At a time when Year 11 and 13 students start worrying seriously about exams, here are three doses of perspective to help them remember what really matters. This piece was originally delivered as a school chapel talk.
Finding a different perspective just means finding a different point of view. Looking at the same thing from a different angle. Sometimes it helps you feel better.
A lot of you are going through the trauma of mock examinations at the moment. Others are worrying ahead to exams next year. All of you will face them at some point soon.
There’s no getting around it: exams are frightening. Your grades could choose whether you get the jobs you want, your university place or your college place. They will stay on your CV forever.
I took major exams every year for nearly a decade. I know how you feel. Right now, all that worry about how your grades might affect your future is all you can think about as you try to cram your brain with last-minute, life-saving facts.
If this is you, then what you need is a better perspective. Here are three that might soothe your worries.
1. Education is really about life, not exams.
One kind of perspective is to remember the greater scheme of education. The reason you are learning. So often we teachers imply that the main point of learning is to get a good exam grade. A good examination grade will prove that you know certain things, and perhaps help persuade someone to give you a job or a place at college or university.
But the value of learning is much bigger than that. It is meant to open up the world for you. Some things in the world you can enjoy easily, like television and social media. Other things are harder to access, because you need background knowledge before you can appreciate them. So a good education reveals more of the world’s joys to you – if you want them. You can recognise the history all around you. You can find pleasure in the beauty of mathematics. Be moved by the intricacies of nature. Find the profound music that will lift you up. Understand the most deeply moving poetry. Decide whether God exists, and how to live your life. If you focus just on the exam grade, then you have missed the point of learning!
“O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird?”
To illustrate how a strict focus on exams can stop you enjoying the newly-revealed world, let me share a humorous dialogue allegedly penned by A.E. Housman. It shows two academics strolling through the countryside. The first academic bursts forth with poetic joy: “O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird, or but a wandering voice?” The second academic completely ruins the moment by interrupting his joy with an exam-style question: “State the alternative preferred, with reasons for your choice.” So exams are important, but they can make you forget the point of learning. Don’t forget to seek that joy. Sing an ode to the cuckoo. Because the things you learn here can change your life, if you want them to.
2. Even the greatest suffer from fear and doubt.
When I’m facing challenges in life, I love to read the autobiographies of people who seem to have succeeded. Not so I can copy them, but because it usually turns out that they were a bundle of nerves just like I am. For example, you probably know Tony Blair. That former Labour Prime Minister who was famous for speaking and debating so confidently that he easily won three general elections in a row. Under the surface everything was not so easy. In his autobiography he admits that taking questions in the House of Commons filled him with fear. He prayed to God, superstitiously wore the same pair of shoes every time, and couldn’t eat or sleep beforehand. To everyone else, he looked confident and assured. But inside he was scared. He writes, “Even today, wherever I am in the world, I feel a cold chill at 11.57am on Wednesdays [just before PMQs would have been], a sort of prickle on the back of the neck, a thump of the heart.”
Winston Churchill, by Sir William Orpen (1916). Churchill said the painting ”revealed his soul during one of his darkest hours.”
Ask anyone for a list of British heroes, and Winston Churchill will surely come near the top. A man so great that he now adorns our £5 notes. But in his autobiographies, Churchill admits that he was rejected from Sandhurst twice. He couldn’t pass the exams until his third attempt. Later on, the First World War was disastrous for him. As a member of the government, Churchill had the idea of winning the war sooner by invading modern-day Turkey. This was the Gallipoli campaign, and it was a complete failure. 46,000 men went to their pointless deaths. Churchill cried to a friend, “I am finished!” and fled government to fight in the trenches as a normal infantry officer. The National Portrait Gallery has a great painting of Churchill at this time. Not the solid and determined man that we have come to know on our banknotes, but a thin, pale figure – full of doubt and shame. Later in life he became a national hero, leading our nation safely out of World War. But I like to look at that painting more than any of his more popular portraits, because it reminds me how even Winston Churchill had his own dark days too.
Marcus Aurelius was a great Roman Emperor – he defeated the Parthian Empire abroad and kept stability at home. He was the kind of figure who would usually be difficult to understand because of all the propaganda and legend that built up around their memory. But Emperor Marcus Aurelius left a personal diary behind. Something that he never expected anyone else to read. So he is completely honest about his worries. He laments that “nowhere in his wanderings has he found the good life. …Not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere.” He has to work hard to stop himself falling into fear and despair. To get through life, he has to remind himself of a bigger perspective. He says, “Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” … “Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of.” One of Rome’s greatest emperors had to remind himself that in the long run he is nothing. That’s the only way he could get through his day.
I have just told you about three people who I happened to know about. But there are thousands more for you to find. The library is a good starting point. Just remember: even our greatest heroes suffered from fear and doubt. They are just like you – not magic, not heroic, just normal. You can do it too.
3. There might be a greater perspective than any of us can imagine.
If God exists, then you are not wandering fearfully alone in the darkness.
If God exists, then we are sitting in the presence of an all-powerful, all-loving being who has a plan for your life.
If God exists, then perhaps this life, this world, is not all there is. In fact, it might only be the minor prelude to much greater existence.
That would change everything. Getting right with God becomes more important than earning money, power, fame, love – even getting great exam results.
The passage so beautifully read earlier becomes shows us the Christian perspective of hope. We might be “hard pressed on all sides,” but these “light and momentary troubles” we experience here on earth “are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” So we should not fix our eyes on our earthly troubles, even though they might seem huge right now. Instead, fix your eyes on what is unseen: God. God is your eternity. Everything else will fall away and stop mattering.
Don’t let any of these perspectives stop you from working hard. You owe it to yourselves, your teachers, your school and your family to do the best that you can. To gain some tangible evidence of all your hard work in recent years. But do use these perspectives to reduce your stress. When it all seems unbearable, and like the world might end for you, remember the bigger picture. And if you believe, remember the biggest picture of all.