October 22, 2014

Horse 1781 - Thoughts Whilst Supervising An HSC Mathematics Examination

"Bring a book," they said. "It will be a long and dull time," they said. Yet here am I in an NSW HSC Extension 2 Mathematics examination and scribbling furiously, having a wonderful time. Obviously, I'm not actually taking the HSC Extension 2 Mathematics examination, I'm here as a supervisor. Though, after looking at the paper, I'm kind of feeling a little bit nostalgic. Integration, conic sections, polynomials, complex numbers - ah. It all looks like fun.
This afternoon is the exam for Mathematics General 2 which looks like it has things like geometry and algebra in. To be fair, those things are far more useful in the real world; so I don't look down on the with disdain as once I might have done.

I peer over this group who don't have any school uniforms and it looks as though the late 1980s has called and wants its clothes back. There's more fluorescent colours here than a road construction crew in hi-vis jackets, in a rave party at Trafalgar Square. This lot weren't around when this sort of thing was fashionable the first time and haven't yet learnt that it looks as hideous now as it did then. That sort of thing obviously must be learnt first-hand. "Retro" is always runs 23 years behind and this lot are literally (as in literally; not metaphorically; I do know the difference) half my age, which would make them about 18.
I note that these kids still think that everything is "awesome" which shows that language appears to be moving slower than I thought it did. I do not think that this display of eye-bleed, saccharin pastels is even remotely "cool" but then again, I'm officially "old" and therefore invisible to these people. Even at the age of 18, I thought that the wardrobe of Poirot was perfectly sensible; here am I, clad in a black waistcoat, suit, tie and bowler hat.

18 years ago I was in an examination hall like this, and answering similar sorts of questions. Looking back, I feel a little sorry for the poor saps who had to mark my papers because as my History teacher Mr Menkes once noted, my handwriting "looked as though a chicken had thrown up all over the paper". Those markers probably consulted the Rosetta Stone to decipher my hieroglyphs. Remarks like that stay with you forever.
18 years ago in those heady days of yore, back in 1996, John Howard had become Prime Minister earlier in the year, and Oasis, Blur and Pulp were fighting it out on the music charts. The kids today have One Direction, Five Seconds Of Summer etc. (this is my attempt to look "hip" and relevant - i reality I have no idea who these bands are).
I would later go on to own the Ford Ka which debuted at the Paris Motor Show that year and to this date, it is still the only car I've even owned which cornered pretty well much flat at 80mph. Today you can get a Toyota Yaris which looks like it has a soup-strainer moustache and is about as much fun to drive as a fridge.

In HSC English, I didn't like the proscribed texts we'd been given, which included "Looking For Alibrandi" by Melina Marchetta (1992) but thanks to George Orwell's "1984" (1949) and Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" (1960) I found the English papers relatively easy. Also, we hadn't been given the works of The Bard in the final year, but again I ended up writing essays about "Hamlet". Hamlet by the way, is a very tasty Hero Sandwich - A large Danish Ham on wry.

The world has changed considerably in the 18 years that these students have been alive. The internet has turned into a proper thing, whereas by by the time that I was their age, two Germanys and the Soviet Union have stopped being things. The War on Terror has replaced The War on Communism but somehow, we still find ourselves back in Afghanistan bombing brown people and it is as barbaric today as it was then.
Liverpool has not won the league, England has not won the World Cup but Blackpool have at least made it into the Premier League for a bit. It is amazing how much things change, how some things stay the same. I myself am officially old, after moving through the listernership of Radio 1, then Radio 2 and now Radio 4 (no-one listens to Radio 3).

I can't help but feel that most of the kids of the generation seated before me, taking this Extension 2 Mathematics examination, will have a harder time in life than I will, except for this lot seated here. Out in the car park I've seen red P-plates of 4-series BMWs, a full set of Hello Kitty seat covers on a Toyota 86GT and not one, not two but five Audi R8s. If you compare that with the Toyota Coronas, Nissan Bluebirds, Commodores, Falcons and Geminis that sat in our high school car park, it paints an interesting story.
When this lot go to university next year, more of them will study things like law and finance than the students of 18 years ago, as the economy has been successfully redesigned to reward people who move numbers from one screen to another, rather than people who design, make and build stuff.
More of the jobs that they would have done will be exported to places like Malaysia, Thailand and India and in 18 years time, it could very well be possible that African countries could very well be the next Lion and Tiger economies. Automation will probably advance at a rapidly increasing rate, with even jobs like forklift drivers and bus drivers finding themselves replaced by self-driving things, the same way that the motor car and the traction engine did for the horse and ox a hundred years ago.

I estimate that most of what they have learnt over the last six years will have been nominally useless. School in principle is about trying to educate and make people ready for the unfriendly workforce. In In practice, things like the sciences will be mostly totally useless in an office environment and the humanities like history and geography are merely interesting diversions. Even today, I find economics, history and the sciences interesting but I suspect that they're mainly just entertainment. Mostly what I do is repetitive arithmetic and fitting numbers into boxes. Those skills could have been taught with six years of learning to fill in forms and doing Sudoku.
I do find it galling that so-called "English" classes are mainly filled with literature studies rather than grammar. I doubt whether most school leavers can explain what the subject or predicate is in a sentence or on a more basic level, how to spell properly. How many people can explain the difference between "who's" and "whose" for instance? This is even worse when people go into disciplines such as Law where you'd think that a half-decent command of the language would be essential but apparently not if the quality of letters, emails and even official documents presented in court proceedings is anything to go by.

For many of these students, these few hours spent in the crucible of examination rooms might very well be the last time they see each other. Despite the gushing of tears and promises that are made, people's lives change. For some students though, the past six years might have been a living nightmare and so they'll finally get a chance to escape. The code of the schoolyard dictates you should never tattle, you should always make fun of those different from you, never say anything unless you're sure everyone feel exactly the same way you do and if you're on the end of it all, accept it quietly.
Unlike the sentiments of Vitamin C's song "Graduation", most will not probably "still be, friends forever" though they might still have the clichéd and oft-repeated strains of Pachelbel's Kanon und Gigue in D running around their heads for years. Presumably this generation though have the all seeing eyes of Facebook and Google; thus ensuring that they'll still know tales of people that they met decades ago.

I bet that in 18 years time, Liverpool will still have not won the league, England will still have not won the World Cup and that Blackpool will still be bouncing around like a mad thing. I also bet that in 2038 that there'll be the equivalent on 4-series BMWs and Audi R8s parked in the car park.
Will those students still be taking an examination on integration, conic sections, polynomials and complex numbers? I hope so. It will still look like fun.

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