Arts and science dichotomy in matriculation exams: possible lessons?

University Entrance or Matriculation Exams for 2017 have concluded throughout the country and tens of thousands of educational personnel would be busy marking millions of exam scripts in various subjects which more than 720,000 candidates have answered a few weeks ago.

Over 700,000 students sat for the matriculation examination in March nationwide. Photo - StaffOver 700,000 students sat for the matriculation examination in March nationwide. Photo - Staff

(As a University teacher who since 1990 have marked thousands of exam scripts and  just over three months ago  marked  and keyed in results  of over 260 three hour essay type exam scripts ‘single-handedly’ in  the subject of Jurisprudence I say in good faith –as well as attempt at good humour– ‘happy marking’ to all personnel who are involved in this task!)

On social media one reads about modifying the system of admitting students to various University courses solely based on the Matriculation exam results.

This article does not discuss the issue but is a past-oriented survey and critique of ‘diversification’ of arts/science exams in the Matriculation, Basic Education High School or University Entrance Exams as it was variously termed throughout the years.

Six years after the then ‘New Education System’ was inaugurated in 1964 starting from the then Basic Education High School Exam (as it was then called) in the year 1969 students who sat for the exams were divided into the arts and science streams, so to speak.

In the year 1968 the students who passed the Eighth Standard (Basic Education Middle School Exam) and proceeded to the ninth and tenth standards were divided into two ‘genres’: those who can take science subjects and those who can only take arts subjects. There were generally schools that taught arts subjects only and those that taught science subjects only. Though it may  be politically incorrect to write, generally, those who passed the eighth standard and do not do that well in marks are assigned to take arts subjects and those who do relatively better are assigned science subjects.

Starting from 1970 and till the science/arts diversification in high schools ended for those students who matriculated in the year 1979 those who passed in the science stream can, based on the marks they obtained, either apply for science subjects which include the coveted and ‘prestigious’ professional courses of Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering as well as the less sought Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Botany. Zoology etc. majors but also ‘arts’ courses like   English.  (In the inaugural English major course of 1970 only those with distinctions in English almost all from the Science stream are eligible to take it and only 15 students in the whole country were admitted. One of the inaugural BA [English] major graduates of 1974 was the First Lady Daw Su Su Lwin).

Those from the Science stream can also apply for other arts subjects like philosophy, Burmese (as it was then called), History, Psychology (it was and still is considered as an art subject) etc.But those in the arts team cannot apply for science subjects.

I clearly recall reading an article in the now defunct Working People’s Daily in May 1974 that this system of diversifying the subjects into arts and science streams is wrong and the last sentence of the article was ‘So it must go’. And went it did starting with the Basic Education High School (now Matriculation) Exams of 1979 where students had to take both science and arts subjects.

But then the division into arts and science streams came back again starting with those who sat for the Matriculation exams in the year 1987 and then it lasted until the Matriculation exams for either 1994 or 1995.

From either of those years (i.e. 1994 or 1995)students who sat for the Matriculation exams have to yet again took both arts and science subjects.

In the past years since about 2005 the writer understands that there were and perhaps still are three categories: (1) Science stream only (2) arts stream only and (3) science-arts (in Myanmar Weikpan) for those who sit for the Matriculation exams.

It seems that every seven to nine years the frequent changes of divide, combine, combine, divide yet combine ‘phenomenon’ of arts and science streams were being made.Are students ‘guinea pigs’ to be subject to such frequent changes? What is the purpose, rationale and intended direction  of these frequent changes?

In the field of legal education the writer is aware that from 1969 to 1971 the same marks (whether the science stream or arts stream) is used for admission criteria for first year (fresher) law students. Hence the preponderance of the first year law students in those years in the ‘law major’ were from the science stream.

But in 1972 to 1986 when there was a science and arts ‘streams’ half of the students are taken from the science stream and another half are taken from the arts streamfor the first year law courses. Almost needless to say those from the science streams need more marks to get into the Rangoon (as it was then called) Law Department Courses.  

As for the tens of thousands of law (if not well-over 100,000 since 1979) graduates were and still are wily-nillymass produced  through correspondence courses the arts-science ‘combine’ and ‘separate’ dichotomy becomes almost irrelevant.

But in the ‘day’(i.e. non-correspondence) courses roughly from 1987 to 1994 only those who passed the Matriculation from the Arts stream can be admitted into University arts subjects like law, philosophy and science students cannot apply for those arts courses.

Even if a student who passed the Matriculation exam with distinction in English from the science stream cannot join the arts subject of English major but a student from the arts stream who did not obtain a distinctionand obtained perhaps considerably less marks than those from the science stream can enroll in the English major courses.

And about three law teachers from the Law Departments have told the writer separately and independently that the standard of the ‘day’ law students fell considerably during those years when only students from the arts streams are allowed to take the law major.

I am aware that since about 2012 only  about the top 50  (later from 2015 extend to about 100) matriculated  students are given specialized training at the Yangon Law Department. As the writer have lost track after the year 1994 of this science-arts dichotomy I am not aware whether they are from the science, arts, or arts-science streams but (subject to correction)  it may be that most of these elite students may be from the science stream.

The writer has stated that this article is mainly past-oriented in that it deals with the narration and critique of past events. In factthe two current and the former Union Education Ministers would have passed through these experience of arts-science combining, chopping and changing by various educational authorities during those years when they were students and University teachers.  

If the writer is not mistaken (and I apologise if I do) I think the current Education Minister Dr MyoThein Gyi matriculated  when there was a fusion of arts and  science streams and the previous Education Minister Dr Daw Khin San Yi passed the Basic Education High School Exam when there was a ‘diversion’ of Arts and Science subjects.

This piece is to record and narrate historical developments with a hope and request of not repeating or ‘indulging’ in such mercurial, cavalier ‘changes’ during the implementation of the National Education plan.

Dr Myint Zan passed the Basic Education High School Examination when there was a division of Arts/Science, from the Science ‘stream’ and most recently he taught law at Multimedia University in Malacca, Malaysia for a deacde, the last four and a half years as full Professor before (semi) retiring from full time teaching.