Who Invented Exams? Either I look at the exam and it is in a language that I have never seen before. Or I take my pencil to answer, but no I can write the word I want, “reveals Simon Goldhill, Director of Classical Studies at King’s College, London

The horror of having to take a test you didn’t prepare for!” Says comedian Richard Herring.

Luckily, you wake up, albeit extremely agitated and even chilling.

I haven’t had to take an exam for decades but, like thousands of others, I still have nightmares like that.

Now, as a Professor of Classical Studies at Cambridge University, I am officially on the other side of the process, and what has intrigued me for the 40 years that I have been teaching is how the exams and their hilarious rituals got into our collective psyche.

Where, when, and why?

Let’s not forget that some cultures have done perfectly well without any tests.

Ancient Rome was happily exam-free.

And countries like the United Kingdom did not have written exams like the ones we know until the 19th century; before that, most were oral.

The ones we have to credit – or blame – for this particular invention are the Chinese.

In the 7th century BC, they created what was “a stupefying ordeal during which some went mad and others died.”

“In the separate cells, you couldn’t copy from another. You went in, brought something to sleep on, they gave you a urinal, you had a desk, ink and you sat down, they gave you the exam and you started.

The Chinese imperial examination system – as it was called – lasted 3 days … and nights, and was mostly about Confucian classics.

There were those who could not reach the end. If a candidate died, the authorities wrapped his body in a straw mat and threw him on the other side of the high walls that surrounded the complex.

The exams were incredibly competitive.

“We have evidence that in 1,250 around 450,000 people participated in these tests, but they only handed out 600 diplomas,” Pot says.

Why did they do it? Why did they invest so much, many years of education, private tutors, all the expenses that that involved, if the vast majority were not going to be successful?”, He asks, and answers:

“They did it because it gave them status, recognition, connections and membership in the local elite.”

I’m not sure if it was an achievement or an own goal, but the goal of that Chinese system was noble.

That is supposed to be what we continue to do, however, I still don’t understand …

What are we testing and for what?

We probably won’t all of our potential doctors to show in many tests that they know what they are going to do.

But can we say the same of exams for 18-year-olds about the Hundred Year War?

Despite his nightmares, Simon Goldhill thinks that academic tests “are a good test of your ability to process and package a large amount of information in an efficient and ingenious way.”

And we all know that the best students do not necessarily get the best results on exams.”


What would the exams be like in your time?

“They didn’t look like the ones they are today,” Gillian Cooke, archivist at Cambridge Assessment, which holds treasures of exam history, tells the BBC.

Question from a Cambridge University Health Science exam from a century ago

Some are amazing, others monotonous: “What are the borders of Austria, its main rivers and the course of these”.

Although the questions are saved, there was no record of the answers.

What we can see is the reports from the teachers and, says Cooke, “at the time they were very direct; brutal.”

“They rarely gave satisfactory answers to questions about grammatical peculiarities”

There is a lot of evidence that tests are not good at predicting the future.

Not only is the case Darwin, who in his autobiography wrote “I tried mathematics It disgusted me, mainly because I could not find any meaning in the first steps of algebra”.

The inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, according to his biographer, “enjoyed the mental exercise” of mathematics, but once he understood the method, he “got bored and neglected the final answer,” which was reflected in his grades.

Inventor Thomas Edison went so far as to say, “I can hire mathematicians, but they can’t hire me.”


After exploring our testing culture, I am ready to challenge anyone to stand up for the enormous amount of time, money, stress, and effort we invest. It may be necessary, but it is certainly a flawed system.

I have no radical solution to offer except to suggest that we relax a bit.

For historians of the future, this custom is sure to cause as much amazement as the Chinese imperial exams for us.

And they will wonder why we were willing to submit and submit our children to such an ordeal.

Other Related Links: