This article is adapted from a Chapel Talk Dr. Riley gave on Wednesday, May 15
By Dr. Sean Riley
This year, our Chapel series has been focused on wisdom, so here I want to offer some wisdom for exam week. Many of you have already been working on final papers and projects, and some of you have been taking AP exams, and most of you still have a lot of work ahead of you.
You might be expecting me to offer practical advice on how to ace your tests: advice about time management, sleep, mnemonic devices, tips and tricks. Those are important, no doubt, but here I want to offer a different sort of wisdom—wisdom that I hope will expand your vision for what this last stretch of the school year can and should be.
Let’s look at the way we tend to view exam week, a way that I think is wrong-headed and destructive. Yet it is the way our culture tells us to think about tests and test preparation.
What is an exam according to our culture?
Whenever I try to understand what something is, I like to use Aristotle’s four causes. Aristotle tells us that all things have the following:
- Material cause: That which a thing is made of (for example, the matter of a statue might be marble)
- Formal cause: A shape or structure (the form of a statue may be of Augustus Caesar)
- Efficient cause: That which made it (the sculptor)
- Final cause: That which it was made for (to create an object of veneration)
What is an exam, then?
The standard answers are that exams have the following features:
- Material cause: Paper and ink
- Formal cause: A series of questions
- Efficient cause: A teacher, the gatekeeper to my future success and happiness, who puts obstacles in my path
- Final cause: Torture
Exam Week Vices
Tests, when understood this way, tend to give rise to a number of vices. They can give way to pride, which is the excessive desire for excellence and superiority, or ambition, the desire to be recognized for one’s excellence by excellent people, like our teachers.
What happens when we are prideful but recognize that someone else is slightly better than us, or is getting more honors or higher grades than we are?
We might become envious. Envy is the vice of comparison. It is sadness at another’s good. We tend to envy those who proximate us both geographically or in skill-level. We envy those whose glory we could attain if only they were out of the picture.
We might become wrathful. Wrath is the excessive or misguided anger at a perceived injustice, like when we stew in our seats while our classmate gets a class night award we believe we deserve.
We might become slothful. Sloth is the avoidance of the good we are supposed to do, either by giving up, or by chasing distractions—like when we suddenly feel the urge to clean our room for the first time all year, or feel the need to finish a season of a show before we can really focus. Or when we finally decide to take our teachers’ advice to get enough sleep.
Most likely, these will be the vices we will find stirring up inside us this coming week. But we may also experience temptations to counteract test-related stress and anxiety by indulging in base pleasures. These could take the form of avarice, like excessively shopping, or shopping to make oneself feel better. It could take the form of lust: gratifying excessive or misdirected sexual desires. Or it could take the form of gluttony: eating, drinking, or consuming substances excessively, or doing so as a means to make oneself feel better.
A common feature of these vices is that they narrow our vision. They focus our attention on ourselves and keep us from seeing each other, seeing God, and seeing the beauty of the world around us. They keep us from loving God and our neighbor. They tear at the bonds of community, and they gnaw at our own souls, chewing us up until we are hollowed out on the inside. They promise to fill us up but leave us empty and hurting.
All of these destructive vices emerge during exam week, I think, because we are thinking about exam week the wrong way. I’d like to suggest a different approach.
A new vision for exams: a week of joy
Let’s go back to the four causes, but answer Aristotle’s questions a different way:
What are exams?
- Material cause: Yes, they are made up of questions, but the questions asked are the kinds of questions that ask you to reflect upon all that you’ve learned, to see the connections between the content areas of your courses, and even between the various subjects you’ve studied, and to apply what you’ve learned to new situations.
- Formal cause: Have you noticed that most of an exam is blank space? What is that blank space? Blank spaces are invitations. Like a canvas, they beckon you to express what is now in your soul as a result of a year of study. Blanks spaces are opportunities for you to put on display what you have stored up over the course of the year.
- Efficient cause: The people who have written these exams are your teachers, your mentors, people who have inspired you, trained you, invested much of their waking lives in you. This year has been a year of them sharing their love with you. They aren’t obstacles on your pathway to success and fame; they are guides who have directed and redirected you to better ends.
- Final cause: I would argue that exams are opportunities for deepening understanding, for renewed wonder, and for joy. They are joint love letters written by you and your teachers to God expressing thanks for all of the truth and beauty you have discovered together this year.
You might ask, how can exam week be about joy? Let’s wonder together for a moment and see if we can find some joy for exam week. Everything you’ve studied this year has been about one of four things:
- The created order
- Human beings
- Things humans have created
God is amazing. He is the only being whose essence it is to exist. Have you thought about that? Everything else is capable of not existing, but not God. The universe, which is incredibly large and incredibly old, had a beginning. God, on the other hand, cannot be measured. There is no God-sized measuring stick; God has no birth certificate or shelf life, and we will never attend God’s funeral. Imagine the power and intelligence it takes to make the universe out of nothing. I’m not talking about some measurable amount of power. One can’t say that God is X number of times more powerful than a human or a waterfall or a nuclear reactor. God’s strength cannot be measured in watts or horsepower.
Think about the intelligence of God. Have you ever thought about the fact that God knows every human being? Every one of their thoughts? That he knows the position and momentum of every subatomic particle? That he cannot only comprehend the dual nature of light but actually created it that way out of nothing? All of our creations are really just reorganizations of existing matter. He created everything out of nothing. Our knowledge, with the exception of our inner awareness of our own consciousness, always approaches things from the outside. God knows everything from the inside. And yet, a God with that power and intelligence chose to come down to our level out of love for us. That’s amazing!
Consider the created order
Have you considered how amazing the universe is? First of all, it is huge. We don’t even know how large it is because we can only see things that are illuminated, and light takes time to travel to us, so we can only see as far as light can have traveled to us in the amount of time we’ve had to receive it. Have you thought about the fact that when you look at the stars, you’re looking at light that left those stars a long time ago? In a sense, you’re looking into the past every time you look up at the night sky. Have you considered that we know all of this because the universe behaves itself? With a handful of formulas, we can describe most of what goes on in the physical universe. Mathematicians, working in the abstract, playing with numbers and relationships, have discovered things in their minds that then have turned out to be true in reality. That’s remarkable!
Consider even on our planet the interconnectedness of physical, chemical, biological, and ecological processes that make our lives possible. Our Earth is just the right distance from the sun, insulated by our atmosphere from the cold of space, but protected from cosmic rays, gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light by our atmosphere and from solar flares by our electromagnetic field. Sunlight feeds plants, which produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and serve as food for larger organisms like ourselves. The diversity of species is absolutely stunning, and the creatures that inhabit our planet are incredible. Have you watched leaf-cutter ants at work? Or considered the miracle of termite mounds? Have you seen how pitcher plants attract food and fertilizer? I once saw a video of a honey badger fight off five lions. And I’ve heard a lyrebird mimic construction equipment sounds. Nature is incredible.
Consider that in addition to all of the things that have to work together to make it possible for us to survive, nature provides us with completely superfluous beauty. There is no compelling evolutionary reason for sunsets and night skies to be beautiful. Why is nature so beautiful?
Consider human beings
Think about how amazing human beings are. There are over seven billion of us alive today, but each is unique. Each one of us has unique DNA, unique fingerprints, and unique retinas. Each is a unique center of consciousness, ultimately mysterious to every other one. What it’s like to be you is different from what it’s like to be me. Yet for all of our differences, we are alike in our ability to reason abstractly, to produce incredible art, to create medicine, to invent technologies. And despite the fact that we are all unique centers of consciousness, we somehow manage to form societies, to create governments, and to participate in global economies. We have the ability to think about thinking, to think about death, to ponder the infinite, and to wrestle with God.
Consider human creations
Humans have constructed the pyramids, have landed on the moon, have discovered subatomic particles, have painted the Sistine Chapel, have composed operas, have created the internet, have written incredible novels, and created logics and geometries (yes, there are several). At the same time, humans have enslaved one another, have committed genocides, have caused the extinction of animal species, have waged world wars, have wasted their talents, have withheld charity, have neglected their children, have reduced persons to objects. And at the root of all of these atrocities has been the kinds of vices you’ll struggle with this week—pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust—if you don’t broaden your vision.
Broaden your vision
So, my advice to you in this last week or so is to resist the temptation to make this week all about you—your reputation, your grades, your workload, your inadequacies, your coping mechanisms. Embrace the opportunity to wonder, to reflect on what you have learned, to thank your teachers, to help a friend. The command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself is not suspended just because you’ve got a lot going on. God gave you a mind not so that you can demonstrate your superiority over other humans or subdue nature to your ends. He gave you a mind so that you can know what is true, do what is good, and create what is beautiful. He gave you a mind because He wants you to be like Him, to join in His work, and to share in His love for all of the amazing things He has created.
-Dr. Sean Riley is the Academic Dean at The Stony Brook School