Surely Two Choices is Enough

Let’s test our writing skills, shall we? Let’s write an essay on one of these questions:

“Is it more important to follow the rules exactly or to base your actions on how other people may be affected?”

”Are people motivated to achieve by personal satisfaction rather than by money or fame?”

Okay let’s not. Let’s instead curl a lip at the stupid impoverished vacuous questions, and do something else instead. For instance we could wonder why those are the only possibilities on offer, and why the terms are so undefined, in fact meaningless. ‘More important’ – to whom, when, where, in what context? What ‘rules’? Rules pertaining to what? Football? Taking an aptitude test? Morality? If the latter, what rules are meant? What ‘actions’? What am I doing, and what rules apply to what I’m doing, and how do I know, and who issued them? Where are we? What ‘other people’? ‘Affected’ in what sense? To ‘achieve’ what? What kind of achievement are we talking about? What kind of ‘personal satisfaction’? What if ‘money’ and ‘fame’ aren’t real options? Where (again) are we? And why such incomplete choices? The best answer to both questions would be simply ‘No.’

The author of the article points this out.

The real problem with the SAT persuasive essay assignment isn’t what it conveys about spontaneity or style but what it suggests about how to argue. Students are asked to ponder (quickly) a short excerpt of conventional wisdom about, say, the advisability of following rules, and they are then instructed to ”develop your point of view on this issue.” But if the goal of ”better writing” is ”improved thinking,” as the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges has pronounced, perhaps it’s worth asking whether practice in reflexively taking a position on any potentially polarizing issue is what aspiring college students — or the rest of us — need most. As those sample essay questions at the start reveal, and as any test-prep book will confirm, at the homiletic heart of the SAT writing assignment is the false dichotomy. The best strategy for a successful essay is to buy into one of the facile premises that inform the question, and then try to sell it as if it were really yours. Essayists won’t be penalized for including false information, either, according to the official guide for graders. ”You are scoring the writing,” it instructs, ”and not the correctness of facts.”

Ah. The point of the test is to score how closely students resemble Bill O’Reilly. Wonderful.

…the test-prep industry bluntly says that a blinkered perspective pays off on the essay — and nobody knows better than the professional SAT obsessives. ”It is very important that you take a firm stance in your essay and stick to it,” insists Kaplan’s ”New SAT.”…”What’s important is that you take a position and state how you feel. It is not important what other people might think, just what you think.” This doesn’t bear much resemblance to an exercise in critical reasoning, which usually involves clarifying the logic of a position by taking counterarguments seriously or considering alternative assumptions…In fact, self-centered opinion is exactly what the questions solicit…You have to hand it to the College Board: the new essay seems all too apt as training for contemporary social and political discourse in this country, and for journalistic food fights too. But don’t colleges want to encourage the ”strengths of analysis and logic” that the Board itself has said are so important to ”the citizenry in a democracy”?

It doesn’t appear so.

8 Responses to “Surely Two Choices is Enough”