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Nothing Trivial

Entry 1956, on 2018-12-20 at 22:27:07 (Rating 3, Comments)

I've always said that I don't see any point in writing blog posts about the things that everyone agrees with, and in expressing these posts in non-controversial ways - and this post will not be an exception to that rule. I'm about to launch into a tirade that's going to make me look like one of those cantankerous old men who spend half their lives complaining about the youth of today. Actually, that is a lot less controversial than many of my other posts, so maybe this warning wasn't necessary, but let's get started anyway...

About a month back senior New Zealand high school students sat their end of year exams (for people in countries with different naming systems for school levels: that is for year 13, or usually the final year at school, or about 17 years old). In one history exam a question asked them to discuss the quote from Julius Caesar that "events of importance are the result of trivial causes".

It seems like a good, open-ended question, that anyone could write a fairly good essay about, although obviously quoting real events from history would be useful, so some knowledge of the subject would be an advantage. So what's the problem? Well, apparently a significant number of the students didn't know what the word "trivial" meant. There's some obvious irony here, which I might discuss later, but first I should talk about vocabulary in general.

It's easy just to totally ridicule these students and the education system which seems to have failed them. But different words become more and less popular over time, so maybe this one just isn't used so much by the young people today. I don't actually find that particularly convincing, because it seems that other moderately difficult words also flummox this generation.

A local news company did an informal survey on the streets of Auckland to test young people's understanding of words like trivial, penultimate, bona fide, and expedient. I use all of these words myself and know their meaning, but I thought I would ask a few other people of my generation which gave mixed results. Most knew some of the words or had only poor definitions of them all, but they were far better than the young people tested.

Here are some attempts by the young people at the meaning of trivial. One admitted to having no idea, but guessed that it might mean "a series of events". Her friend attempted to rescue her by offering "is it like if there's a battle?" A third person guessed: "trivial - like a trivia? Questions. A bunch of questions." Yeah, here's a word they probably do know: fail!

The word "expedient" was possibly an even bigger problem with most admitting to having no idea at all, and it was the same for "penultimate". Maybe the best responses were for "bona fide", with guesses such as "a name surgeons use or something" and "is it something to do with the body?" and "a name surgeons use". Maybe the word "bona" sounds a bit like "bone".

I knew the exact meaning of these words, plus the Latin origin of bona fide, but I did take 2 years of Latin when I was at school, so I did have a big advantage there. To be fair, people who take other languages more popular today, like Chinese or Maori, could probably answer questions based on those better than I could.

There is one other interesting element to this story I should add. That is that the people taking the exams who didn't know the words have started a petition to try to force the examiners to show leniency when marking their papers if they didn't understand a word. Is this another example of the culture of entitlement and fragility we see so often today? I don't think anyone would have contemplated this sort of action back when I did exams (which was admittedly many years ago).

Another possible issue is the support these young people get from many in positions of authority, who today seem far too scared to stand up to this sort of thing, presumably because they don't want to get accused of being unsupportive or culturally unaware or for some other fatuous reason.

The New Zealand History Teachers' Association chairman said in this case a glossary should have been included, and because the exam was not testing comprehension, it was unfair to make that part of the assessment. But surely every question includes elements of comprehension.

A spokeswoman for the Qualifications Authority said the language used in the question was in the expected range of vocabulary for a NCEA Level 3 history student, but the candidates would not be penalised for misinterpreting the word. How anyone could answer the question in any meaningful way without understanding the meaning of an essential word was not stated.

And here's the ironic element of this that I alluded to above. Maybe the lack of knowledge of words like trivial is because the education system is concentrating on material which is itself trivial. I often hear that first year students coming to university have to be taught all the stuff they should already know before they can even start their real course. I really have to wonder what over 10 years of education is really achieving.

Finally, there is one other element I really just have to mention, although it might be considered by some to be a cheap shot. That is that education is one of the most horribly politically correct areas in academia. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on so-called equality, diversity, and all of those other buzz-words we hear so often. But there is one word I don't hear much about: quality.

And that's a bona fide item I list as my penultimate point here, and even if it has an element of political expediency, I hope it isn't trivial.

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