Academic journal article CLIO

Testing for Truth: Joseph Conrad and the Ideology of the Examination

Academic journal article CLIO

Testing for Truth: Joseph Conrad and the Ideology of the Examination

Article excerpt

Anyone familiar with Conrad's work recognizes the importance in many of his texts of the concept of a test of nature. Such a test challenges an individual's ability to maintain order and restraint in the face of a destructive and incomprehensible force. Tests of nature, thus, reveal the wellsprings of character; as Jakob Lothe notes, "When a Conrad character is put to the test, the problematic and enigmatic nature of his or her life experience tends to be accentuated."(1) There are, of course, the obvious examples of a test of nature in Lord Jim, "The Shadow Line," and "The Secret Sharer." However, even in Heart of Darkness, Marlow conceives of Africa as a test of an individual's ability to resist instinct and to remain faithful to duty. I would argue that the test of nature in Conrad cannot be separated from the issue of the legitimation of authority, since the individual being tested is almost always in a position of power. If the individual passes the test, then not only is his own power validated but also the power of the professional institution which has trained him and deemed him fit for a position of command. Furthermore, in many of Conrad's texts, a positive outcome of the test of nature reinforces cultural and social hegemony by naturalizing specific hierarchies. For example, such an outcome can strongly suggest that the position of authority of British white upper- and middle-class men is the result of natural and logical processes; they are fit by nature and by training to protect and/or control those who are less strong, less able, or less civilized.

I wish to place Conrad's use of the concept of testing historically--and to gain a further understanding of its significance--by briefly discussing what I would call the ideology of the exam.(2) This ideology developed from the assumption that exams really were an objective and unbiased means of determining intelligence and character, and that their incorporation in various institutions was a means to maintain an egalitarian society.(3) In actuality, from the very inception of exams in the nineteenth century, success in them was determined as much by class affiliation as by intelligence and character. They were instituted in the civil service and in the schools in Britain as a result of socio-economic pressures; Britain needed more efficient and better-trained civil servants and professionals, and exams were one means of meeting this goal.(4) Although the institutionalization of these exams seemed to create a more open social structure, they only benefited the middle class who had already gained power in other spheres of society, since the working classes did not have the resources that would enable them to pass the exams (these resources included not only wealth, but also the health and leisure time that wealth afforded).(5) In fact, as exams became more entrenched in society, they actually became a means of reinforcing the power of the middle and upper classes because they restricted the working class from entering into the civil service or professions. This was true not only because the working class did not have the money for the education which would enable them to pass various types of professional examinations, but also because physical, physiological, and economic conditions prevented them from passing the tests that would allow them to pursue a secondary education.(6)

But the usefulness of exams as a tool for social control did not end with their role as a means of exclusion. They also legitimated the social structure of Conrad's day because they made that structure appear to be the result of natural and objective processes. As John Eggleston notes, exams are an instrument of social consensus as well as of differentiation; they are "a mechanism for regulating social conflict and for legitimating the use of power for those who succeed in them" (32). Significantly, observes J. C. Mathews, by the end of the nineteenth century most people with real power "in politics, the civil service, and the professions . …

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