Pray for me, Brother Ass

In a room where I was invigilating last week I discovered an unusual piece of lost property: a small laminated card bearing a prayer that begins

O Great St. Joseph of Cupertino who while on earth did obtain from God the grace to be asked at your examination only the questions you knew, obtain for me a like favour in the examinations for which I am now preparing…

I was curious enough to find out more about this engaging holy dunce known to his companions as “Brother Ass”. According to the version by Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira,

The Superior decided to admit him to the monastery with hopes that he might learn enough to be ordained, but the effort seemed hopeless. Joseph could not comment on any passage of Scriptures except one: “Beatus venter qui Te portavit” [Blessed be the womb that bore Thee].

When the time came for his examination for the diaconate, the Bishop opened the Gospels at random and his eyes fell on that one text Joseph knew well. Joseph was able to expound on it with success. A year later came the tests for the priesthood. All the postulants except Joseph were very well prepared. The Bishop called on a number of the candidates, who responded superbly. Supposing that all were at the same intellectual level, the Bishop approved all of them without questioning the rest. Joseph was among the candidates who were asked nothing.

He went on to become a spiritual exemplar “famous for his ecstasies, miracles, and for the gift of levitation”.

I don’t intend to mock either the saint’s story or the students who look to him — in some desperation, one might guess — for help. What fascinates me is the choice of this patron saint for examinees, and what it might say about how they see the examination process.

As a student, one can call on heavenly back-up from the likes of St Thomas Aquinas and St Jerome, theological heavyweights packing a gunship’s worth of scholarly firepower each. As an examinee, it seems, all one can turn to is Brother Ass. For study, one seeks the support of those known to be good at studying; for examination, of someone who passed two exams in his life, the first by the miraculous placing of an episcopal forefinger and the second by a grotesque breach of assessment procedures. Knowledge, the message seems to be, is no protection against the examiners’ caprices: only a miracle can help.

Maybe there is a fine humility in there, even hints of the prayer in which we come to G-d “not… trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies”. I’m not sure, though, that I care for how that casts me, or my fellow examiners; still less do I care for the alternative reading in which we act as the eternal accuser, claiming our rightful prey by law but baulked by the intervention of grace. I’d much rather that my students believed what I tell them: that my task as an examiner is to let them show how much they’ve learned and understood; and that if they have learned and understood the material then they should expect to perform well in the exam.

San_Giuseppe_da_Copertino_si_eleva_in_volo_alla_vista_della_Basilica_di_LoretoIn other words, I’d like my students to see assessment as a human transaction, conducted in terms of justice and of their own abilities. I’d prefer them to rely on their own powers, which would take them so much further than they realise, if they’d only use them. But somehow, for some students at least, it has acquired an touch of the ineffable: a mystery to be approached in terms of supplication, grace and mercy. The danger is then that what started as humility becomes a kind of Calvinist fatalism, like the doctrine in which one’s election or reprobation is out of one’s own hands from before the foundation of the world — surely, in educational terms, the ultimate example of Dweck’s “fixed mindset”.

And what worries me even more than this mindset is that after so many years trying I still don’t really know how to change it. Even if I were entitled to saintly assistance, I’m not sure whom I’d turn to: only a few of the patron saints of teachers seem to have had much actual experience as teachers (and one of those who did was apparently martyred by his own students). Perhaps there is something essentially unsaintly about the tangled duties and frustrations of working in a formal educational system, obliged to exercise powers of judgement and reward that a saintlier person might resign solely to G-d.

And perhaps, after all, my students’ lack of faith in their own powers isn’t so very different from my own. All either of us can do is to perform, imperfectly, one side of a transaction, one side of a ritual, of which the completion lies in another’s hands — behind the veil of the marking scheme for them; for me, out among the educational dark matter beyond the light of the sun. Which is why students, if brought up in the appropriate tradition, turn to saints; and why teachers and examiners so often turn to educational myths and gurus. There are far worse people one could look to for support than Brother Ass.

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One Response to Pray for me, Brother Ass

  1. Pingback: On the banks of denial: the Higher Maths “crocodile” question | New-cleckit dominie

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