The Challenge of Examinations

The word ‘examination’ can have several different applications:

  • an examination of one’s interiority
  • an examination of conscience
  • a physical examination
  • an examination of current knowledge
  • a state examination
  • a school examination
  • an eye examination

Indeed, anything at all can be examined! However, at this time of year the word examination loses its broad meaning and becomes over-identified with second-level state and third-level university and other higher level examinations. The irony of it is that when we have truly examined our lives and have formed an interior solidity, an independence and a separateness from what we do as well as how others see us, doing an academic examination is embraced as a challenge rather than viewed as a threatening experience. Sadly, this is a rare phenomenon.

In the face of the threats posed – via parents, teachers and peers – students can pressure themselves to perform highly or can aim for the average or adopt a don’t care attitude; there are very few students who approach examinations as an adventure. Among those who put great strain on themselves, any drop in performance can lead to considerable emotional upset and, in some cases, attempted suicide, self-harming or even suicide. These students see an examination result as saying something about their person, their worth and their intelligence. The reality is that no student is an examination result, but there are many who have come to believe they are. Furthermore, a student’s worth lies in his or her unique presence and individuality and where there is a confusion between one’s sacred person and an examination result, an urgent serious examination is required to resolve this very threatening situation. In terms of intelligence, knowledge of a set of questions or getting an A or A+ are no indices of intelligence; these achievements are evidence of learning, but then there are one hundred and two knowledge areas and what you’re good at is where your motivation and hard work lies. Intelligence – limitless as it is – is a gift of our nature and the confusion of it with achievement in certain academic subjects has caused great pain to children, teenagers and adults. No student is slow, weak, average or more brilliant than another. Students may show a weak knowledge of a particular subject due to more pressing emotional and social issues or having different preferences. Interestingly, in terms of street knowledge and emotional relating, some students are light years ahead of students who have achieved academically, but are struggling in other key areas of human functioning.

Students who go for the average – to the consternation of their parents and teachers – ironically have found an ingenious way of reducing expectations and eliminating failure. Unconsciously, they know that with a minimum of effort they can achieve the average as predicted by them, thereby reducing the threat of higher expectations by parents and teachers. In this regard, Freud made a very powerful observation when he marvelled at the radiant mind of the child and was frustrated with the feeble-mindedness of many adults. What Freud missed was the creativity of ‘weak-mindedness’ in reducing threats o one’s emotional self.

Students who rebel and manifest a don’t care attitude are suffering internally and are masking their poor sense of self with such behaviour. These students draw considerable attention and whilst they may not achieve academically they do manage very skilfully to upset others and thereby gain substitute visibility. Deep down they want to be seen and loved for self and encouraged and supported in what motivates them. Like the students who have to be the high performers, they too need to examine their lives, but are only likely to do so when it is emotionally, socially, intellectually, behaviourally and creatively safe to do so. When significant adults in these students’ lives do not provide these key safeties, these students will unconsciously and wisely maintain their oppositional stance.

Like students, parents and teachers themselves unconsciously carry their own unexamined emotional baggage from childhood and they can often be operating from the delusions that work, success, fame, wealth, status, power bring security. However, recessions continually remind us that these addictions do not bring emotional and social prosperity. Ambition, work, creativity are wonderful and progressive when they make love visible. Indeed, the emphasis needs to be on progress and the experiences of failure and success seen as positive stepping stones to societal wellbeing.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist, author and national and international speaker. His book Self-Esteem: The Key to Your Child’s Future is relevant to this article.