘academic mind’ comes to deserve its depressing
reputdt~ion. ‘

But he illite’acy I have been talking about is also the
product 0 t’ the acan””,:c and irrelevant nature of much that now
passes for ‘knowle,;Q’e’, and this is perhaps the most important
factor. If people are interested and involved in what they are
learning, they will continue to learn in spite of the obstacles
they encounter. On the other hand, if people are neither
interested nor involved learning becomes a hopeless struggle.

Students today are not often turned on by the ideas which they
are taught. As a result many students in the University today
have no real faith in thought; and the University itself,
instead, of always blaming the students, must take some
responsibility for this state of affairs. The first task of
education should be to discover how thought can be meaningful
and valuable, and to show how thought is necessary to the
deepening of experience of the world. But too often, what
students are taught and consequently what they write for their
teachers and in exams is not what really matters to them or,
ultimately, to their teachers. In these circumstances, their
real feelings and thoughts have to lead an underground existence
where they are weak and easily repressed. ‘Learning’ is made
into work, undertaken without interest or enthusiasm – a meaningless compliance to external discipline. The result is an
endemic illiteracy within the Citadel of Learning; and this
illiteracy is yearly delivered up in the exams as the
consummation of the process of Higher Education.

is the one whose grammatical subject is ‘the world’.


this is utterly typical. Statements grammatically ahout chairs
are good, solid, so to speak four legged statements about the
world, while statements grammatically ahout the world are vel”

much on the tipsy side. Is this just a contingent state of

Or would an elucidation of the concepts ‘chair’

and ‘world’ provide our answer?

This is clearly too large a topic to pursue at any length
here. The therapy that philosophising is needs a long time,
as Wi ttgenstein said. There is space for but a few insights.

Strikingly, although my chair is in Canterhury,
Britain, no one would normally dream of saying that the statement ‘this chair is in this room’ is a statement about
Canterbury or about Britain. Yet one would not ordinarily
hesitate to say that it was a statement about the world. Of
course what logical ice this will cut with the reader will
depend on hi, view as to whether the chair described as ‘a part
of Canterbury’ is aptly characterizahle as such;
Only, perhaps
in a Tom All-Alone sense.

Curiously, whatever 1ine one takes on this (and it must
he admitted that all that has been done here has been the
opening up and so to speak first tour of a possible avenue of
research), one must see that ‘this chair is no longer in
Canterbury’ makes perfect sense (though a chap in the middle
of a field pointing at the moon would be at logical risk in
uttering it). On the other hand ‘this chair is no longer in
the world’ is no good at all, save as a logically risqu~
euphemism. What this shows is that it is misleading to use the
expression ‘the world’ as a thing-noun. The world is not, to
slip into the vernacular, one great big object contrastable
with even conceivable logical, if not magnitudinal peers.

Possihly Kant, handicapped by his lack of the tools later
developed by linguistic philosophy, was groping for this

So the paradox stands: the best way to talk ahout the
world as with so many things is to do so without mentioning it.


Philosophers hitherto have interpreted “the world” in
various ways. The point however, is to forget it.

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