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[Kim Seong-kon] Hitchcock, Chaplin and Korean exams

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Published : 2010-12-21 17:53
Updated : 2010-12-21 17:53

On a humorous website, I happened to come across a funny anecdote about the famous British film director Alfred Hitchcock. When his granddaughter was a student, she and her classmates were asked to write a paper on Hitchcock’s favorite film, “Shadow of a Doubt.” She discussed the paper with her grandfather and Hitchcock kindly helped her. So she handed the paper in with confidence. 

When she got the paper back, however, she had only a C with the comment, “You did not elaborate enough.” When she brought the C paper to her grandfather, Hitchcock said, “I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do.”

This hilarious anecdote reminded me of another funny episode about Charlie Chaplin. When a national contest was held to find the best impersonator of the celebrated comedic actor, Chaplin secretly entered the contest himself to see what would happen. He was standing in line with other applicants who resembled him, but nobody recognized him. On the stage in front of the judges, Chaplin made his own gestures and facial expressions skillfully, full of confidence. To his surprise, however, he did not win the contest.

These two humorous anecdotes well illustrate the fact that sometimes the genius is not necessarily recognized by the mediocre, or that the spurious often outshines the genuine. They also imply that you cannot find a gem through unreliable tests or dubious standards of judgment. The teacher’s judgment was perhaps too arbitrary, and the contest judges’ perception too shallow; the former probably wanted excessive explanations and the latter obviously was not able to discern the real among the shams.

Similar phenomena occur in Korean exams as well. According to the same internet site, Poet Choi Seung-ho, for example, often complains about the Korean equivalent of the SAT test, which contains questions on his poems such as “Blizzard Warning.”

“Even I fail to find the right answer,” he muttered. “In poetry, image is like flesh, rhythm is blood and meaning is like bones. But the exam forces students to find the bones only.”

Indeed, our testing policy, as well as our education system forces our students to forget the warm flesh and blood, and search for the dried bones of a dead man instead. It is common sense that you cannot possibly find one answer when it comes to poetic meaning. In fact, you cannot simply find one meaning for each stanza and line of a poem. Unfortunately, however, the Korean SAT test leads students to believe there is only one correct meaning in a poetic word or stanza, which is definitely a serious fallacy.

I have the same experience myself. One of my essays is included in the Ministry of Education’s high school textbook, “Korean.” When I found a question about my essay in a SAT Preparation Book, I was appalled.

The question was: “What is the author’s intention in the underlined part?” First, I did not have any particular intention for the underlined part (the exam makers arbitrarily underlined it), and second, who cares about the author’s intentions in this age of reader-response criticism?

An even worse question asked: “Which one of the following is not the author’s intention?” The problem was that all five possible answers were not my intention at all.

Students take tests to see how much they have learned. Hence exams test students’ progress and achievement, and induce them to choose the right answers. Korean exams, however, seem to try to want to trick students and induce them to choose the wrong answers. Whenever taking a test, therefore, Korean students try very hard to locate the hidden trap, instead of proving their academic accomplishments.

What, then, is the reason for the twisted, even malicious, intention of the test writers who try to trick and trap students? Perhaps it is to arbitrarily differentiate the scores of the students, so that the test writers can easily pass or fail them.

The aim of the Korean SAT exam, too, does not seem to be to test the students’ scholastic aptitude, but to categorize them into several groups that feed into different colleges. Hence, the exams are comprised of trick questions which can only have one “right” answer; the other four answers must be “wrong,” even though they are all plausible and possible.

That is why the Korean SAT’s history test, for example, almost always asks such insignificant questions as “Which one of the following is not the title of the king during the Silla Kingdom?” Instead, it should ask more important, comprehensive questions like “What do you think is the historical meaning of Silla’s unification of the Korean Peninsula?”

In order to prepare for these kinds of exams, students must be cunning and simply memorize all the “right” answers. Our exams largely fail to recognize the genuine academic accomplishments of our students, but make them mechanical robots that must automatically pick the “right” answers. In order to upgrade our education, we should see to the urgent revision of our exams.

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.