Test Taking: Understand, accept and deal with the fact that education is about power, too

August 2018, by Niklas Baumgärtler

When I first went to school as a kid, I had been infused with a deep respect for teachers by my parents, basically having them appear as gods of infinite wisdom. Or so they should have. Since I was always curious about the world and its workings, I soon underwent certain experiences that were at first disturbing, then more and more alarming: Could it truly be that I knew more than my teachers did?  It wasn’t until much later, when I aspired to become a teacher myself, that I fully understood the truth that I had seen a glimpse of as a kid: Education isn’t just about helping you grow as a person. To a degree, it’s about power, too. Fully ignorant of this fact at first, I started teaching the way I thought was best for both me and the children who had been assigned to me. The kids (and their parents) loved my way of teaching, we got along greatly, and they learned much faster, much more self-directed, than one is used to at regular schools. I thought everyone was happy. Which is why I wasn’t prepared for the massive backlash of the education system on a teacher who had dared to encourage students to think for themselves, and create systems in which they could prepare for tests in whichever way they wanted, because they knew beforehand a) what I would ask them to do, b) how I would rate their results and c) that they could repeat the test whenever they wished to gain better results.

We, the “elite”, will teach you “the way”

Education is about Power tooA while later, another educating experience: I’ve been part of a certain online-community for about 10 years. It was mostly about reaching whichever goal you deemed worthy of attaining in certain areas of life, and getting useful feedback from others who followed similar goals. Some members loved a good (verbal) fight every once in a while, so for a time the community was heavily moderated. Then, as moderation got out of hand, the owners of the site decided to have the place self-moderated instead. After another while, something interesting happened: certain community members would band together to form a self-proclaimed “elite” in this field, and would attack ideas written by anyone who was not yet part of that “elite” group. Later on they wouldn’t stop at ideas anymore, and would attack anyone personally who wasn’t saying what they (the self-proclaimed “elite”) were saying. They now tried to establish their “one true way to eliteness”, and anyone who would openly admit he wasn’t following their “one true way” or (even worse) their “one true end goal” would be personally attacked. Then and there I realized something about education in general: if you can put yourself in a position of power and take control of the path towards that position (like it happened in the community I mentioned), it doesn’t matter much anymore whether you actually know more/better than anyone else. You simply control resources that are attractive to others (“be part of the ‘elite’” in this case), and by controlling the path to attaining these resources, you can make other people do your bidding. Whether that makes sense for their own personal growth or not.

The hidden point of titles and degrees

Now many people probably won’t fully realize this, but titles and degrees have very little correlation with actual skill. Granted, they do have some correlation insofar as in order to attain a degree you’ll usually have to work hard for a while. But I’ve seen many talented people in many fields who don’t have any degree and will still surpass the average guy who does tenfold. A degree, then, isn’t just about showing skill. There’s another layer to this: privilege. For certain job positions, you’ll be required to have the degree (=privilege) to apply for them. Like, I cannot (barring few exceptions) work as a teacher if I don’t have the degree required, even though in my personal opinion this degree isn’t worth much. Now if we trace back degrees and titles throughout history a little, we’ll find that in most societies, there has been something similar to a pyramid of different “classes”, like “farmers”, “knights”, “ministers”. They’ve been pretty stable for most of our history, but in the last few centuries, people have begun to consider education as an interesting tool to allow “lower-class-people” to gain entrance into the “higher” classes. Like, the father of the family might be and stay a farmer all his life, but through education, his son or granddaughter might “rise through the ranks” in time. It allowed a crumbling class system to stay somewhat stable, for it established at least a distant hope of a better future life, thus easing the pressure for radical reform or even total destruction of the class system. In my home country Austria some guy who has a Master’s degree in some field will have the right (=privilege) to earn multiple times what another guy without one will be able to ask, and people won’t question it much, because “he has a Master’s degree and I haven’t, so it’s only fair”. If we look at education through this  view, and keeping in mind the above-mentioned observation about the community “elite” trying to establish their “one true way”, we can see how education is both about a) helping people grow and b) distributing titles/permissions. We can also see how the strategy of having everyone earn a university degree (which was tried in Austria by short-sighted politicians) won’t help to have everyone earn as much as people with a Master’s degree are now used to, because it’s still another kind of a class pyramid, and it requires the number of people who have special permissions/degrees to be smaller than the majority.

How power prevails

Now if you were in a position of power, and you knew that there are limited slots to these positions, would you not try to stay in the position of deciding who earns the right to those slots? Would you, in a position of power, give that slot to someone who is highly unpredictable? Or would you rather give it to someone who has consistently shown he’ll accept you as an authority, and carry on your work? In this game, it doesn’t matter who is objectively right. It only matters whether the applicant for the slot is willing to show his obedience to the one who distributes these slots. Or in everyday terms: it doesn’t matter if the professor at university is objectively right or wrong. What matters to him (or rather, the whole educational system beyond and atop him that will treat him equally), is whether you’ll chose the answers he himself/the system he serves thinks are the correct ones. They are the “elite”, and they have power over the “one true path”, like in the abovementioned community.

How to survive university unscathed by those power struggles

It took me years to truly understand this, because it seems so counter-intuitive at first. But this is how you survive university while retaining the ability to think for yourself:
  • Learn to think and study for yourself, not any authority. You don’t need schools or universities to learn, you only need them to attain privileges.
  • Learn to distinguish between people/authorities you can trust and those you cannot.
  • Talk openly with those trustworthy, and say what they want to hear to those who aren’t.
  • Learn to live with the fact that people in power aren’t always the ones who should be in power in a perfect world.
  • In a test situation, figure out the expected Keep the quest for true answers to your free time to save yourself a lot of unnecessary frustration.
Once you truly understand how the education system is in effect a system for distributing privileges, and learn to accept that you won’t single-handedly change that fact (especially since you’re basically in a position of non-power as a student, and people in power can easily say “he’s just freaking out because he’s not smart enough”), you can focus on using the time provided to study the stuff you’re actually interested in more deeply. I’m a rare exception because I was always this somewhat unpredictable hippie guy who studied whatever he was interested in regardless. But most people I’ve studied with didn’t use the huge chunk of free time they had when they were studying to dig deep into stuff they were truly interested in regardless of what was required of them, and sure did regret it later on, when they were stuck in the daily grind of their working life and found it much harder to do then. Don’t be those guys. Figure out ways to most effectively show your professors that they can count on you not giving them too many troubles, by giving them the answers they want to hear when they test you for obedience. Then use your free time to dig deep wherever and however deep you want to go.

“Resistance is futile”

I’ve written my Bachelor’s thesis paper eleven times (yes, 11 times!) before it was finally accepted by my two professors. The only objections at the time were that what I had written was a doctorate’s work, basically saying it included my own thinking, which was “too much for my level of study”. I couldn’t believe this could be the problem, rewrote it again and again, until my father finally convinced me to let go of my ideals on how the world should work just for this instance, and just submit something that was on the level of work they requested. I could still write stuff I actually cared about elsewhere, and nobody really reads a bachelor thesis anyway. It took me two weeks to compile some worthless paper, and they finally accepted it. Funnily enough, when my professors talked with me about my thesis, they weren’t much interested in the boring work they had finally accepted, but rather talked with me for 1.5 hours on the other topics I had written before. They simply weren’t allowed to accept it for formal reasons by university, even though they both said it was fascinating. This taught me a valuable lesson. I went on to write the stuff I cared about on my blogs, and, see and behold, even the German union of alternative schools has mentioned it twice as a very useful resource.

So, to sum it up

Try to not repeat my mistakes if you wish to save yourself some valuable lifetime. Understand that testing is as much about a) showing how much you have progressed as it is to b) figure out whether you are obediently re-telling what you’ve been told and thus “worthy” of certain privileges. Another bonus hint: in my limited experience, the less the one testing you knows about his stuff, the more he’ll fight you about him being right. Proving how you were right all along (especially publically) won’t award you praise by him, but rather contempt, for you’ll enter a power struggle with him, one he can’t afford to lose. There are a few rare exceptions I’ve encountered in my life, but they are far and in between. So if in doubt, expect someone ego-hurt who’ll do his best to make you suffer in retribution.

Teacher: Niklas Baumgärtler

Niklas Baumgärtler

Niklas Baumgärtler, a teacher based in Austria, Europe, has written extensively about (alternative) education, leadership and (social) psychology on his (German language) blogs, always focusing on how people could connect and tune into each other in more enjoyable ways. Nowadays he’s attempting to tackle the question of how to establish an economy based on connecting people who actually enjoy working together. And how to have most of his work be location-independent, so he can visit his many friends all over Europe more regularly, while still being able to work on his vision wherever he goes.

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