When was the last time you took an exam that mattered?
During my end-of-summer trip to California, an acquaintance asked about my training to be a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. I gave him the gist, describing how the training program, while international in scope, is small and selective, mentor-based, and lengthy.
And then there is assessment. To be certified, one must pass a national assessment, by an objective panel of senior teachers, of one’s practice and teaching. Put another way, one can fail. In many teacher-training programs, participation is enough!
I’ve experienced a couple of assessments as a “student,” and I can vouch for the seriousness of the affair. Assessment strikes me as both exhilarating and daunting; it ups the ante in our training, arguably for the better. I’m not claiming that exams are necessarily a good thing. Some folks are lousy exam takers. Some end up obsessing on the exam, missing the larger picture.
The element of risk
But isn’t the element of risk present in any important endeavor?
If you’re a trauma surgeon, overlooking one detail can kill a patient. If you’re a parent, your patience and attention are constantly tested. If you’re a competitive athlete, facing defeat is part of the game. If you’re a US Army Ranger, your whole job is about navigating danger. Even if you’re practicing yoga or meditation, you’re not quite relaxing, you’re refining your mind and body.
Conversely, carefree pursuits have no element of risk. Watching TV, going shoe shopping, gossiping on the phone, eating potato chips. There’s nothing wrong with taking it easy now and then, but doesn’t that get boring after a while?
Living in modern, privileged countries, we face few real threats. We’re not trekking over mountains or fending off grizzlies. We live cushy lives. If we seek challenges, we end up creating them for ourselves. We might push our limits by choosing a demanding career, playing sports, entering contests, and so on. As kids, we are plopped into a challenging arena: school. But, as adults, we can get stagnant if we avoid risks.
Some might argue that circumstances shouldn’t affect our focus and intensity. Shouldn’t we go all out running solo, as if in a race? Sure. But most people try harder when stakes are higher.
What do “exams” really examine?
Whether it’s a bar exam or medical boards, a tennis match or a chess tournament, “exams” are meant to examine one’s aptitude in a given field. Actually, however, they probably measure one’s mental state in terms of confidence and composure under stress. In elite sports, competitors are comparable in physical talent and fitness; the mentally tougher athlete will win. In Iyengar assessments, all candidates are more or less ready in their substantive knowledge of teaching asana; rather they must shake off nerves and perform gracefully under public scrutiny.
In any endeavor, training toward mental toughness is just as valuable as substantive learning. Iyengar assessments perhaps develop this side of teachers. To me, that’s a worthy end.
Images: Wiseman Says