George Blair pulled his checkered cab into the taxi port where the sign said “In Go.” The side of George’s cab was reflected in the mirror there. “Bloom’s Taxi and Intellectual Transport” appeared backwards in Times Roman type letters. He pressed the cogitation button under the dashboard and, in one minute, it printed the results from his meter and tabulated teaching outcomes. That day, George had worked with about fifty students: future drivers, mechanics, and the car wash crews.
The car wash crew that afternoon had absorbed the assigned lecture on interiors. Their drive to know had been vacuumed free of objectionable lint and suffocated into mediocrity. They had performed adequately, almost uniformly, in the rote manner of most delta C’s. Their test scores were digitally documented for the quarterly report. George pulled up alongside the ticket counter machine and inserted his assessment card.
“George Blair. Car 171,” he said.
“Car 171. Kindly post quarterly results by filing date. Proper format”
The light on the machine flickered the words “Thank You.”
George was a reliable instructor of Taxonomy. His quantifiable data was pressed through long tubes into the control room for retrieval. His afternoon history and geography lesson for the future drivers had produced verifiable data. History — the passion of humankind — had become ETS measured at Bloomsdale Cab College (BCC). Mapquest had been aligned effectively in Bloomian terms with Bloomsdale’s mission and goals. George Blair also tabulated tire tread and mileage. He knew that the Ministry of Measurement reported to the Ministry of Solemn Rites and to the Council of Dullards. It was they who determined the order of the sacrificial rite of mental ossification. When performance by potential future drivers was assessed, the department had to show the required measure of “improvement” in performance. So he always included tire tread and mileage data. It was one of the “best practices.” Then George pulled his cab into dock 171 and stepped out. He smiled. Behind a wall, hidden from Brother Bloom’s camera, on the senior administration men’s room entry someone had crossed out the final “s” in assess.
Through the window he had a panoramic view of Bloomsdale Cab College. George imagined Jenny Karma, the Testing Center intern, walking up the path toward Assessmentism Hall. She always walked with that confident stride in her step, her long hair tossing in the breeze. George Blair’s heart seemed to skip a beat when he thought of Jenny Karma. Would Jenny arrive today by cab or by the tram? It was a splendid day when they first had met. Jenny had gotten into his cab on Bloominan Commons, before the loop on Pyramus Road.
“You’re a cab college instructor,” she said, looking at his cab license above the rear view mirror.
“That’s right. I’m George Blair.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you don’t call yourself #171. I’m Jenny. I’m Girl 26. But I would never call myself that. I think it’s ridiculous.”
“You shouldn’t let Brother Bloom hear you talking that way.”
“Oh, but I’m analyzing and synthesizing. Those are higher learning functions.”
“You sound like an Assessmentizer.”
“I have to sound that way. I’m a Testing Center intern.”
“So, you expect to be a teacher some day. Are they teaching you assessment grids?”
“Yes, and those silly data improvement score columns.”
“Alignment is for cars, George Blair. Not for students.”
George had merely blinked. This charming girl was a radical — right down to her etymological roots. He had not met one since he gave rides to Buddy Satva a year ago. Buddy had been terminated. Some said that he had escaped the wrath of the dolorous High Priestess of Assessmentism and had run off to live in an ashram.
“You sound like Buddy Satva,” George said.
“I used to go out with him,” said Jenny Karma.
She insisted that George drop her off at the end of Thisbe Road, by that famous chink in the wall that was now covered over with an assessment chart. When she paid the fare, she had scribbled a big, happy face on the ride assessment tab. “You should read Plato,” she had said. When she smiled at him, there was something inexplicable in her eyes.
Jenny said that in Buddy Satva’s view education was twice removed from the higher ideas. In Bloomsdale, Form had simply become forms, she said. George was not quite sure what she meant by that. He certainly knew a lot about filling out forms. Dean Ek, one of Bloomsdale’s finest functionaries, asked for submission of forms two weeks before every deadline, so that he could make sure that all the t’s were crossed and the i’s were properly dotted and that all syllabi were true to Bloomtrue. For years, that had been the familiar pattern of George Blair’s life as an instructor. Yes, for years George’s life had been one long look in the rear view mirror. But that day he met Jenny Karma changed everything. Jenny Karma had begun a revolution in his heart. And so, prompted by unbounded curiosity, he sought her student assessment transcript in the Hall of Records. Straight A’s. Jenny’s standardized test scores had truly surprised George Blair. Few students ever achieved above the ninetieth percentile. More astounding: the lab results for Jenny showed a fine balance of white and red blood cells, excellent circulation and levels of oxygenation beyond last month. It was a sign of intelligence – or else she was breathing more heavily. In either case, George knew he was in love. What was it in those eyes that beamed back something immeasurable? Most remarkable of all, Jenny had a love of learning. For years the administrators had dismissed any kind of love. Yet, George knew that in her presence that all made little sense. Love had once been real for Pyramus and Thisbe and now it was real for him. Jenny Karma filled his dreams. He knew that now he felt a tingling sensation every time he was near her. Each day he waited expectantly for her to arrive to her job as an intern in the testing center. By now, he thought, she must have gotten nearly as far as the cabbie lounge at the Improvement Center. And sure as a logarithm, she would sneak into his office to see him. They would find a forbidden corner and steal a kiss, while Brother Bloom was not watching.
George Blair kept his budding romance with Jenny Karma well-hidden. It was necessary. After all, he was a decorated Bloomian Cab College instructor. A romance would require extensive documentation: especially one with a post-graduate Testing Room intern. So, he filled in assessment grids. He kept precise records of outcomes. He disregarded the humanities and stuck to vocational training for cab driving. His students learned the many paths that the taxis traveled in their orbit through the known world of Bloomsdale. The geography from Pyramus Road to Assessment Hall was mapped in a grid. The cabs drove from the glass and concrete and aluminum office towers of Higher Results Commons to the seedy docks on the waterfront, where workers despaired over dazzling assessment results from China. They drove under the eerie glow of streetlamps past the square box houses of ticky-tacky. Jenny Karma always seemed to arrive from another direction. That was true of her thinking too.
George had long witnessed the process of higher education. He knew that Jenny was a rarity: a thinking person. Typically, students went in one door (In Go). Students came out the other door (Out Come). They became measured outcomes. Thinking was assumed to be pyramidal, stacked like a 1950s American corporation. One attained higher order skills – or marks — as one climbed. This privileged the left brain functions that forgot to remember and “understand” the right brain functions. But Jenny Karma… Jenny wasn’t like that. Most students were converted into equations — and into health workers, drivers, mechanics, and car wash attendants. Jenny was not likely to be converted. She still read Plato.
Yes, George Blair’s mind was filled with images of Jenny Karma: a slender, sprightly, wide-eyed, and determined girl. Her name was ever on his lips. Until they’d met, he had been in that one dimensional lane, his gaze fixed on the rear view mirror of life. But Jenny changed all of that. Yes, now here was a future. Jenny Karma was one of the few people he had ever met who was unwilling to take assessment for an answer.
It added to his life a thrilling note of anxiety. Bloomsdale had long ago been shut down into one-dimensionality. “Correctness” was its reigning shibboleth. Jenny Karma’s creativity defied the deified order. Jenny Karma had designed new teaching methods. By her design, questions were open-ended and they were always as good as answers. In a multiple choice world of A to E, Jenny had introduced the possibilities of F and G. In her lexicon, signification took on new dimensions: words could mean multiple things. Students were people, not receptacles for rote memory of correct answers. Of course, Jenny kept her innovations private. The Priestess of Signification continued to assert correctness and the dolorousness of Assessmentism. Isn’t this contradictory, George thought. The administrators prize evaluation. “Argue, assess, judge” the terms say. But no one assessed or judged the Bloomian taxonomy. Not ever. Assessmentism held the Bloomian edifice sancrosanct.
The Bloom Cab Center (BCC) made that obvious. Bloomtrue in Newspeak was beamed upon the walls: an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering vacuity. Action words were positioned many meters in the air beside all of the slogans of Assessmentism. The Palace of the Higher Edifice contained the roof of Bloominan terminology, dwarfing sensibility and justifying life quantitatively. A favorite question was to identify the guillotine. Guillotine- A) A French general. B) Mechanism for execution C) A small backyard grill D)A tiny Guillo E) All of the above. Should thirty percent of all students tested fail to answer correctly their teacher would be summarily executed.
As a Testing Center Intern, Jenny was able to shuffle results. Whenever she carried assessment cards to the Informational Research Room, she paused for five minutes to visit George. Unbeknownst to Brother Bloom, each time she arrived in his office Jenny gave him a strikingly innovative lesson plan. Sometimes she presented it before the hugs and kisses, sometimes after. One long smooch in particular was on George’s mind as he hurried toward his office along the white, bland halls of Assessmentism.
The acolytes in the corridor stood with their hands extended, each of them waiting for a pyramidal printout. And in the room beyond, in the eclipse of the dark room, the taxidermist did his work. There, adding columns on his assessment ledger, was Mr. Curt, rotund and robust beneath a dozen heads, along that Apian Way that led to his mighty oaken desk. It was a principled lineup on his wall, arranged in Cesar Lombrosian fashion: each head a phrenological masterpiece of cranial classification. The small head was first. It merely could describe. Then, from left to right, along a slight incline, the skulls grew in size and in dimension and grotesqueness, until “analyze” and “synthesize” stood in their garish glory nearest the bust of the High Priestess of Assessmentism. Next to that totem, beside a large assessment chart, an intercom in the wall played the greatest hits of Yanni and intoned “goo” and “gah” and other attempted pronunciations of the divine. From that cold place, George slinked away, hurriedly passing the Assessment Acolytes, to get as far away as he could get from those leathery dessicated figures of Assessmentism, mounted in crucifixion and pinned high on that wall. Their objective was couched in a slogan beamed upon the high wall: “No Bloomian Left Behind from the New Rapture of Assessmentism.”
George reached his office in due course. Jenny was late. Where was she, George wondered. Surely, she had not been caught by a Bloomian. Jenny Karma was too smart for that. They were always able to find a way to meet for their secret rendezvous. He reasoned that she might have had to go directly to the Testing Center, that place where teaching skill would inevitably be evaluated by student performance on the tests. Of course, it was never easy to get to Jenny Karma in the Learning Lab. George knew that it was a long way from Level Clockwork Orange to Level Sub Lime. There were steel doors and entanglements in the Learning Domains. Yet, sometimes he made the effort to meet her there. He paused at the window, looking out toward the smokestacks, where the incense from assessment card burning rites circled toward the sky. He decided to go look for her.
The testing room measured how students learned. Machines, reading predesigned test answer sheets, decided which answers were correct. One could not argue for an alternative response. Students spit back discrete bits, not connections. Outcomes were necessary, for Bloomsdale must be able to compete in the global marketplace. Therefore, ”In Go” and “Out Come” had high priority. The important factors were size of endowment, test scores for freshmen, and graduation rates according to the Bloomsdale Learning Assessment History (BLAH). He could see the backs of twenty heads, lined up in symmetrical rows, applying their twenty brains to multiple choice. They checked question and response boxes. There was a twenty percent chance of success for each question. Better than Las Vegas odds. Charlie the chimp had once scored reasonably well. The codes of proficiency were spelled out for the entire staff. On the steel benches of the tool room were benchmarks. The tracking of every student was essential and accrediting groups imposed test requirements. Students were prodded like a herd of cattle to perform. The corollary was how effectively teachers teach. Underperforming units were sanctioned for poor performance.
At the end of Corridor C was Blood Sampling. Hemoglobym counts were carefully registered. Oxygenation of the blood was measured. Changes in brain chemistry suggested changes in learning. Sodium levels, marked Na, were tabulated by the overseers, the Nasees. Bloomdale had long since despaired of Sanford Binet indexes. The average intelligence quotient had deteriorated to about sixty. In this crisis of intelligence, to demonstrate success a computer model had been adopted: input-output. Knowledge was a product. Assessmentism was quality control. Some claimed that this created a superficial, narrowed curriculum, but such a view was immediately suppressed as deviant. George recalled how they had silenced Buddy Satva. He left Sub Lime and returned up the stairs. “Describe,” “Understand,” “Analyze,” “Synthesize” appeared on the stairs as he went upward.
She was having quite an influence on him, Jenny Karma. By now George was ignoring his lesson plans. He’d gone off the grid. That meant avoiding the security cameras. His classroom overlooked the back of the building. Here, years after the utterly pitiful decline of the printed book, he could show movies that he rented from Netflix. Last week he had showed the abridged and censored versions of Catch 22 and Taxi Driver. It was a daring move. The students really didn’t get most of it. “So, who do you think is the villain?” he had asked them. The question was met with shrugs. The students glanced down at their I-pads for the answer. By now they expected the answer to be repeated on their ETS test. Having no idea how to teach, the new instructors adopted lessons constructed around the test questions. They wrote down the URL from which the argument had been sent by a mechanical trigger. The students answered automatically. Recently, administrators had proposed that wiring each student to the testing grid would make the process slightly easier. “Come on, people. Who is the villain?” George said. “Put yourself in the character’s shoes!” Melanie raised her hand. “Oh, but Mr. Blair. Are they a pair of Hush Puppies or Florsheim?”
George stared down at his shoes. They had carried him all the way down to Level C. He had descended all the way to “Understand.” But Jenny was nowhere to be found. He wondered if he should risk a cell phone call to her.
The tunnel fell unseen beneath the manicured landscape, underneath its precisely measured hedges. The cabs swept around the circle- month after month, year after year. Jenny Karma had traveled this way to Bloomian Community College so often since she’d broken up with Buddy Satva she felt she could do this with her eyes closed. She had begun to feel the Halls of Assessment were a part of herself: a code ringing in her head as she watched the station lights flash by. At Terminal C she slipped out of the noisy carriage and stood looking up at the assessment chart on Tower Hill. There the image of Brother Bloom stared back over the murky waters of the Thames.
This was Bloomsdale – a busy, anonymous world of technical training and vocational education positioned next to historic Bloomsbury: home to thousands, site of the university. Jenny Karma saw businessmen in suits, women clutching their Louis Vuitton purses, their sweet cloying perfume mixing aromatic with the clouds from cigarettes. They were people of the city, unaware of her state, citizens walking the endless loop toward Charing Cross, or toward the sprawling ethnic denizens of Indian and Arabic Muslim to the east. She lifted her grubby backpack and hurried under the imposing silhouette of Big Ben. Brother Bloom stared at her openly, with a familiarity that crept up her well-made stockings. His eyes were dark and deep and his bland face was illuminated by that cunning smile of an assessor. Those imperious assessmentizers were seeking the administrative elevators to hierarchy. Jenny always took the stairs, consciously walking from level Clockwork Orange to level Sub Lime.
Jenny sought to travel across levels, to pass through prisms of light. Yet, like everyone else, she took the tram that escorted travelers across sectors A to B to C. She sat calmly, holding an electronic pad in her hands. Under it, she hid a page from a book on Plato. She read a passage on the Nous and the realm of knowledge. It made some sense to her: a trace of memory that no one else remembered. She sneaked it beneath the pages of The Standard as the tram lunged into darkness.
“Hi, Jenny. Are you going to the Testing Room?”
“Yes. I have to bring the score reports to Sub Lime first.”
Down she hurried, from Orange to Sub Lime and she turned the corner and headed for George Blair’s room. A blaze of light met her in the hallway. She had to elude two acolytes with clipboards. Of course, she knew that Brother Bloom was watching around most every corner. When someone was caught, the strobe lights would begin to spin and beam down like the lights of Venus. Then the signal in the intercom on the white wall buzzed. It began with a laugh track from Seinfeld.
Ten paces past the camera, she turned right and slid into George Blair’s room. Then two strong arms were around her and she felt something mysterious, off the charts. George Blair smiled like a thousand suns of inexplicable light and warmth and she swooned. Together they became a tangle of arms, legs, feet. Slippers dangled and fell. An unrestrained elbow was caught by the monitor. A kinesthetic moment of dalliance had been observed. A bell sounded a low tone, curved and clear. The wires were brought around them, deliberately, to enclose them. A crescent lens of assessment swung down like the scythe of the moon. Their dance of joy ended in a burst of canned laughter. Brother Bloom’s mouth opened and a spray from it froze them in mid-air. The trajectory of their ankles was photographed. They were analyzed, synthesized and measured. Had they “created?” The Assessors were stunned into silence. For along with that something about them that had once been called love, there was that something that had once been called enchantment. Pinned to the wall like colorful butterflies frozen in ecstasy, they would be quantified and documented. They would be aligned.
Robert McParland is the author of Mark Twain’s Audience (2014), Charles Dickens’s American Audience (2010), and stories, songs, and plays.