Modern Art, and the Art of Educational Assessment

The spheres of science, morality and art are a recurring pattern in sociology. Weber saw these spheres split into expert cultures as religion collapsed. Habermas refers to these spheres as the objective, social, and subjective worlds. Lyotard uses the warmer terms of truth, justice and beauty. The modern world has difficulty holding these spheres together.

A failure to integrate is described by Weber as the iron cage, by Marx as alienation, by Lyotard as the terrors of performativity, and by Habermas as legitimation crises. Each thinker proffers a solution; respectively bureaucracy, revolution, paralogy, and postconventional reasoning.

As a physics teacher, science was always my strong suit.  I had difficulty with normative ethics, and as year level coordinator often couldn’t offer good argument as to why a student should comply with uniform policy. I was both year level coordinator and school timetabler for a period. I always put greater effort into the timetable. I knew if I could make sure students from 9A didn’t meet students from 9C in the quadrangle during period changeover, my year level coordinator duties would be much diminished.

The literature and art teachers hung out at the staffroom low chairs, from where a weekly cake club was also organised.  It was from these low chairs that my most fruitful teaching collaborations sprang, as well as my lasting friendships.  It was where my physics teaching merged into technology, and then into art, through subjects such as textiles and sound engineering, as well as the school radio club.

Even though a physics teacher, I knew the other subjects were the most important. I admired those who taught normative ethics through humanities, and meaning through the arts. I considered science, and functions like the timetable, as simply facilitating the more important aspects of life. These collaborations changed with the rise of neoliberalism, my interest waned, and I left teaching.

I was lucky to get a job on the PISA project as a junior, and because I could juggle technology and art in the normative context of the PISA, I was lucky enough to lead the PISA’s computer-based test of science 2006.  I had to coordinate software engineers and test developers who had to develop test items. Gunther Kress wasn’t big yet, but I’d read Umberto Eco, and so I explained this new media in terms of Foucault’s Pendulum, and the Name of the Rose, and got the job done. The project worked well, and while the PISA was a rewarding job, it really couldn’t handle the data from this new medium. I didn’t see that as a problem at the time, and I also thought the whole exercise a bit remote, like timetabling, and couldn’t see myself working for a statistics centre cycle after cycle. How boring would that be, and how wrong I was. I was in the eye of the storm.

After a decade of working in the department, I decided to revisit the assessment period of my life through a PhD. In between drafts, I have found time to revisit art. In preparation for Melbourne’s MOMA exhibition, I read Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New. And this too, told me a lot about the development in educational assessment.

Educational assessment, like art, is about creating symbols and representations. Hughes’ does a great job of describing the tortured history art has with the unrepresentable. There is a similar tension in educational assessment. Two analogies struck me, the mechanical fascination for verticality, illustrated by The Red Tower by Robert Delaunay from ~1912, and the absurd rise of the commercial art market in the 1970s and 1980s.

Robert Delaynay – The Red Tower 1911-12

The fascination with verticality in art is reflected in the fascination with the linear scale in educational assessment. It’s as if the higher you go, the further that you can see. And through the power of the gaze comes the power of the observer.

I understand the PISA’s exacting scientific methods. I also understand that it presents the best evidence, and also that at best, its evidence is just an impression. More like a Cézanne painting than a photographic snapshot.

Paul Cézanne – Mont Sainte-Victoire 1904

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the symbols that the PISA produces cannot be used as currency, in conferences, papers and arguments. But the way I see them used, it also reminds me of  Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and that educational assessment, like any symbol, can act as an  “operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and shortcircuits all its vicissitudes”.

Art tells us that educational assessment simply produces symbols that are at best a pale reflection of a preconceived reality. These symbols can be distorted and exploited, until one day their utility will diminish, and a new dawn will emerge.

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