Whipple avoids the temptation to write a hand-wringing article about A-level inflation and goes to visit Patrick Baert, a sociologist at his alma mater:
“There is a culture among journalists, a culture of targeting education and mocking education. I find it quite sad, because it is very demoralising for teachers. It is very easy for journalists to target these courses, because very few people have statistical techniques at hand to show whether it is in fact easier.”
He was quick to see the faults in my exercise. “Your experiment kind of ties in with the sensationalist way of dealing with these subjects. What you would need to have done is to take another AS-level in the same time period to make a comparison. You are now 23. You have been through a lot of education. You have maturity, so I suspect you would probably pick up other AS-level subjects quickly as well.”
There is truth in this. I may not have studied humanities for six years, but I am, as the course taught me, a product of the 1988 Education Reform Act, one of the assessed generation. Since starting school I have sat, at a conservative estimate, 60 public exams. I may not be experienced in the arts, but I am experienced in the art of exams.
And here’s the startling bit:
… I have a degree in mathematics: a proper, core subject. I have since struggled to find any everyday applications for vector calculus. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has remained resolutely irrelevant to my normal existence, its use confined solely to the more esoteric of pub quizzes. And yet, in the two months since completing my sociology AS-level, I have repeatedly found it useful.
When I hear news items about the underperformance of boys in exams, I now know that the differences are almost insignificant compared with those between classes. When I hear Hillary Clinton arguing that explicit computer games influence children, I now know that there is a history of research into the negative effects of on-screen sex and violence, most of it inconclusive.
This is not something frivolous — information to provide ammunition for dinner party discussions. For democracy to function, everyone should know these things. Traditional education is very good at teaching us the background to the second world war, and rightly so, but it is far less willing to provide us with the critical tools for living in the modern world.
So is sociology useful and important? Yes. Could I have just turned up off the street and passed the exam from common sense? No. And did my knowledge of revision techniques make a difference? Almost certainly. My experiment, as Baert pointed out, had many flaws.
Nevertheless, Whipple is probably lucky the AS-level exam didn’t include a section on research ethics. Sociology and journalism tend to agree that undercover research should be avoided wherever possible.