Competitive examinations are amongst the subjects which at present occupy the position in question. They are put forward with great zeal as providing a new profession for modest and unacknowledged merit, as a stimulus to general education, as a remedy for political jobbery, and as a means of securing efficiency in the public service. Of these recommendations the two last are, as a lawyer would say, good on the face of them. That is, if they are made out, they amply justify the adoption of the system proposed, though it must be avowed that their authors, like those of all self-denying ordinances, owe the world some explanation for their excessive virtue. The other two, though not perhaps to be described as bad upon the face of them, are nevertheless suspicious. They have about them an air so smooth and bland as to suggest at once harshness and pedantry within. Great questions, however, are not to be settled by impressions. It would be the height of folly to allow a good measure to be injured by the bad manners of those who propose it, or to miss a substantial advantage because its authors exaggerate its importance.
The present popularity, therefore, of the system of competitive examinations, is a sufficient reason for an impartial inquiry into the whole of the subject. The forms of political discussion with which we are familiar are not favourable either to completeness or to impartiality. The great characteristic of speeches and newspaper articles is that they handle some one point of a large subject as effectively as possible within a limited space; and thus, instead of showing the different parts of a system in their relation to each other, hammer, as it were, at one nail, so that the impression which they produce at last is slight and one-sided, instead of being general, systematic, and qualified.
Competitive examinations may be divided into two great classes, scholastic and official. As the origin of the official examinations is distinctly traceable to the popularity of the scholastic examinations, the latter may properly be considered first, as they throw great light on the use and on the proper sphere of the former. Scholastic competitive examinations are at present universal in all places of education in this country, and are even more popular and more rigorous in some parts of the continent; this is especially the case in France, where, at the Polytechnic, and at some of the military schools, the two classes run into each other, scholastic victories being the best, if not the only passport, to some kinds of official employment. In England competitive examinations for scholastic purposes are comparatively modern. At Oxford, the system, as applied to degrees, is not yet fifty years old. At Cambridge it is considerably older, but within the last forty years it has taken altogether a new position, and at present forms the great motive power by which the whole of the education given at the university is imparted. Cambridge affords a much more perfect illustration than Oxford of the working of the system, as it carries it to its extreme consequences. In most of the Oxford examinations, especially in the examinations for degrees, the candidates are classified, so that the competition is not between man and man, but for admission to a class. At Cambridge, on the other hand, (though the system has lately been somewhat modified) the competition is, as a general rule, individual. The candidates are not only arranged in classes, but they are arranged in order of merit in those classes, so that each man has his share of personal victory or defeat, gained at the expense of his neighbour. He has a direct interest in his neighbour's failure, and receives distinct and definite loss from his success. The Cambridge system thus affords the best precedent for an inquiry into the probable results of the system of competition proper as applied to political purposes.
What, then, is the nature, and what are the moral and intellectual results of the system? Whatever those results may be at the universities, and especially at the university in which they are most strongly developed and most conspicuously displayed, they will be in the public offices, subject always to this observation, that they will be displayed in a much stronger shape, and will not be obviated by a variety of influences which belong to a university life. One moral effect of competition has been a familiar subject of declamation since the time, at least, of Cowper. In his elegant, though feeble, poem on public schools, he says, speaking of emulation:—
"The spur is powerful, and I grant its force."And after a fanciful description of its effects, he goes on:—
"Weigh for a moment classical desertIn short, it was Cowper's opinion, and it is still the opinion of a considerable number of persons, that the consequence of personal competition is to produce malice and ill-will between those who engage in it. Any one who is at all familiar with the temper which prevails amongst students at the universities, will see at once that whatever other objections may be urged against the system of competitive examinations, this one, at any rate, is either altogether groundless, or is, at least, of no sort of practical importance. When it is once fully settled that the prospect of obtaining such advantages as a public body has it in its power to give, is contingent upon any test impartially applied by a recognized authority, the award is submitted to with a degree of good-humour which would surprise those who have not had the opportunity of seeing how uniformly it exists. The feelings of a man beaten in what he himself recognizes as a fair examination, are just like those of a person who comes off a loser in any other trial of strength and skill. It is a feeling altogether free from bitterness or ill-will against the successful person; although, no doubt, the loser may, and perhaps will, feel some degree of bitterness against the system which has been unfavourable to him. This, however, is a feeling which exists in tenfold force where no test is applied except that of personal discretion. There are, no doubt, other moral considerations more or less connected with these, which affect the question of the regulation of promotion in offices as distinguished from admission to them by competitive examinations. They are considered below. In the whole, however, the experience of the universities, and especially that of the University of Cambridge, seem to afford decisive evidence that such examinations would not produce ill-will between the successful and unsuccessful candidates.
Against a mind depraved and feelings hurt."
The intellectual results of competitive examinations are a wider and more difficult subject of inquiry. They can hardly be fully understood without some reference to the nature of education. The general object of all the processes which can be included under that name is twofold: the development of the powers of the mind itself, and the communication of specific knowledge to the person educated; and, though these two objects are and must always be communicated by one and the same process, there can be no doubt that they are essentially distinct, and that the first is infinitely the more important part of the two, though the second has been for many years, and to some extent is still, unduly neglected, especially in respect to some branches of knowledge of great practical importance. Considered as an instrument for promoting the acquisition of specific knowledge there can be little doubt that competitive examinations are extremely efficient. No more effectual mode of inducing a person to learn a particular thing accurately, and to be able to reproduce his knowledge of it neatly on demand, can be imagined, than that of offering a large reward to the person who succeeds in proving that he has done so most thoroughly. This general remark must, however, be accompanied by a very material observation.
It is of the essence of every examination that its subject must be definite and specific, and that the knowledge of that subject displayed by the person examined must also be specific, and be capable of being accurately measured. It is thus the effect of competitive examinations to concentrate the attention of the persons to be examined on a specific subject for a specific purpose. There can be no doubt that for most of the practical purposes of life this discipline is invaluable. The great obstacle with which teachers of all classes have usually to contend is a childish impatience of exertion and indifference to all the objects for which education exists. Children and boys live almost entirely in the present, and must be acted on, if at all, by the prospect of immediate rewards and punishments, and by the stimulus of immediate personal competition. This state of mind is partially succeeded by one rather less immature, in which the temptation to apathy is often succeeded by a temptation to vagueness and inefficiency. It is not an uncommon thing for lads to read and think extensively but diffusely and incoherently, never bringing their knowledge to a point, or assuring themselves that it is real knowledge and not a mere shifting set of inaccurate impressions. For such a state of mind as this competitive examinations are an excellent cure. In a few words, they are very useful means for exciting languid minds to obtain knowledge, and compelling diffuse and wandering minds to make their impressions accurate.
On the other hand, the effect of competitive examinations on the communication of specific knowledge is limited to that specific knowledge which is the subject of the examination. Their effect upon the acquisition of other knowledge is not only not good, but is distinctly bad. They are useful tonics for languid and commonplace minds, but to those which are active and original they are—even as regards the mere acquisition of knowledge—of very questionable advantage, and they are likely to become distinctly injurious unless they are very sparingly used. There is only one motive in the world which will give a man any amount of knowledge worth having for its own sake, and that is the love of knowledge, and a perception of its beauty and dignity. Any one who considers what it is that he really knows, and how he came to know it, will acknowledge the truth of this. Everyone who has any claims at all to be a man of active mind has some favourite pursuit, his knowledge of which is the really important and characteristic part of his mental furniture. In every walk of life, from the highest to the lowest, the successful and remarkable people are those who like their employment, and who would enjoy no other occupation so much, even if they were not compelled to adopt it. It is the fault of all systems of education, and the especial fault of those which are worked by means of competitive examinations, that they entirely lose sight of this principle, and that they proceed on the assumption that the persons to be educated will learn nothing unless they are driven to do so by stimulants and compulsion. The result is that they directly hamper and discourage a love of knowledge for its own sake pursued by an independent mind. It is absolutely essential to the growth of such a feeling that it should be free, and this is incompatible with a course of study rigidly prescribed by others and enforced from stage to stage by a system of competitive examinations. Suppose a young man goes to college with his head full of thoughts and speculations upon all sorts of subjects, and with a knowledge of Greek and Latin which would enable him to reach sufficiently well, though not with minute accuracy, the sense of the classics. He might naturally enough feel the greatest curiosity about the writings of the great Greek and Roman authors, and be anxious to acquaint himself with them by every means in his power. In doing this he will, no doubt, if he is wise, obtain from those who are older and wiser what advice he can; but if he is to get any good from such advice he must assimilate it, and act upon it from his own individual conviction that it is conducive to the end which he has in view. To convert the reading of such a youth into a preparation, however thorough and complete, for a set of examinations in a specific set of books—in the choice of which he has no discretion whatever, and with the contents of which he has no motive for obtaining any other acquaintance than such as would be useful in an examination—is equivalent to destroying his independent interest in his studies, and to reducing them to a mere struggle to obtain the money rewards which are given to proficiency.
Much is said, and justly, about the evils of cramming, but it is not usually observed that it is only one form of an evil, not incidental but essential to competitive examinations, which may be described by the change of a single letter as cramping. A good examiner can devise questions which will effectually disconcert cram in the common sense of the words. Cramming will no more enable a man to work a mathematical problem neatly and correctly, or to construe with accuracy a difficult passage from a classical author, than it will enable him to draw a spirited sketch, or to compose an air. Though, however, judicious examination will go a long way to ensure, on the part of a considerable number of the persons examined, an ascertainable amount of sound and accurate knowledge on specific subjects; it is at least equally clear that the effect of a system of education kept at work entirely or mainly by such means will be to substitute, in a large number of cases, the fulfilment of a test for the attainment of the result which the test was meant to secure. The theory upon which competitive examinations must proceed is this. The fact that a man has acquired specific knowledge on certain prescribed subjects is evidence both of the inclination and of the power to acquire knowledge in general. Competitive examinations test the fact that specific knowledge in prescribed subjects has been attained; therefore they are evidence of the inclination and the power on the part of the persons examined to acquire knowledge in general. It is also asserted that whatever encourages people to acquire specific knowledge increases their taste and their capacity for acquiring knowledge for its own sake, and that as competitive examinations have the one effect they have the other also. If "specific" knowledge means knowledge specified and prescribed by others, which is obviously its true sense in connection with competitive examinations, these statements are fallacious; for it frequently, and perhaps generally, happens that the very qualities which predispose a man to enter with interest and success into a contest of which the terms are prescribed to him by others, will indispose him to care about knowledge for its own sake. It is quite true that a man of powerful and original mind will in a competitive examination beat a dunce, just as a very good horse will beat a bad one in a race; but it is equally true, and not less important, that the qualities specially favoured by a competitive examination, like those specially favoured by a race, are by no means the most important qualities. The best man will beat the worst, but he is almost sure to be beaten by many intermediate persons inferior to himself, and that because they are inferior. The capital defect of competitive examinations, whether they are considered as a mode of communicating knowledge, or with reference to their effect on the intellectual powers, is that they reward and tend to multiply second-rate knowledge, second-rate men, and second-rate qualities; whilst they distinctly discourage the higher qualities of the mind and are unfavourable to the acquisition of deep or wide knowledge brought home to, and assimilated by, the mind which receives it.
The great requisites for success in a competitive examination are accuracy, neatness, docility, and plasticity. A man who beats every one else hopelessly in examinations—and every one who knows much of university life will remember at once the small class of public school heroes to whom the description applies—has almost always the same set of qualities. He is quick, industrious, regular, and accurate. He goes quietly through the routine prescribed to him without turning to the right hand or the left, or allowing his attention to be diverted to any collateral subject whatever. Any definite piece of knowledge can be put into his mind as neatly as if it was a bandbox, and he can always reproduce it in as perfect a state as a lady's bonnet when it comes out of the bandbox. Any accomplishment which requires delicacy and dexterity of mind he will acquire with marvellous precision. Just as the Japanese will send back a facsimile of a lock or a pistol sent to them for repair, accurate enough to deceive the owner himself, a good specimen of this sort of man will write Greek, Latin, or English on demand in almost any required style, and with a finish and ease which for a long time conceals the fact, that what he writes has absolutely nothing in it, and is such stuff as themes are made of. He will even learn to think in a sort of way, and will appropriate current platitudes to his own use till he really believes that he found them out for himself. Any definite test, measurable by marks, will be satisfied by a man of this kind infinitely better than by a man who really thinks about what is told him, and even about some things which are not told him; for he will take infinitely greater interest in the result of his examinations, and will give much more undivided attention to preparation for them, whilst he will have far less to contend against in his own mind. In short, a useful hack is easier to drive than a thorough-bred horse, and most people will travel with them both faster and farther.
It is, however, a great mistake and a great misfortune to arrange systems of education on this principle. The moral, metaphysical, and literary speculations of an undergraduate are often, no doubt, crude and presumptuous enough. Reading, thinking, and talking about books on such subjects will always interfere wofully with his success in competitive examinations; but crude, and to a mature mind, ridiculous as such things may seem, they are as directly connected with future power and depth of character as the restlessness and mischief of the child with the spirit and vivacity of the boy. To do one thing at a time, and to do it thoroughly, is no doubt the indispensable condition of success; but the question, In what am I to succeed? is far more important than the question, How am I to succeed in my present objects? especially if those present objects are nothing more than a high place in a class-test, with a prospect of a fellowship.
Early youth is not the time for results. It is a sort of profanation to look upon a liberal education, solely or principally, as a means of giving a man a better chance and a better start than his neighbours in a general scramble for wealth and honour. Its true object is to render him independent of such things, by opening his mind to the truth that they are but accidents, and that the qualities which deserve and command them are the substance: that it is better to be wise, just, and truthful, than to be a judge; to be calm, brave, and ready, than to be a field-marshal; that honours and success are valuable only in so far as they are evidence of the qualities by which they ought to be won, and that if obtained by other means they are contemptible mockeries.
The result is, that the experience of competitive examinations afforded by the universities, and especially by that university which carries them to the highest point, proves that success in them is not only not a complete test of that, of which they were intended to prove the existence, —namely, general superiority—but is, to some extent, a test of the reverse. The best man on the whole will not be first in an examination on specific subjects. Given equal abilities, docility will carry the day; and independence and originality, and above all, interest in other matters besides the subject of examination, will be dead weights, positively injurious to their possessors. When a man, radically inferior to the other examinees, is first in an examination, he generally wins not by superior special ability, but by reason of his not having been led away from his point by originality or independence. Some years since, a man obtained high university distinction in the following way: he was a timid, nervous lad, who had had no advantages of birth or education, and came to college with a taste for mathematics, with absolutely no taste for anything else, (many years afterwards, his ignorance of the commonest historical events was a standing joke,) and with retired, harmless habits. He made no acquaintances; he never did anything except take a short walk, and read mathematical books. The consequence was that, in the course of upwards of three years, he had read and understood a great many, and he had his reward in a very high degree and a fellowship. This was, no doubt, an extreme, but it was also a typical case, and it was one which, with variations, is exceedingly common.
It is not in competitive examinations only that this principle applies. It applies wherever indefinite qualities are brought to a definite test. Horse-racing is an excellent illustration. It is often said, that it improves the breed of horses; and this may be true, because it directs attention to the subject and causes it to be studied, and because the breeding of racehorses forms a very small part of the occupation of breeding horses in general. It would, however, be a very great absurdity to suppose that the relative general goodness of a number of young horses depended on their places in a race run when they were three-year-olds. What the result of the Derby tends to ascertain is, which of a certain number of horses, of the same age, is able to run fastest for a certain distance. Even this result is not completely obtained, for a great deduction has to be made for the various circumstances attendant on the particular race,—such as the health of the horses, the state of the ground and the weather, the payment of the riders, and various other circumstances of the same kind. Every test, of course, fails to this extent; but after allowing for this, it still remains to be observed, that the substantial result of the test is altogether wide of the object which it might be supposed to attain. It decides not the relative goodness of the horses, but one question bearing upon their goodness; and as the goodness either of a horse or of a man is a very complicated matter, the determination of one question more or less connected with it is of very little importance as evidence of its existence.
The particular point, however, upon which the parallel between horseracing and competitive examinations is most instructive lies in their respective results. Each system has a direct tendency to convert the examination from being a test to being a substantive object. To win prizes becomes a profession in itself, and the horse is bred and trained for that purpose to the exclusion of all other purposes. A more utterly useless creature than a racehorse, except for the single purpose of running races, cannot be imagined. He is able in a given time and place, and under given circumstances, to pass over a certain distance in a miraculously short time; and speed, no doubt, is evidence of strength and the other good qualities of a horse; but if the owner of the horse, which, by any means and by any sacrifice of all other qualities, attains a maximum of speed, is enormously rewarded and put on a sort of pinnacle of glory, the inevitable consequence will be, that great numbers of horses will be devoted exclusively to the purpose of satisfying the teat imposed, without reference to any other consideration whatever.
With respect to horses, such a consequence is not of much importance. We can afford to sacrifice a certain number, even a certain breed of animals, to the public amusement—and a racehorse is certainly a finer animal than a learned pig. But even with regard to races, it may be doubted whether a less artificial and professional system would not give quite as much amusement, exercise a much better influence over the breed of horses, and avoid a good deal of gambling and blackguardism. With regard to men, it is quite another matter. The goodness of a system of education depends entirely on the goodness of the effects which it produces on those who are subjected to it. Now the really valuable qualities either of the heart or the head, are indefinite; nor can they, from the nature of the case, be measured by definite tests. Certain other qualities, more or less connected with these, can be so measured by the application of such tests; and to give great rewards for the fulfilment of such tests, must give an artificial value to those qualities which can be definitely measured, and discourage and diminish the estimation of those which cannot. Even with respect to those qualities which are encouraged, such a system has a direct tendency to narrow them, because it encourages them only in so far as it rewards the production of one specific proof of them. It rewards, not accuracy in general, but the possession of accurate knowledge of one particular thing. This might be, and sometimes is, attained, not by the cultivation of the habit of accuracy in many things, but by fixing the mind upon the subject of examination, to the exclusion of every other department of human knowledge. In short, competitive examinations are subject, in the highest degree, to the danger which besets every test or external sign, of gradually superseding and excluding the thing to be tested or signified.
The general result of this account of the nature of competitive examinations, considered as instruments of education, is, that they afford a convenient way of overcoming the childish apathy which is the first obstacle that teachers have to deal with; that they are useful for the purpose of correcting the languor and vagueness which hang about the inferior class of students at a more mature age; but that as regards the higher class of students, they are open to the objection that they not only give the second-rate men an advantage over their superiors, but have a tendency to enervate those who succeed in them; and that they have also a tendency to discourage the higher in comparison with the lower qualities, both in those who do and those who do not succeed in them. On the other hand, they certainly can be made both fair and approximately complete tests of the relative power of the candidates to do certain specific things.
Without understanding the nature of the scholastic effects of competitive examinations, it is hardly possible to understand the bearing and value of the common arguments about their use in reference to appointments in the public service. The arguments in favour of the adoption of the system in reference to all, or almost all, appointments, are, as has already been said, four in number, two of which are properly political, and the other two collateral. The collateral arguments are, that the system would give a great stimulus to general education, and that they would provide a new profession for obscure and unacknowledged merit. The political arguments are, that they would prevent jobbery and promote the efficiency of public servants. Considerable light is thrown on each of these four allegations by the view just given of the effects of competitive examinations on education. Their bearing on the collateral arguments is most direct, and therefore they may conveniently be considered first.
The first argument is, that the distribution of political appointments by competitive examinations would give a great stimulus to general education. There can be no doubt that, in a certain sense, and subject to certain observations, this is perfectly true. The prospect of obtaining scholarships or other prizes, gives its character to the whole course of education in our universities and public schools, and the whole framework of society, as it is at present constituted, renders parents in every class of life intensely anxious to secure for their children any sort of permanent and honourable employment. These two facts, taken together, leave no room for doubt that if the prospect of obtaining civil appointments as the reward of success in competitive examinations were held out to all the places of education in the kingdom, high and low, it would exercise a most powerful influence over them. Whether this is to be desired is another question, and it can only be solved by reference to the general character of the institutions to be influenced, and the sort of instruction which they give. The elaborate Report, and the immense mass of materials from which it was composed, which have been published by the Education Commissioners, show, amongst other things, that almost every one in the country, down to the very lowest, receives some amount of instruction, and goes during some part of his life to some school or other; and they describe, with minute and elaborate detail, the general character and the nature of the instruction given in all the schools which are resorted to by the children of mechanics, labourers, and the poorer class of small shopkeepers. The nature of the education given in public schools and universities is matter of general notoriety, and it may be assumed that private schools intended for the education of boys who are intended for the universities will be of a similar kind. Considerable light has been thrown on the character of the schools which are intermediate between these classes by the Oxford middle-class examinations. It is, therefore, possible to make broad statements about schools of all classes, with a considerable degree of confidence. Of the education provided for the more intelligent youths of the higher classes, it may be affirmed that it has long since reached, and even passed, the point at which more competition than exists at present can possibly be useful. The remarks already made suggest the question whether there is not too much already; and if this were the proper place to do so, much evidence might be given in support of this view. If, therefore, the Government were to increase largely the influence of competitive examinations in the education of these classes, they would do an injury to education instead of conferring a benefit upon it. The state of education amongst the middle classes seems to be worse than in any other part of the community. The worst schools in the country are those which are above the national schools and below the classical public schools. Their defect lies, beyond all doubt, in the ignorance of the teachers. Teachers for the poor are trained at a vast expense, and with a care which, if it errs at all, errs on the side of excess. Teachers for the rich have usually gone through the public schools and universities—a course of instruction which, with all its defects, is perhaps the most searching, and, certainly, one of the longest, most elaborate, and most instructive in the world. Teachers of middle-class schools are, for the most part, destitute of any regular training whatever for their profession. They take it up as a mere matter of business, and often as a makeshift rendered necessary by failure in other pursuits. Thus their characteristic fault, which, of course, is reflected in the education which they give, is that they degrade a liberal profession into a mere trade. This state of feeling would be confirmed and perpetuated if a large number of prizes were offered to the pupils of such schools, to be distributed by public competition. The prospect of obtaining such prizes would be regarded as the principal use of the education given in the schools, and the fact that a certain number of pupils had obtained them would furnish their proprietors with the most seductive, and the most delusive, of all possible advertisements. Nothing would be easier than to raise the character and tone of these institutions by a measure which would be perfectly simple, which would cost nothing, and which would have many obvious collateral advantages. Let the universities examine the teachers as well as the pupils, and give them distinctive degrees, according to their merits, and they will raise the tone of the whole profession, and greatly strengthen themselves in the position which, happily, they are quickly recovering in the esteem of the public at large.
It thus appears that the education of the upper and middle classes would be injured rather than promoted by any system of competitive examinations wide enough to affect them perceptibly; but with the lower classes the case is different. There can be no doubt that the education given in schools for the poor is still far below the point at which competitive examinations could become injurious. A very small percentage of the children stay after they are twelve years old. In the country, the great mass attend only up to ten; and even in towns, those who stay till they are twelve form the exception. Up to that age, the simplest forms of childishness and apathy, backed by indifference on the part of ignorant parents, are the great obstructions to education, and competitive examinations are excellent remedies for these faults. On the other hand, the teachers are the strong point of schools for the poor. Most of them have been regularly educated for their business, and the Government grants, especially as they will be administered under the new Minute, which has excited so much attention, give a strong guarantee that the general character of the school -will not be allowed to be sacrificed to the interests of a few favourite pupils. The effect, therefore, of competition in these schools would probably be very good, and would certainly be very strong. In all the great Government establishments, such as dockyards and arsenals, numbers of boys are employed, and such employment is keenly sought for. In some instances part of the employment is allotted by the result of competitive examinations, with the best result both to the public service and to the popular education of the place. An account of the working of this system at Plymouth may be seen in Mr. Patrick Cumin's Report to the Education Commissioners. It is to be found in vol. iii. p. 63, of their Report and Appendix.
The next point to be considered is the argument that an extensive system of competitive examinations would provide a new profession for modest and unassisted merit, and would enable obscure men of ability to raise themselves in the world. The first observation that suggests itself upon this is, that there never was any time or country in which obscure men of ability had greater advantages than they have in England at the present day. Excellent elementary education is provided at the cheapest possible rate for every one who chooses to take it. There is no child so poor, and no adult so neglected, that if either of them feels the smallest wish to be educated, they will find the least difficulty in gratifying that wish. A lad who is able to read, write, and cypher well, has an almost boundless field open to him; and the real reason why so few people rise in the world, is not that there are few openings, but that in reality there is little ambition, and that the great mass of mankind, though they may occasionally grumble, are not really sufficiently dissatisfied with their position in life to make any considerable sustained effort to improve it. No one, of course, would contend that it is an easy thing for a friendless labouring boy to become lord chancellor (though such an event has actually happened within the last ten years); but it is no very difficult matter for him to become, say, a station-master on a railway. The steps are as plain as possible. A good boy, in a national school, would easily get employment as a telegraph clerk; a well-conducted telegraph clerk might, as he got older, aspire to becoming a guard; and a well-conducted guard is not an unlikely person to become a station-master. There are many counties where an able-bodied man of good character and fair education might make sure, with a very little trouble, of becoming a policeman. An active policeman has before him the prospect of becoming a sergeant, an inspector, a superintendent, and possibly the governor of a gaol. A saving journeyman may become a master; nay, a navvy may take work on contract, and may, as several of them have, earn hundreds of thousands of pounds, before he know how to write his own name. In short, in every walk of life whatever, those who know how to take care of their interests and to use their opportunities will find abundance of ways to what, in their original rank, they would have regarded as exceedingly enviable positions. This being so, why should the public go out of their way to add one more to the many avenues to money and rank which already exist? and would the avenue which it is proposed to open be a wholesome one?
There are the strongest reasons for supposing that it would not. In the first place, what sort of class would such a system tend to produce? It would tend to produce a set of professional passers of examinations, men whose prospects in life would depend entirely on their success in reproducing, for the satisfaction of examiners, the subjects they had got up out of books. The observations already made on the effects on education of competitive examinations show that the qualities which might be expected in such men would be anything but high.
In the next place, the public service would by these means be put before the world in a totally false light. The public offices are places for work, they are not temples of fame, entrance into which is to be considered as the reward of virtue. The relation between the Government and its clerks is the ordinary relation between master and servant. No doubt the Government is quite right in taking whatever may be the most effectual means for getting good servants, but it would be altogether absurd to erect it into a sort of Lord Bountiful, rewarding humble virtue and patronizing the liberal arts. Governments should mind their own business, and not aspire to the honour of being national schoolmasters with a spice of the clergyman superadded. They will only spoil what they try to foster.
The real want at which the argument in question points, and the way to supply it, are essentially different from those at which the argument itself is levelled. In every society there always will be a certain proportion of persons who are fitted by natural refinement of mind or energy of intellect for a higher and larger training than they are likely to receive in the position in which they are born. In so far as a great system of Government competition affected such persons at all, it would be a misfortune. Any one who knows what the inside of a public office is like, knows that a clerkship is about the last place which a man of this sort ought to wish or would wish to hold, if it were not invested with artificial splendour by being described as a reward for merit. The real want of such persons is a high education, not a secure provision for life, and the means of satisfying that want would be provided not only sufficiently but in splendid profusion if the charitable endowments of the country were properly managed. The whole of this most curious and interesting subject is discussed with conspicuous ability in the fifth part of the Report of the Education Commissioners (pp. 456-540; see especially the observations on Christ's Hospital, pp. 496-503).
The third argument in support of a general system of distributing appointments by the result of competitive examinations is, that it would put an end to political jobbery. This is perfectly true, and is undoubtedly the strongest recommendation of the system. No one can affect to deny that the appointments to the less conspicuous offices under Government, offices which almost any one can discharge respectably, were and are generally made from personal reasons, and are to that extent jobbed, if the word is restricted to appointments made with a view to private and not to public advantage, without implying that they are positively corrupt or improper. No doubt this system is accompanied by disadvantages, and tends to diminish the efficiency of the public service, though it is of less importance than is usually supposed, as less depends on the efficiency of subordinate officers than many people think. No doubt a system of appointment by competitive examinations would effectually exclude jobbery from every appointment to which it extended; and it must be further observed, that the effects of the measure would extend far beyond the limits of its direct operation. It would be universally and not unjustly regarded as a pledge on the part of the Government to act with uprightness and impartiality in the distribution of its patronage; this would, no doubt, be a great advantage, not merely in a political but also in a moral point of view, over and above the positive advantages of the removal of jobbery itself, and of the relief of official men from the temptations to which they are at present exposed by the importunities of those who have claims upon them. These, no doubt, are great advantages, and are worthy of attentive consideration.
The last, the most important, and also the most hotly disputed of the arguments in favour of the system, is, that it would raise the level of efficiency amongst public servants. The argument in the negative is, that there are many qualities of great importance in public servants which competitive examinations do not test. And the qualities generally referred to in support of this assertion are those which relate to the manners or morals of the candidate. On the other side this is admitted, but it is answered that the probability is that men who do possess the qualities tested by competitive examinations will possess a larger share of the qualities not tested by them than an equal number of persons selected by chance. A man who has given some evidence of accuracy and the power of sustained attention is more likely, or at the very least is not less likely, to be honourable, trustworthy, and gentlemanlike, than a man who has given no evidence whatever of anything. No doubt this is true, and it disposes of the question as far as regards appointments made at random, or (which practically comes to the same thing) from purely personal considerations. But this observation must be taken in connection with the remarks made above as to the qualities which enable men to succeed in competitive examinations; so that the conclusion will be, that a system of competitive examinations would secure for the public offices a supply of men distinguished by those intellectual qualities which are required by success in competitive examinations; and, to say the very least, on a par, in moral qualifications and gentlemanly manners, with persons otherwise appointed. When, however, this result is obtained, and we come to apply the principle to the actual state of the public offices, an entirely new question arises. Are such men wanted in the public offices, and for what purposes? In order to solve this question it is necessary to say something of the general character of the business which they transact.
Most of the public offices are framed on much the same mould. Some of the duties to be done require high qualities, originality, force of character, varied knowledge both of books and men. An Under-Secretary of one of the great Departments of State may have duties not much less various or less difficult than those of a judge; though the range of his duties depends in a great measure on the inclination, the knowledge, and the industry of the Head of the Department. This, however, is altogether the exception. The duties of the great mass of public officers involve very little discretion, and absolutely no responsibility beyond that which attaches to obedience to a prescribed routine. Even when he rises to the very highest point which he can hope to reach, a Government clerk is occupied almost exclusively in collecting materials for the use, and preparing drafts for the approval, of his superiors. He is hardly ever called upon to act upon his own responsibility, or to think for himself. The great majority of the offices in the gift of the Crown have two great advantages. They relieve the holders from all anxiety as to their future prospects, and the duties are, as a rule, moderate in amount and not uninteresting in kind. Some of them are exceedingly interesting.
This broad division between those offices which do, and those which do not involve discretion, indicates plainly the limit within which competitive examinations would be useful. The sort of man who succeeds in a competitive examination is just the sort of man who makes a good clerk. The presumption is that he is regular, clear-headed, docile, plastic, and that he has the temper, and therefore the manners, which usually go with such a turn of mind. On the other hand, his success raises no presumption in favour of his originality or independence of mind, and is even to some extent evidence to the contrary. The result is, that competitive examinations might be expected to raise the efficiency of the less important class of public servants, but that if they were used for any other purpose, the result would be the general exclusion of first-rate men from the higher offices, to which, at present, they are not unfrequently appointed. This would be an evil which would almost infinitely overbalance any advantage which could be derived from the increased efficiency of the inferior officers. A priggish and timid undersecretary would do more harm in a week than any number of irreproachably regular clerks would set to rights in ten years.
In practice this is universally admitted. No one proposes to appoint any officer by competitive examination whose position is conspicuous or important enough to afford in itself a guarantee that the appointment will not be jobbed. No chancellor would venture to make a briefless dependant into a judge, and no Secretary of State would ever think of jobbing the appointment of Under-Secretary, so long as he valued his own comfort and cared to discharge the duties of his office with reputation. The result is, that such offices as these are, in a large proportion of cases, filled by men of considerable talents and force of mind. Even for offices much less conspicuous than these, competitive examinations are rarely, if ever, proposed. For example: how would the public at large, and the clergy in particular, like to see inspectors of schools appointed by such means? What school manager would adopt them to guide him in the selection of a schoolmaster? Would any one listen to the proposal to extend the system to county court judgeships and police magistracies, even though these posts, important as they are, are occasionally jobbed?
These questions are generally slurred over, or left on one side, by the advocates of competitive examinations. They say that no one proposes to apply the system to such cases; that it is not suited for them; that grown men cannot be expected to submit to such examinations, and that in fact they would not do so. All this is perfectly true; but what does it prove? Why will not grown men submit to such tasks? and why is not the system as well suited to judges as to clerks? If the best lad in Westminster School can be selected by a competitive examination, why not the ablest man in Westminster Hall? The plain answer is, that the more important qualities, those which distinguish grown men from each other, and on which happiness and usefulness principally depend, are in their very nature incapable of being brought to a definite test. It would be as absurd to try to express in marks the difference between a good judge and a bad one, as to try to measure a mountain with a two-foot rule. If it is admitted that competitive examinations will not apply to grown men for the reason stated, it will follow that they will not apply to boys or youths, in so far as the same reason holds. It will follow that a boy of mature character, of manly habits of thought, of original and independent mind, will, by reason of his possession of those qualities, be at a disadvantage in a competitive examination, for reasons very like those which would ensure the defeat in a short foot-race of a powerful man of thirty by a slender lad of eighteen.
It may be asked whether competitive examinations might not be so contrived as to test originality and force of character. The answer is, that they could not, because the repugnancy between the two things lies in the essence of each. A competitive examination must be definite, and it must imply a course of special preparation imposed externally. No one knows what are the elements which constitute originality, power of character, and capacity of understanding. We attribute those qualities to particular men, differing widely from each other in a thousand ways, because we feel that there is a deep, though subtle, resemblance between' them, which we can describe but cannot define, and which, if we try to define it, eludes our grasp altogether. Such qualities are therefore indefinite, and will always continue to be so, unless our knowledge of human nature should be inconceivably increased. It is a contradiction in terms to propose a definite test for indefinite qualities.
Another reason for the same conclusion is, that it would be impossible to find examiners whose judgment would be worth having. Men are easily to be found who will command perfect confidence when they say, "I certify that the merit of the answers of A to the questions contained in this paper of mathematical problems, is to that of the answers of B as 95 to 36;" but who would care to know that two or three gentlemen sitting at Whitehall had conversed with A and B, and set them essays to write, and that they found that A had greater originality than B, and B greater capacity than A. The answer would be, that no doubt there was some evidence for their opinion; and so the fact that a man is seen walking along the Strand in the morning is some evidence that he committed a murder in Smithfield in the afternoon, for it shows that he was near the place, and might have been there. An ardent advocate of competitive examinations once observed that he had examined several candidates for a fellowship, and that he was satisfied that he had exactly gauged the mental powers and calibre of each of them. Those who knew both the examiner and the examinees could not doubt that, vivid as the gentleman's impressions might be, they could not possibly be complete, as there was not room enough in the one man for complete pictures of the others.
These principles show how far competitive examinations may be usefully employed in the public service, and suggest several observations on the subject, which are often forgotten, and should always be borne in mind. Being favourable to second-rate men, and second-rate men being required for the subordinate positions in the service, they will, no doubt, supply the ablest second-rate men who are to be had; but it should be carefully recollected that they are childish expedients, intended for second-rate people, and a door should be left open by which abler men may be introduced into the service at a more mature age over the heads of those who have come in by competition. There is great danger that if the entrance to the public offices comes to be regarded as a reward of distinguished ability—and the public at large cannot be expected to draw nice distinctions as to the sort of ability which is so distinguished—the persons who enter upon such terms will look upon the honours of that service as their right, and will resent their being given to others. "Why," they will ask, "after choosing us for our merits, do you prefer others to us who have proved no merits at all?" The answer ought to be, "The merits for which you were rewarded were not those of a distinguished man, but those of a good boy. You chose at an early age to discount your prospects, and to accept a quiet and secure occupation as a relief from the anxieties and trials of open professions. You must not now expect to be treated as if you had chosen a more adventurous course. Clerks you are, and clerks you will remain; when we want statesmen we shall look elsewhere." To come to maturity late is the characteristic of great and enduring power of mind and body; and to tie the public service down to officers who distinguished themselves at twenty, would be to exclude from it those very men who can least easily be spared.
This does not apply to those branches of the public service in which special definite knowledge, capable of being accurately tested, must be acquired at an early age, and in which, from the nature of the case, every candidate must enter young. The scientific branches of the army precisely fulfil these conditions. As promotion is by seniority, the service must be entered at an early age. As special definite knowledge is indispensable, its presence may be tested, and superiority in it may be fairly rewarded by competitive examinations. To some extent, the same observations apply to India. Men must go there young if they are to live; and there are so many unpleasant circumstances connected with life in India, that the mere wish to go there is evidence of a certain degree of originality and vigour of character. A mere prize getter is hardly likely to carry his dexterity to so rough a market. At the same time there were advantages about the old system which appear to have been needlessly thrown away by the new one. Haileybury gave a common object of interest, and in some respects a common character, to the students who passed through it, which no one will undervalue who knows the power of traditions at places of education, and the freemasonry which exists between men brought up at the same school or college. The author of the present essay saw much of Haileybury during the last three years of its existence; and though the system had obvious defects, it was impossible not to admire the esprit de corps, and the spirited, courageous tone of the place. The names of the civilians who sustained our empire through the mutiny with a desperate heroism not exceeded by the military themselves, were household words at Haileybury, and their exploits produced throughout the whole place an effort like that which the success in after life of an Eton man produces at Eton. No one could see the enthusiasm of the gallant youths at the fall of Delhi without feeling that when the opportunity arose they would fight not only for the honour of England, but for the honour of Haileybury, and for the sake of the happy days they had passed, and the kind friends they had known there. If the college had been maintained, admission to it being made by competition, every advantage of the new system would have been gained, and those of the old system would not have been lost.
A second observation is, that though competitive examinations may regulate admission to an office, they ought not to affect promotion within it. Every one who cares to be well served must care for the interests of those who serve him, and the one great advantage which official life gives in exchange for the retirement and subjection which it imposes is its security. A clerk anxious about his future prospects is in as woful a condition as any innocent human being can occupy. What must be the state of an office in which some twenty or thirty men are shut up as in a cockpit, with periodical cock-fights, the result of which determines their position and prospects in life? What degree of zeal and good feeling in the discharge of his duty could be expected of the father of a rising and increasing family, who saw that his prospect of increased comfort and dignity depended on his succeeding in beating in a competitive examination some young man fresh from college. His whole comfort would be destroyed by such a prospect, and he would be deprived of that degree of composure and security which is essential to the satisfactory transaction of business. Here and there, no doubt, a case might occur in which the younger members of an office might be usefully stimulated by a competition for some specific purpose; but such exceptions apart, it is universally true that competitive examinations should be restricted to admission to offices, and should have no effect upon promotions within them.
Another observation which must not be overlooked is, that there are cases large enough to form a class, in which competitive examinations would deprive the public of useful and sometimes of transcendently useful servants. The opponents of the system constantly point to Clive and Wellington as illustrations of the futility of the tests proposed. Would they, it is asked, have won a prize in competition? The answer always relied upon is:—Yes, they would; for if they had not been able to get commissions without winning them in an examination, they would have won them as they won their battles in after life. The answer does not meet the objection. The observations made above show that the qualities by which battles are won are very often the very qualities by which competitive examinations are lost. An imperious, wayward, self-willed, naughty boy, like Clive, would never have gone to India at all if he had had to pass a competitive examination before he got there. He would not have submitted to the discipline. Wellington seems to have been an illustration of the class of men already referred to—men who come to their maturity late. There is no evidence at all that he was ever what would be called a clever boy; even as a young man he was not distinguished, though those who knew him intimately saw what great qualities lay under a careless and trifling exterior. Competitive examinations will not alter human nature. They will not make the oak grow like a poplar, nor give the bulldog the docility of the spaniel. It is the easiest thing in the world to deter such men as Clive or Wellington from entering on particular walks of life; indeed, nothing is more singular than the slightness of the grounds by which the choice of a profession is determined. Whilst a man is uncertain as to the nature and extent of his talents, the least thing will turn him away from a profession in which he must have succeeded if he had persevered. It must never be forgotten that the exclusion of a single Clive or Wellington is a far greater loss than the admission of almost any number of drones.
There is another class of persons who, though not illustrious, would be very useful, and who would be excluded from the public service by any system of competitive examinations. This class is particularly numerous in the army and navy. It is commonly objected that competitive examinations would be unfavourable to bodily strength and activity; and to this it is usually replied—first, that there is no opposition between bodily and mental power, but the reverse; and secondly, that where bodily powers are required, the attainment of a certain standard of strength may be made a condition precedent to the competition. The first of these arguments is extremely popular for a variety of reasons. The consistency between mental and bodily excellencies, and even their intimate relation, is asserted with passion by those who are in the habit of insisting on the connection between religion and common life, the essential manliness of Christianity, and other well-known topics of the same kind. For obvious reasons, such views are particularly welcome to schoolmasters and others engaged in education, and the wide popularity and influence of such a book as Tom Brown's School-days is a good illustration of their nature and origin.
An impartial examination of the matter will, probably, suggest a considerable modification of them. It is hardly possible to doubt that fitness and inclination for study, especially amongst lads who have not come to their full maturity, is almost entirely a question of temperament. Take two boys of equal mental capacity, and equal dexterity, one of whom has a good deal of nervous energy, little muscular strength, a slow circulation of the blood, and little animal spirits; whilst the other is of sanguine temperament, great muscular strength, full of life to the tips of his fingers; and can any one doubt that in any scholastic competition the first will beat the second, though the second would, in all probability, make an infinitely better soldier or sailor than the first? If objection is taken to setting the mind in opposition to the body, it must surely often be admitted to be true that, as a general rule, excellence of some bodily functions is not usually found in connection with the excellence of some others. A very large and powerful man is seldom very active. A very quick man is seldom very powerful. In the same way, as a general rule, the strength, activity, and hardihood which fit a man for active out-door pursuits, are not usually found in connection with those peculiarities of the brain and nervous system which incline their possessor to mental exertion.
No doubt exceptions to this rule do occur. There is a small class of men, of peculiarly vigorous make, who are equally fit for bodily and mental labour; and there are professions—the bar is one of them—in which such a constitution is the greatest possible assistance towards success, if it is not a condition of it. It is to their possession of this great gift that many of the fifteen judges owe their elevation. It is, however, a very rare gift indeed. As a general rule, a hardy sportsman will soon be knocked up by late hours, bad air, short nights, and constant exertion of the eyes and the brain; and on the other hand, the man with a student's constitution will be quite unequal to deer-stalking, mountaineering, or campaigning. No one doubts that the qualities which make a horse a very good cart-horse, unfit him for running races; or that those which fit him for the Derby, disqualify him for drawing an omnibus. The proposal to give ordinary commissions by competition is just like a proposal to test cart-horses, not by drawing but by running. It may be said, why not examine into the qualities which you wish to reward? The answer has been given already. It is impossible, because the qualities (daring, prudence, spirit, and the like,) are indefinite; the test must be definite, and the power of satisfying such a definite test as would be proposed, is generally found in connection with other qualities than those which are required. The proposal to make a certain standard of strength condition of competing, does not meet the objection that the examination would be unfavourable to a whole class who ought not to be excluded. The object is to include those who would be excluded, not to exclude some of those who would otherwise be included.
The general result of the whole is that, considered as instruments of education, competitive examinations are useful, but that they are useful in proportion to the immaturity, the languor, and the absence of the higher qualities of mind in the persons examined; and that there is a point, which is soon reached, at which they become positively injurious to students of a higher kind. Considered as tests for the distribution of political offices, they are useful as pledges of the sincerity of Government, and of their wish to distribute their patronage on pure principles: they are also useful as a rough but effectual cure for jobbery; they would raise the standard of efficiency amongst Government officers of an inferior kind, and for others of a superior kind, under certain special circumstances. On the other hand, they would be unfavourable to men of the highest order, and also to useful men of a lower order, who are required for rough purposes. In a word, they would favour a rather low level of mediocrity, to the exclusion of all other persons.
These observations have no reference to pass examinations. They may frequently be useful either as tests upon entrance to an office, or as barriers to be passed before particular rank within an office can be attained.
Cornhill Magazine, December 1861.