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Testament of youth

By Tim Middleton
The ironically-named Great War has had many iconic memoirs written about it, including ‘Goodbye To All That’, ‘A Farewell To Arms’ and ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ but there is another that stands out powerfully — Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ which provides a stirring account of young university students with high hopes of learning, love and life that are shattered with the commencement of the First World War. The horrors of trench warfare and the early deaths of the four young people closest to her, the surrender of her own academic ambitions being replaced by a commitment to become a volunteer nurse, and the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life post-war all underscore the depth of the test of character of those caught up in that experience.

Another classic piece of writing, written much later, was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which contains a powerful court scene when Atticus Finch cross-examines Mayella Ewell, a young woman bringing a sexual assault charge against Atticus’ client, Tom Robinson, claiming that he choked her, despite all the contrary evidence to show why that version of events was impossible. The testimony presented in court no doubt was incredibly hard but for all the wrong reasons. The young girl in question lied to avoid the embarrassment of her own failings.

In contrast, in more recent times, pupils who sat an international History exam began a petition protesting that one of the questions in their examination paper was too difficult and so should be regraded (the question was “Was Hitler a despot?” and the pupils said they could not be expected to know what the word “despot” meant).  They were therefore in effect saying that examinations must be easy and only ask questions for which they will know the answers.

While we can all perhaps identify with that feeling, we know it is wrong but it appears to be what lies behind another reason why children hate school; they do not like tests. As soon as a teacher mentions that word, “Test”, there are loud groans and complaints. However, we do well to recognise that as with the other supposed reasons why children hate school, so tests are not really what is hated. After all, children love other tests. They love to test their abilities in computer games; those with sporting ability love fixtures and trials. What is more, they love in turn to test the system, to test the teachers’ and parents’ resolve regarding discipline.

What is more, we all know that tests are part of our whole life. Driving on the roads is a test (of many things, not least our sanity); work is full of deadlines; punctuality is a test for many; temptation is a test. We are constantly having our understanding, patience, integrity, will power tested.

Tests are in fact good and necessary. They help us to know what we do not know so that we can know what still needs to be known! They reveal much that will help us, which we would ignore if it was not revealed. They humble us; they prepare us for the next stage, like sound technicians who test the sound system, “Testing, testing, 1,2,3” to check that everything is ready for what is to come.

It is not tests that are hated. It is rather the fear of failure or embarrassment that may result if the test is not taken seriously. It is the exposure that comes with the result. It is the hard work that is necessary to be prepared that we do not like; it is the stress that we do not like. Tests are tests!

The three scenarios contained in the opening paragraphs of this article are all about tests. A testament is “something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact, event, or quality”. That is what tests are; that is why we have tests at school. A testimony is “evidence or proof of something”. Testaments, testimonies, they are all tests of our characters. A test is meant, like a testament and how we respond to them is what we leave to others, evidence of our integrity.

Let us be clear, we should not protest with petitions; we should be pro tests with repetitions. We should welcome them, even consider them as “pure joy” as some declare, for the benefits that will accrue. Brittain later wrote two other books, ‘Testament of Friendship’ and ‘Testament of Experience’, underlining key areas where we are tested throughout all stages of life. We do not need to fight about them. It starts with the youth. So, testing, testing, one, two, three — are we ready?

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. 
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