Thursday, January 29, 2009

Exam

On Wednesday, some juniors and seniors at the school where I teach had to take a standardized English exam. One of the tasks on this exam is to write an essay discussing how any two works of literature interact with a specific quote. The quote this year was from a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson (or, as Hyman Kaplan would have it, Relfvaldo Amerson, who is a poyet, not a wrider): "Fear always springs from ignorance." So the idea is to choose two pieces of ("serious") literature and write about how, in those texts, fear does or does not spring from ignorance.

Walking up and down the rows of silent test-takers, I pondered the essay and realized that it was not a particularly easy task. What in the world would I even write about if I were in the kids' Uggs*? After a few minutes of thought, I lit upon a couple of candidates: To Kill A Mockingbird and Northanger Abbey (or, for that manner, any of the Radcliffean Gothic novels that predate it, but those aren't usually read in high school). I know you can do this too, so sing it with me: Scout, Jem, and Dill are afraid of Boo Radley because they didn't know anything about him/The white townspeople are afraid of Tom Robinson because they don't look beyond his race/Catherine is afraid of General Tilney because she doesn't understand the truth of his motives and the family's past/Catherine, upon her enlightenment, is no longer afraid and feels "heartily ashamed of her ignorance." The problem is that there isn't much more to say. These texts' interaction with the ignorance/fear theme is so very straightforward that it would be quite a challenge to write more than a couple of paragraphs about that idea alone.

Starting to feel uneasy - as an Ivy League English major, I should probably not encounter difficulties with a task on a high school proficiency exam - I considered some other high school classics, only to find the picture getting cloudier. In Pride and Prejudice, the two most ignorant characters, Lydia and Mrs. Bennet, are the also least fearful; on the other hand, when Elizabeth is fearful of Mr. Collins introducing himself to Mr. Darcy, it is not because she's ignorant of what will happen, but rather because she knows the precise nature of the embarrassment that will ensue. In "The Waking," Roethke says he "cannot fear" his fate - but if he "learns by going," does that mean he's ignorant at each step, or not? Or how about Hamlet or Macbeth? Is Macbeth more or less ignorant after he has heard from the witches? Is Hamlet more or less frightened after learning the truth about his father's death? At what point would you say that Macbeth is fully enlightened - is it when he dies - is he unafraid then? Or how about Romeo and Juliet or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or A Tale of Two Cities? Fear and/or ignorance in and of themselves don't figure as major headlining themes there - you would have to pick them out painstakingly from the ideas surrounding them and then artificially inflate their importance.**

At around this point in my thought process, I was getting upset. The more I thought about it, the more glib the quote in question seemed, the more inappropriate for the task at hand. It's not Relfvaldo's fault; he made the statement about fear and ignorance in a lovely talk (Wordsworthian, yeah? Ha! I haven't lost it yet, suckas) about intellectual growth. He could not possibly have meant for that one sentence to be pulled out of context. On its own, it's a meaningless little truism that offers no clarification or deeper interest to any given situation. Because what is fear? What is ignorance? Does "ignorance" mean that deep, fundamental way in which humans are always ignorant, or is it the smaller, more specific lack of knowledge of this and that and the other? And is "fear" a generalized existential terror in the face of the abyss, or is it the negative feelings that we have about specific potential events? And don't we sometimes fear because we do know? And aren't we sometimes fearless because we don't? And, most importantly, how is anyone, let alone a nervous 17-year-old kid who may or may not have a solid grasp on thoughtful, analytical reading and writing processes in the first place, supposed to sort through all of these issues and write a coherent essay about them in the time allotted?

I have had discussions like this with other teachers before, and more often than not, they will tell me that I am "overthinking" the issues. Indeed, "overthinking" is a charge that I have levelled at me with some regularity, and it is one that I despise, because I've said it before and I'll say it again: I AM NOT OVERTHINKING. I am simply allowing myself to be conscious of the complexities inherent in this and other matters. I could, of course, shut down this consciousness and consider the ideas before me as superficially as possible. In terms of the exam, for example, I could pretend that the quote "Fear always springs from ignorance" has a clear enough meaning to be a useful premise for literary analysis; I could add enough unnecessary fluff to the To Kill a Mockingbird and Northanger Abbey stuff to fill out a full essay; I could also work with any other texts and make the fear/ignorance issues in them seem much more central and straightforward than they actually are. And, indeed, an industrious, clever high school student determined to ace this exam could do the same. But my question is, WHY? What is the purpose of ignoring obvious complexity and instead fluffing out the superficial to make it seem more meaningful? What is the purpose of being glib rather than thoughtful? Why, in short, would we choose (or encourage our students to choose) to underthink?

This is what really drives me mad about the whole concept of "overthinking." It is true, of course, that some things are not particularly useful subjects for thoroughgoing analysis - like "Did he really mean it when he told me he didn't mind watching the baby while I go to a meeting?" or "How can my doctor be absolutely sure that I don't have hidden sinus cancer?" But, on the whole, things that might reasonably merit our attention (a high school proficiency exam, childbirth, the Academy Awards, Uggs, Oscar Wilde, Brittney Spears, "South Park", pork, etc.) also merit our serious thought. I'm not saying that one must do this sort of thing with everything in the world (though that would, I imagine, be fun). I just think it's important to understand that questioning things thoughtfully and with purpose, holding them up to the light for close examination, winding them up to see if they go - this is not overthinking. It's thinking, and you should be doing it, too.

Returning to the exam room (had you forgotten?) - it was clear to me that the students were struggling with the question as much as I was. Some just stared blankly, unhappily at the exam booklet; some had begun, "Ralph Waldo Emerson once said," and then stalled out; some were writing doggedly, with earnest but desperate looks on their faces. Walking around the room, I could see that very few kids had been able to come up with texts fully appropriate to the prompt; no one had chosen To Kill A Mockingbird, even though it's taught by every English teacher at the school (and at any school anywhere, right?). Indeed, of the kids who were writing, nearly half were writing about the children's novel-turned-movie, Holes. I was infuriated. My school is supposedly a college-prep "academy," but it is still a high-needs school, a place where a large number of the junior and seniors are not unlikely to identify Holes as the last book they read that they understood well enough to actually write about. (And let's not ignore the possibility that many of them did not even read it, but watched the movie instead.) To demand that these students, for whom even basic comprehension is a challenge, play the game of responding to a poorly-constructed task as if it were a well-constructed one - to demand that they be glib rather than honestly thoughtful - to decide that this tells us something about how well they actually read and write and think - this seems nonsensical at best, actively harmful at worst.

"You're overthinking things," you scold, "That's just how standardized tests are. That's how the world works." Perhaps. But does it not occur to you that people make tests and people make the world? Such things, things made by people, do not have to be the way they are - ever. Everything is always subject to change, and anything that doesn't work, anything that's actively harmful, ought to be changed. You know that I'm not overthinking here. I'm just thinking, and you should be doing it, too.

*The uniform policy at the school does not permit boots, but those shearling-lined, slipper-like Ugg boots are all the rage right now, so the girls wear them to school, switch into ballet flats when they get yelled at, and switch back as soon as the yeller is out of sight. The school is awash in Uggs, on-brand and off-brand, pink, tan, grey, black, patchwork, with stitching, with rhinestones. "Kids and their fads," I think to myself superciliously as I don my shearling-lined clog boots, which are of course NOT AT ALL like Uggs. (And which, incidentally, were ALSO featured by Lucky magazine AFTER I BOUGHT THEM. Curses.)

**Smart cookies that you, my readers, are, I have no doubt that you are busy cooking up lots of ways in which I am wrong. You are coming up with lots of texts that are perfect for the task and would make for a meaty essay; you are finding clear fear/ignorance themes in the texts I pushed aside as not having any. Indeed, after three days of pondering, I have done the same. But that's not my point. My point is that this task is simply poorly-constructed. Its poor construction renders it harder than it ought to be, and it thus does not do a particularly good job of testing how well a student actually reads or writes. The same is true of the other task on the exam that day, one that I chose not to discuss here for brevity's sake (ha!). The fact that you, the brainy little readers of a semi-literary-memoir blog, could cope with this exam rather handily proves nothing about how accurately the exam tests the reading and writing skills of every high school student who takes it. So stop constructing artful responses now, OK? Or on second thought, don't stop. Construct artful responses and post them - I don't get enough comments up in this bitch.

1 comment:

pretty face said...

Right now, I think I'm in the UK equivalent of High School and so am taking a *lot* of exams. I agree with you that the structure of questions is either very poor or mind-numbingly formulaic. But I suppose with a question like this, you might be expected to look at ways in which this quote is incorrect, and other ways in which fear occurs, or other effects of ignorance. So you could take any of those stories you wrote about in order to point out that often it is not ignorance, but something else (maybe over-thinking?!?) which creates fear.

But I do see how this is possibly stepping more into the realms of psychology than reading and writing proficiency. Still, I would personally prefer this question to the one which invariably gets asked: 'How does/do this/these writers present this/that and what is it's effect?'

By the way, I just wanted to say that I love your little asterixed footnotes! xx