Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Competitive exams

Parents in this neck of the woods (the canton of Vaud in Switzerland) often complain that school examinations are much too competitive and that the large majority of students have no chance of entering the higher educational stream that opens access to tertiary education. All students have a chance, but I agree that streaming secondary school students in not sound educational policy. And things could be worse (i.e. much more competitive), as a book I was reading this afternoon reminded me:

By the middle of the 13th century, there were more than 400,000 candidates in southern China alone for the triennial prefecture-level juren degree, although only 500 could be given a passing grade. In 1184, Zeng Feng, a minor official, wrote a colleague:

Now when men are few, the quest for advancement is easy. When men are numerous, the quest for advancement is difficult. When men are few and the quest is easy, [even if one's talent's are] ordinary and mediocre, one can spread one's wing. When men are many and the quest is difficult, unless one has greatly surpassing achievements, one will not obtain advancement.

Quoted in John Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China (Cambridge, 1985), p. 25.