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Senior Correspondent

The trouble with advertising whatever comes into my mind as the subject matter of my blog is that episodes of writer’s block demonstrate to the world that there is nothing there — in my mind, I mean.

Actually, two events of the past week — the reunions that immediately precede the Princeton graduation ceremonies and the observance of my wedding anniversary — have come together there to give birth to an heretical opinion on the subject much in the educational news of late: school tests.

I do have an axe to grind. For several years I was a member of the committee charged with constructing the Advanced Placement test in the subject of English language and literature. There were, as I recall, about 10 people on the committee, carefully chosen to cover the usual categories of “diversity” and to represent a wide variety of secondary schools and colleges. The membership was organized into “classes” on fixed terms to guarantee both the benefits of experience and the vigor of new blood.

The great disparagement of standardized tests that is now common was less so then, but we spent a good deal of thought and time in trying to anticipate criticisms. I thought the tests we came up with, though obviously the product of compromises and trade-offs, were pretty good.

As you know, since you are probably a right-thinking person, the use of standardized tests in our schools to assess students’ progress is at best a dubious practice and probably a bad thing, pure and simple. I’m sure you know the arguments. The test culture — nearly everything now being a culture — stifles creativity on the part of teachers and fosters rote learning instead of critical thinking on the part of the students. Testing deforms the curriculum, terrorizes students and can even transform teachers, whose actual salaries may be indexed to test results, into white collar criminals. A bunch of them in Atlanta have just been given significant prison sentences for racketeering. They were cooking their grade books.

Well, this past weekend I spent a couple of days at the reunion of the APGA (Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni), and my thoughts not unnaturally turned to my own years as a graduate student — both of them.  My graduate education, being particularly brief, was particularly intense. I completed the work for my Ph.D. in two years. During the first, my only year in residence in Princeton, I was taking seminars and preparing for a big test known as the General Examination or simply “Generals,” as it had many parts. The second year was spent delightfully in Europe, first looking at manuscripts of the "Roman de la Rose" in libraries from the Hague to Valencia, and then writing a dissertation about them while ensconced in a delightful Provençal village.

Lest the situation of my residential year should lack a sufficient degree of psychological pressure, Joan and I added a supplementary personal dimension. While we were still at Oxford, we had decided that we wanted to get married but agreed that I would pass the General Examination before we did so. Thus, it happens that the date of our wedding anniversary is always quite close to the Princeton commencement day. Every now and again, as in this year for instance, they coincide.

Well, I did pass the General Examination 53 years ago, and the rest is either history or silence, depending upon your perspective. And passing that exam was probably the most creative moment in a long scholarly career. A close second was preparing for the similar Final Schools at Oxford.

The Princeton graduate students in English in my day were a collection of brilliant oddballs. Though varied in their tastes, opinions and intellectual enthusiasms, and though capable of gestures of ferocious competitiveness, their attitude in face of the General Examination was one of communal cooperation.

Everyone was required to prepare in some depth four minor fields in addition to their declared specializations. All the students worked together in preparing study guides — somewhat inelegantly known as “poop sheets” — covering the various historical fields and special topics. The departmental secretaries colluded with us by giving us mimeograph stencils and allowing us to use their funny old rotary machine after hours. The results, for some reason invariably printed in purple, were little masterpieces of intellectual force feeding or “teaching to the test.” The poop sheets paid especial attention to the particular interests and eccentricities of the graduate faculty and reviewed the content of every graduate seminar taught within the previous five years.

There were giants in the earth in those days. One of the dozen or more great men of the English faculty at that time was Louis Landa, the scholar of 18th-century literature. Like most of my professors, he was awesomely erudite but also gentle, kindly and slightly exotic. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Texas accent, which I distinguish in my mind as the southern and the western. He had the former, and it was delightful. What a Jewish family was doing in Hallettsville, Texas, around the year 1900 is one of those little mysteries of American sociology that makes our nation so interesting.

Louis (always pronounced in the French manner, Loo-ee) Landa was a great expert on Swift and extremely knowledgeable about the Church of Ireland in the 18th century. But as I later deduced from the oral part of my examination, I probably owed the high score I achieved on the 18th-century section to my learned citation of one of his favorite books, "A History of the Potato." Needless to say, I had not actually read this book. I was leaning on the account of it by one of my classmates in the poop sheets. I probably never knew more in my life than on the day I finished my Generals.

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