Now that the examinations are over, it is not inappropriate to consider the method adopted in preparing for some of them.
Let us rehearse the advantages said to result when the instructors give a syllabus. Men who have been lazy during the year can see just what questions are to be asked, and by sufficient cramming can get nearly what mark they please, and at any rate escape a condition, the possible and natural result of their laziness. Besides, all students, good and bad, can have their attention brought to the chief points without loss of time and without unprofitable labor in a search after them. The essence of this is that a syllabus at a less cost of labor makes greater returns of knowledge, of the sort that model examination-books contain, than other methods do.
We must admit that these advantages, allowing them the greatest weight, prove no more than that it would be a kind and fair thing to help the unstudious to a little knowledge that they perhaps would not otherwise get; and to put the studious in such a position that they may get the best return for their work. But if the syllabus were given out at the beginning of the year, these results could be reached as well, or even better; for it would then serve as an index, or table of contents, to the work to be done, and some recitations that now are nearly useless because their connection with the subject as a whole is not realized, would confer other blessings than those of heavenly sleep. Such a method would, besides, prevent some serious evils belonging to the present.
The evils are these: First, cramming. It is true any vague objection to a way of study is generally expressed by calling it cramming. But though it is doubtful or false that a prolonged grind for an examination in which the student gets a general understanding of his subject is mentally destructive, no one can question the danger of merely committing to memory a mass of details, both when general relations are not grasped by the student's own efforts, and also when they are given to him as they are in a syllabus. Cramming of this kind certainly does no good, and it is probably the same with mind as with Christianity,-what is not for it is against it.
Second, the injustice of ranking nearly alike two men, of whom one has a real knowledge of his subject, and the other only what his syllabus has hinted to him. Sir James Stephen has pointed out that in history it is quite possible for an adroit and dexterous man who has coolness, tact, and experience in examinations to assume the deceptive semblance of great erudition. It often happens that one who from much reading is acquainted with the minutiae as well as the outlines of history gets no higher mark (or perhaps not so high) than another who has confined himself to a syllabus. But granted that marks are too trivial a matter for a grave argument like this, there is another aspect of the case which is all important. When examinations are based wholly upon a syllabus, the students are encouraged to rest content with superficial study; at other times there is a tendency, at any rate, to force those who wish to distinguish themselves to wider research.
Let us have, then, our syllabuses at the beginning rather than at the end of the year; let acquaintance with them be sufficient to pass a man creditably; and let those who wish for the honor of excelling, earn it by extra study.