A good friend once described studying for the bar exam as ‘a Bataan Death March of the mind.’ That description both trivializes the horrors of the Death March and gestures toward what seems to me, from the outside, to be the mind-numbing, anxiety-inducing tedium of bar-exam preparation. Interminably long video lectures, flash cards, memorization of black letter law; it looks and sounds gruesome. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it, but being at home with a partner studying for it wasn’t much fun either. (To her credit, my wife stayed calm throughout, disdaining the extreme nerves that afflict many of those attempting to clear this last hurdle in the obstacle race termed ‘an education in law.’)
I have never taken an exam like the bar. The closest I’ve come to experiencing some of the related stress was in my high-school days, thanks to the vagaries of an educational system that elevated grades in graduation finals to the status of a career-and-life-trajectory determiner. My Ph.D qualifiers, by contrast, were not as stressful as they could have been. My fellow-sufferers and I were not given well-defined reading lists but rather, granted access to a host of past exams so we could study according to trends visible in the questions asked every year. A reading list of sorts emerged as a result. Furthermore, as we had considerably leeway in picking and choosing questions to answer, a peculiar sort of directed reading became possible. I started early and very soon, found myself so saturated by my preparation I wished the exams would be held earlier. A curve-ball, though, lurked in my second qualifier, the one on Metaphysics, Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind, where I found questions waiting for me that I had not specifically prepared for. I constructed an essay on the spur of the moment, ‘winging it’ as it were. That done, I left New York for what I considered a well-earned vacation. (A few weeks later, a good friend gave me the news I had passed in true philosophy student style: ‘The results are out; no names were published, but everyone who took both exams passed; you took both exams; therefore you passed.’ In case you were interested, he teaches logic now.)
The scars, though, of twelve years of primary schooling marked by constant testing has left me despising anything resembling a final. I try to not administer finals in the classes I teach; my mind rebels at the thought of inflicting on students what I would not want done to myself. More to the point, I think final exams are pedagogically useless. (But more on that in another post, some other time.) A few years ago I considered attending law school. Many factors combined to turn me away from that decision, the staggering expense of a legal education among them. But by far the most important factor was that I simply could not be bothered subjecting myself to the ordeal of taking final exams. I had promised myself, as I sipped on a celebratory whisky after my Ph.D qualifiers, that that would be my last written ‘final.’ I’m glad I stuck with that decision. Good riddance to bad rubbish.