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How the first standardized tests helped start a war — really


People who think standardized tests are wreaking havoc in education today may be interested to take a look back at a different kind of trouble they sparked many years ago.

The first standardized tests, any world history student can tell you, were created in ancient China, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when officials designed civil service exams to choose people to work in the government based on merit rather than on family status. The goal was to create an intellectual meritocracy based on Confucian learning. The system of exams was consolidated during later dynasties; through the centuries until the late 18th century, the core material was hardly altered.

Rote learning of Confucian texts was imperative to do well on the tests, and — like today — that created some dissent. During the Song Dynasty (960 and 1279), according to the website of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, Ye Shi, a well-known neo-Confucian educator, argued that learning by rote was wrong and that students learned best when Confucian principles were applied to the real world. He wrote:

“A healthy society cannot come about when people study not for the purpose of gaining wisdom and knowledge but for the purpose of becoming government officials.”


He was prescient.  The civil service exams actually played a part in the Taiping Rebellion, which left about 20 million people dead in the 19th century. How? In the mid-1800s, a lower middle class man named Hong Houxiu, who was only partly educated, wanted to join the Qing bureaucracy. Here’s how the society’s website explains what happened:

“Hong Xiuquan as he became, failed the shengyuan examinations on four separate occasions. Nursing a grievance against the Confucian state system, Hong’s frustration found an outlet when he read a Christian tract condemning the examinations. Prompted by visions and dreams, he went on to found the Taiping Tianguo, “The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace” and to launch a savage crusade against the Qing “demon devils.” It is surely significant that Hong’s first followers were, like him, village schoolmasters whose civil service ambitions had been dashed by their failure in the second round of state examinations.”


“The Imperial examinations were not the sole factor in the Taiping Rebellion; resentment of Qing rule and the humiliation China suffered in the First Opium War clearly loomed large in Hung Xiuquan’s thought, while his mystic inspiration remains inexplicable. Nevertheless, the tantalizing frustration that the examination system caused in many aspiring intellectuals was certainly an integral part of Hong’s motivation, and a root cause of the tragic ambition that led to slaughter then unprecedented in history.”


Interesting history.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · December 2, 2012

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