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The examined life is not worth living

life is nol worlhliving
George Molnar
The sort of tests which involve graded assessment of
students for purposes of certification, I’ll call

Examinations characteristically,
though not invariably, issue in little or no feedback
on the details of the performance to the student.

For purposes of present discussion I shall not in
general distinguish between the various types of
examination found in tertiary educational practice.

I’m concerned mainly with what all examinations have
in common.

practice can confirm.

So exams do measure what year
it is.

Moreover, the fixed proportions themselves tend
to vary between faculties and universities. Thus it
is well-known that there are systematic discrepancies
between Arts and Science faculty results. 7 Science
faculties award many more firsts but also fail more
people proportionally than do the humanities, and
these variations are unrelated to such predictors of
performance as matriculation results. The reason has
to do with the greater spread of marks actually used
which occurs in Science subject examinations,
compared with Arts SUbjects. The two sorts of marks
are not comparable, and exams do in fact measure what
subjects the candidate is taking.

Again, if grading is comparative, the comparison
lies between the candidate and those in his/her
group, rather than being a comparison of the candidate
against the generality of students.

Since there’s not
the slightest evidence that classes at various learning institutions are comparable, exams also measure
what university the candidate is attending.

There is ample evidence that exam-induced anxiety
adversely affects the performance of all but a small
proportion of students (the exceptions are students
in the highest performance categories).8 There is
even evidence that the quality of the handwriting
affects the marking. 9 So exams also measure how upset
students are, and what calligraphic skills they have.

In the light of all this, what is left of the claim
that exams measure the cognitive competence of the
candidate by some non-comparative, objective standard?

That claim is shown to be foundationless.

l:What do examinations measure? 2. How reliable are examinations?

There is no clear agreement on what examinations are
supposed to measure. The formulations recorded in
the specialist literature are variable and mostly
vague, e.g. exams test ‘knowledge and quality of
mind,;2 the student’s ability at a stipulated time
to ‘give proof of a certain well-defined knowledge,;3
it has even been suggested that exams measure moral
and psychological fibre. 4 Two things however stand
out: first, examinations would be bereft of justification if they were not supposed at least to measure
cognitive achievement; and, second, exams are not
supposed to measure certain other things, such as
what year it is, what university one is attending,
what subject is being examined.

There exists however direct and very clearcut evidence that exams
measure all of these things. This evidence thereby
counts against the claim that exams measure knowledge
or cognitive competence.

The Robbins Report 5 ten years ago showed that in
British universities candidates tended to be classed
in categories that remained constant within particular u”niversities and faculties.

While statistics
alone do not establish that these fixed proportions
are predetermined, additional evidence indicates just

In the Arts faculty of sydney University there
is at least one department where the normal curve of
distribution is used explicitly as a criterion of
proper markin~. My experience as an examiner is
limited to eight years in a middle-sized department.

Even here I’ve seen enough to convince me that for
large batches of scripts something like the normal
curve of distribution is used as an implicit criterion
of proper marking. Continental studies of exam scripts
show that the pass/fail line is frequently drawn
according to fixed proportions and independently of
variC1.tions in the quality of scripts. The investigator summed up his results in these words:

Pass-fail decisions at fixed percentages are,
in fact, not the outcome but the very intention
of examination processes. 6
The bearing of this conclusion on the question of what
exams measure is clear enough. The grade awarded to
a given script varies depending on the quality of the
other scripts in the same batch. Grading is comparative, as any honest examiner reflecting on his or her



The evidence here is even stronger and older.

Experimental studies going back to 1888 10 show
that marking is a highly unreliable process. The
classic study by Hartog and Rhodes 11 reported mean
ranges per candidate of from 7 grades to 18 grades
per paper (four papers in English), with an average
correlation between markers of only 0.44.

In maths,
the mean range per candidate was 34.7 marks~ Similar
disastrous outcomes were obtained in experiments
in which papers were marked and remarked after a

In numerous cases examiners failed to better
a correlation of 0.5, in some cases going as low as
0.28 which does not significantly differ from chance.

But even taking the highest correlation that can be
reasonably expected 12 between two examiners (or one
examiner on two occasions), namely 0.85, there are
still 16 per cent of candidates subject to a pass/fail
difference between examiners. And with less than
maximum correlation, which is likely in practice,
this proportion can go very much higher (50 or even
70 per cent). Averaging the marks of different
examiners does not really help, since it tends to
result in a convergence of the mean scores of various
candidates making the separation into grades appear
even more arbitrary than it now seems.

Examiners differ widely, among themselves and
from occasion to occasion. The reason is not that
they employ different general standards or have
differing ideas of what is required of them.

In the
Hartog and Rhodes study the mean mark given by different examiners did not vary greatly – it was~’t that
one examiner marked consistently high and another
consistently low.

Powell and Butterworth 13 have
suggested an explanation. They argue that students
bring a variety of abilities to examination and the
variations stem from the attempt to assess all these
in a single dimension – by giving a mark. This
would account for the experimentally established
unreliability of exams.

3.Why are examinations needed?

What are the justifications usually offered for
having exams? This is not the same as asking what
functions exams actually have.

The position here as with many of our social practices – is that the

real function is hidden and what is overtly pointed
to is a set of supposed uses of the practice which
allegedly provide its jUstification.

I want to
examine this overt ideology of exams.

The first and most influential argument in favour
of having exams is put as follows by Prof. C. B. Cox:

… exams have an essential social purpose … ‘

Examinations serve a function for society at
large in attesting to standards of academic
performance .. , it is inherent in professional
work .. , that the public is not in a position to
judge the quality of perrormance which it must
take on credit.

Passing examination~ before
entering a profession is, thus, a necessary
protection for the public.’ Before we call in
a doctor, we want some proof that his studies
have not been confined to witchcraft. Before a
headmaster appoints a teacher of French, he needs
proof that a candidate has reached an acceptable

If a specialist is wanted for sixth
form work, it is a great help to know that one
man has an upper second class honours degree,
and another only a third.

The simple truth is
that these class divisions represent very real
differences in performance, as anyone who has
taught and examined for a few years will know.

A complicated society depends on such safeguards
and classifications. To abolish exams would
leave us altogether too vulnerable. 14
We have seen that one essential premise of this argument – which is here dogmatically asserted as being
the ‘simple truth’ – is in fact false.

Exams do not
measure nor attest to ‘standards of academic performance’.

If exams do not measure the quality of
performance they ipso facto don’t measure abiding
competence, and therefore don’t provide the public
with protection against incompetence.

Second, it is not true that the lay public’s
inability to judge professional performance is
‘inherent in professional work’.

Such inability does
not, even today, extent to judgement of the result of

Lay people are capable, and do, form
opinions on the skill of professionals who thereby
acquire a reputation which even as things now are
does more to influence their standing than educational certification.

(Have you any idea of what
final results your dentist achieved? Is it because
of his exam results that you patronise him?) In any
case the lay public’s present inability to judge
professional performance depends crucially on a
system of education which allocates resources
entirely to the training of a few specialists while
leaving the bulk of people ignorant of the basics of
the professional field (medicine, law, or what have

It is only in the context of a culture which
systematically fosters the imbalance between lay
persons and professional experts that the public is

Finally, the argument commits the common fallacy
of trying to prove too much. Even if it were shown
that tests of competence are needed to protect the
public against exploitation by charlatans, it does
not follow that such tests need to be associated with
the learning process, and hence it does not follow that
the ‘protection of the public’ justifies examinations
as we have defined them and as they exist. We shall
see later that some of the deleterious effects of
exams arise precisely from their being associated with
the learning process.

A second defence of exams is that they ‘make
people work hard,.15 This too is usually asserted
without evidence. That is because, as Powell and
Butterworth write, ‘there is very little evidence for
the general truth or untruth of this claim. ,16
Professor Cox argues:

Much opposition to [exams] is based on the belief
that people work better without reward or
incentive, a naivete which flies in the face of
human nature. All life depends upon passing
exams. 17
Unfortunately, no details on the theory of human

nature in question are given. Of course, we are in
deep waters here: the whole complex issue of material
versus moral incentives lurks just beneath the surface.

Perhaps this much can be said: in circumstances where
students do not select their studies on the basis of
an interest in the subject, but are on the contrary
faced with an imposed curriculum which they have to
master at the cost of incurring a variety of lifelong penalties, in such circumstances examinations
may perhaps act as an effective incentive to work.

But to generalise from this to ‘human/nature’ is
reckless to say the least.

It is analogous to passing
from observation of a prison workshop to the conclusion that human beings by nature will not work
unless armed guards stand over them.

A related point is that the ‘work’ which is
exacted from students under threat of failure in
exams etc may be qualitatively different from the
work done by spontaneous learners. One would need to
have a lot of evidence on long-term retention, and
other matters, before accepting the simplistic hypothesis according to which there is an effectively
homogeneous process called work which students facing
exams do and those not facing them evade. We know
at any rate that the ‘work’ which exams cause people
to do is just the work (often of a few weeks’ duration)
required to pass exams, and it remains to be proved
that this is the same as intellectually fruitful
‘work’ .

Another defence of exams is along the lines of
‘life’s like that’. J. Chadwick has written of the
Cambridge finals exams:

There are of course people who go to pieces under
that sort of pressure; which is another way of
saying that a First is not simply a certificate
of academic brilliance, and most employers would
like to be warned i f a prospective employee can
only be trusted provided he has plenty of time
and no pressures on him. In most professions,
life is not like that. la
It’s questionable how far life’S like an exam situation in any profession. However, the crucial point
about this sort of argument is that it puts forward·
as a valuable aspect of exams that they prepare and
condition candidates to situations of tension, and
thereby foster their capacity to maintain required
levels of performance despite the evident suffering
entailed. That this sort of conditioning is in the
interests of ‘prospective employers’ I do not doubt,
but what the argument altogether fails to show is that
it is in the interests of the examinees.

Finally, it has been argued that exams provide
protection against nepotism, or corruption in general.

Professor Cox again:

.•• dons write references for candidates for
jobs, and .•• at the moment the student is
protected by his exam result. In future,
apparently, these confidential reports can be
entirely SUbjective, and the don can indulge
his own whims and prejudices. How are we to
stop the professor from exaggerating the virtues
of his friends and relatives, or, more subtly,
those likes and dislikes which can easily warp
judgment? The authority of exam results
protects the student from the need to curry
favour. 19
Just how authoritative exams are we have seen already.

The argument seems, in addition, to have no application to those numerous cases where examiners and
referees are identical. Nor does it cover cases of
people with similar results, where references alone
are used to favour one over another. More important,
however, the problem to which exams are supposed to
provide the solution can be removed much more simply
by a change which is desirable on other grounds anyway: removing the confidentiality of references.

This will do as much as one could ask for to protect
students against the caprice of referees.

(A system
of open references could be strengthened by a custom
of supporting job applications with samples of one’s
work – in applying for employment one submits a port-


foiio of work, much as commercial artists do now).

I conclude that these justifications for exams do
not stand up to scrutiny. They give no good reason
for thinking that examinations are needed, or that a
system of education without assessment is either
impossible or undesirable.

4~haldoexaminalions achieve?

So far I have argued that exams do not measure what
they are supposed to, that they do not measure anything reliably and fairly, and that the reasons
conventionally advanced in their justification do not
hold water. These conclusions are consistent with
certification by examination being a harmless, if
idle, social practice that does not call for reform
or corrective action. I now want to look at some of
the major consequences of exams.

The first achievement of exams is that they
spread sickness and death. There is no doubt that
exams annually precipitate a wave of tension, unrest,
and misery among students.

‘Third term blues’ is a
well-known phenomenon. Statistical evidence shows
that the known incidence of mental illness among
students is significantly higher around exam time,
than at other times. 2D At the British Student Health
Association’s 1968 conference it was generally agreed
that between 8 and 11 per cent of all students seek
medical treatment for various exam-related conditions. 21 One can only guess at the number of those
who don’t seek treatment for similar conditions (or
seek treatment away from student health services) and
therefore don’t enter the statistics.

Here are some descriptions by medical authors
of the reactions to exams commonly encountered:

During the course of an exam students are
sometimes brought out in a state of almost
total physical collapse, shivering, unable to
write, think or even to walk. 22
Examination panic. These are the cases of
students who start their papers, but get
increasingly anxious or exhausted and finally
leave the examination room. Sometimes they
actually faint or have nosebleeds, sometimes
they are overcome by headache or migraine, but
for the most it is just an increasing and overwhelming feeling of nervousness, tension and
despair, with an incapacity to remember things
they previously knew. The great majority of
these students have already suffered from a
long period of mounting pre-exam strain. 23
Such (i.e. pre-exam) behaviours include all the
well known symptoms, ranging from restlessness
and bladder irritability to full blown panic
attacks and mania. 24
There is reason to believe that examination
stresses in some circumstances can give rise to
thought disorder not immediately distinguishable
from that of schizophrenia. 25
Dr Malleson, already quoted above, has compared
exam reactions of students to pre-battle reactions of
soldiers, and has suggested that exam panic may be
treated with techniques applicable to shell shock. 26
These observations could be multiplied many times.

The picture of misery they suggest ought to be
familiar to anybody involved in the schooling process.

The impact of exams on the health of students is not
uniform: women (as usual in sexist society) suffer
from exam anxiety more than men, and overseas students
more than locals. A study conducted in Manchester


the most unsavoury forms of competition I know. 29
Exams do not merely cause widespread suffering
and distress among those who have to face them. They
are a causal factor, directly, in many cases of dropping out; and at least indirectly, in many cases of
suicide. Clear evidence shows that suicide rates
among male students in England and Wales are higher
than among the comparable non-student population. 3D
The evidence connecting student suicide with exams is
there, but because of paucity of studies is perhaps
not conclusive. Rook 31 analysed the suicide figures
in Cambridge in the decade 1948-58, and concluded

It is difficult to believe that exams do not
have some influence on the Cambridge suicides,
for over half of them occurred around the exam
period, and four out of five of those who were
believed to be worrying over their work died in

Carpenter 32 showed that over a longer period (19231958) the proportion of third-term suicides at
Cambridge (=43.3%) was higher, but not ‘significantly’

so than the proportion of third-term suicides among
non-students (=34.5%). The difference is however
considerable. I know of no more recent studies of
the nexus between exams and suicide: a neglect in
medical research which is itself symptomatic of our
general indifference towards the life-destroying
aspects of exams. I have however known of cases of
people who have suicided for reasons which at least
included exam-anxiety.

The second achievement of exams is that they
maintain and reproduce hierarchic stratification, and
thus are the means whereby educational processes are
deployed in the perpetuation of social inequality.

On the one hand exams are used to exclude people from
further study (by the setting of entrance requirements, quotas, the distribution of scholarships,
stipends etc on the basis of exam results). On the
other hand exams are the method of distribution of a
whole range of socially important rewards: on
results depend entry to professions and types of
work, with attendant financial and status rewards. 33
Thus examinations are the means for slotting p·eople
into their ‘stations in life’.

The usual defence of this aspect of exams is
meritocratic: the process is seen by those …,ho are
not egalitarians as selecting the able, the bright,
clever, and meritorious people for positions of rank
and reward. In this way exams are seen as
‘maintaining high standards’.

This meritocratic defence fails not only because
exams do not measure cognitive capacity or excellence
of mind, but for two other reasons as well. The
first is that exams cannot measure, even in principle,
more than what the candidate currently knows.

exam can tell you anything about what the candidate
could come to know in the future, as a result of
further study, experience, changed interests and motivation, etc. The use of exams to exclude people from
further study has therefore no meritocratic justification whatsoever. The second, and more significant,
failure of meritocratic defence derives from the
abundantly demonstrated fact 34 that certified
scholastic achievement depends more on family back~
ground, the cultural milieu of the home, and such
like factors which ultimately trace to social class
position, than on all other types of factor.

hierarchy which certification perpetuates is not a
hierarchy of merit, talent, excellence, or any of the
other qualities of which educational conservatives
are so fond.

It is the class structure of capitalist

A third achievement of exams is that they produce,

and reproduce, alienated, dehumanised social relations. Exams have this effect on the relation
between teachers and students, as well as on relations among students. The teacher’s role as assessor
cannot but place a strain on the relationship between
him/her and the student. This tension has often been
remarked upon. 34 The result is particularly deleterious in a learning situation. Continuous assessment
(or course assessment) magnifies this effect, and it
has been said that its introduction is capable of
‘poisoning the whole teaching atmosphere’ .35 The
basic point, I suppose, is that in the relation
between asse’ssor and assessed the latter is dominated
by an interest in being favourably assessed, and the
former by a totally false sense of authoritativeness
which his teachings (and other actions) gain as a
result of his power as an examiner. Critical interaction between minds is made impossible: what people
say in a testing situation bears no intrinsic relationship to what they believe. Candidates only say
or write what they believe will get them good marks.

Exams which are so carefully guarded against so
called cheating, infuse into the relationship between
teacher and taught a much more profound bad faith
and inauthenticity.37
Around exam time relations among students become
marked by jealousy and explicit competitiveness. 38
Evidence shows that students often feel that their
own chances are improved by not sharing their ideas
and work with their peers. This feeling is of course
justified, but even if it weren’t, its mere existence
would tend to cut off people from one of the most
important sources of learning: the insights of one’s
fellow learners. Exams are also the most drastic
means of reinforcing the bourgeois ideology of
individualism in intellectual matters. By being
individually assessed, the student is irresistibly
driven to the privatisation of knowledge, i.e. to
the false and socially pernicious belief that the
creation and transmission of knowledge are the
private achievements of isolated individuals. Powell
and Butterworth sum up the matter aptly:

By discouraging students from co-operating with
each other the assessment system inhibits the
prime virtue of civilised society – that of
mutual aid. By isolating people from each other
in a highly formative stage in their lives, and
encouraging them to regard their work as a
private and measurable achievement, it enforces
or reinforces the view that different people
deserve different rewards in life. 39
I should also add that in a fuller discussion of this
whole area one would have to explore also the role
which exams play in relationships between students
and their parents. 40
A fourth achievement of exams is that they

constrain and narrow curricula and militate against
diversification of study programs. This they do in

the following ways: first, they determine exclusions
from the curriculum along the ‘principle’ expressed
by one Sydney headmaster’s saying ‘If it’s not examinable, don’t teach it.,41
In an exam-dominated
education system the inclusion of a subject in the
curriculum tends to become conditional on the availability of administrable forms of testing associated
with the subject.

Second, exams set up administrative
(bureaucratic) barriers against diversification of
study programs.

It is easier (cheaper, more convenient) to design and administer a single test for
assessing a given (large) group of students than to
design and administer a multiplicity of tests for the
same group. ‘rhis clearly generates a tendency favouring narrowness and imposed uniformity of curricula as
against wide diversity and flexibility in the choice
of study proc;rams.

A fifth achievement of exams is that they waste
money. How mt;ch exactly assessing costs has never
been calculated.

In a recent conversation the Vice
Chancellor suggested, as a very casual guess, that the
recurrent costs of examining at Sydney University may
be around $100,000 p.a.

I regard this figure as the
lowest possible estimate.

Even so, if we take this
amount as our basis, the annual cost of examining in
Australian tertiary institutions alone would come to
something between 2.5 and 3 million dollars. The overall costs of examining throughout the whole school
system is many times this sum. The money is from an
educational point of view totally misspent.

There is no conclusion beyond the obvious one.

are a means of social control in an authoritarian
sense. They are a pivotal part of an education system
geared to forcing people into pre-existing and uncriticised economic and social roles. Certification,
which issues from this education system – the system
of schooling – labels the skilled labour power which
its individual owners then sell in the labour market.

2ertificates do not measure cognitive skills.

It has
been shown 33 that the matters most crucial to employers
for the hiring of certified labour have little ~o do
wi th grades or indices of scholar l j ‘ achievement, but
rather with the evidence which certificates provide
of the possession of attitudes and acquired behavioura~
habits that make the student suitable for work. The
certificate matters insofar as it shows that its
possessor has absorbed the lessons of the hidden curri~
culum. Submitting to exams is more crucial than
results gained, the grade matters insofar as it shows
the extent to which one has submitted to the assessment system. One’s certificate shows one’s exploitability – it’s as simple as that.

The radical transformation of this sitt:ation
involves a comprehensive liberating social revolution.

This is no easy task, but an integral element of the
long struggle for a fully self-managed world.

however even the lcngest journey begins with a short
step, we can define our immediate aim as the discrediting and delegitimising of exams in the eyes of
students, teachers, parents, and people at large.

The talk you have just heard, although it contains
nothing new or original, is a modest contribution to
this first task. We must get ourselves as speedily
as possible to the position where the whole question
of the value of exams will be generally considered as
settled. Then we will be abl’e to use the worthlessness of exams not as a conclusion to be argued, to,
but as a premiss to be developed, both in theory and
in practicel


From a talk at the Teachers College, Sydney
University, September 1973.


Universities Quarterly, 1967, p343.


Daniels, M. J. M. and Schouten, J., The Screening
of Students, Council of Europe publication, 1970,




HMSO, 1963, App.Two(A), Annek K.


Cited in Danie1s and Schouten, op. cit., pp16ff.

The same conclusion has been drawn from the
observation of constant pass rates in the British
GCE (a-level) over the years despite a tremendous
increase in numbers of candidates. Cp. John
Pearce, School Examinations (Macmi11an, London,
1972, p103): ‘The occurrence of constant pass
rates with large increases in entry, however,
suggests that the pass-rates are determined as
much statistically as by performance.’


Robbins Report, Appendix 2A, Part 4.

Examination Strain at Manchester University,
mimeo, Manchester, 1966. Cp. Powe11 and ButterWorth, op. cit.,2-6, and E. Gaudry and C. D.

Spie1berger, Anxiety and Educational Achievement,
Sydney, 1971, ppl18ff.


I. Kande1, ‘Examinations and their substitutes in
the united States’, cited in Cox, Universities
Quarterly, 1967, p304.


Edgworth, cited in Cox, op. cit., p295.


Hartog and Rhodes (with Cyri1 Burt), The Marks

of Examiners, 1936.


Powel1 and Butterworth, op. cit., pIS.


op. cit., pp.17-18.

Cp. Dona1d Mclntyre,
‘Assessment and Teaching’, in D. Rubinstein and
C. Stoneman (eds.), Education for Democracy,
2nd ed., 1972, p168.


C. B. Cox and A. E. Dyson (eds.), The Black
Papers on Education, London, 1971, p72.


Cox and Dyson, op. cit. p76.


Powe11 and Butterworth, op. cit., p24.


Cox and Dyson, op. cit., p76.


Didaskolos, 1970, p275.


Cox and Dyson, op. cit., p72.


R. J. still, Psychological Illness Among Students
in the Examination Period, Leeds University,
mimeo, 1963.


Proceedings of the British Student Health
Association Conference of July 1968,p161;Cp Still,
op. cit., and The Mental Health of Students,


Conway, The Practitioner, June 1971, 0795.


N. Ma11eson, A Handbook on British Student Health
Services, 1965, p62.


Conway, loco cit.

Leeds University, mimeo, 1966.


still, The Mental Health of Students, plO.


op. cit., pp68ff and The Lancet, 1959, i.p225.


Examination Strain at Manchester University;
Cp. A. Ryle, Student Casualties, 1969.


Da1ton, The Lancet, 1968, ii, pp1368ff.


Cp. Powe11 and Butterworth, op. cit., p3.


R. G. Carpenter, British Journal of Preventive
and Social Medicine, 1959, i, pp165-72. Cp.

Ry1e, op. cit., pl05.


A. Rook, British Medical Journal, 1959, i,


Carpenter, loco cit.


Cf. the research finding ‘that the type of
personal development produced through schooling
and relevant to the individual’s productivity
as a worker in a capitalist ente~prise is
primarily non-cognitive.’ H. Gintis, Harvard



Coleman, Report on Equality of Opportunity in
Education, Dept. of H.E.W., Washington, 1966.

Cop. Jencks et ai, op. cit.; A. Morrison and
D. Mclntyre, Schools and Socialisation, Penguin,
1971, pp13.


Cox, Universities Quarterly, 1967, p334.


Edwards, The Observer, 6 June 1971.


‘Students cannot help but see behind the friendly
interest of an unassuming tutor the remorseless
judgement of their Finals.’ P. Marris, The
Experience of Higher Education,,~uoted in
Powel1 and Butterworth, op. cit., p23.


Cox, Universities Quarterly, 1967, p355.


op. cit., p24.


Pearce, op. cit., p5l.


Quoted to me by Mike Matthews.

Cp. Dale,

Universities Quarterly, 1959.


Educational Review, 42(1), 1972), p86cp. Gintis,
Americal Economic Review, May 1971; and C.

Jencks et ai, Education and Inequality, NY, 1972.

D. A. AlIen, Universities Quarterly, 1970.

(quoted in A. Powe11 and B. Butterworth: Marked
For Life, London, 1972, plO).

I p ..acI ice’ in
of Paulor..ei..e
Dennis Oleeson
Our education is fraught with problems, the
most prominent of which is dogmatism .•. the
children learn text-books and concepts which
remain merely text-books and concepts .••
The method of examination is to treat the
candidates as enemies and ambush them.

Mao-Tse TUng
Paulo Freire’s writings represent a stark reminder of
the problems facing the Third World, whilst at the
same time raising questions for ‘The First’ concerning its commitment to growth and opulence. The
importance of his work rests in a refusal to accept
as given commonly accepted dogmas and myths which are
uncritically intepreted to explain the nature of
social phenomena. Freire’s recent pUblications
Pedagogy of the Oppressed 1 and Cultural Action for
Freedom2 have created more than a mere ripple of
interest in audiences of teachers and students
already critical of existing practices and policies
in education.

This article represents an introduction examination of certain main themes emerging from Freire’s
writings, and is intended as background material for
those students and teachers who, after reading this
brief account, may wish to pursue his work more

Freire was born in 1921 in Recife, North Eastern
Brazil, an area populated by peasants and redundant

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