Fishing in Deeper Waters

“See you now;                                                                                                                                    Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:                                                                             And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,                                                                                     With windlasses and with assays of bias,                                                                                        By indirections find directions out…”                                                                                                            —-Polonius to Reynaldo, Hamlet, Act II, Scene i

“If the unhappy day ever comes when teachers point their actions toward these newer [standardized] examinations, and the present weak and restricted procedures get a grip on education, then we may look for the inevitable distortion of education in terms of tests.”              —Carl Brigham, father of the SAT, in a 1938 letter.

Whatever you may think of the SAT and ACT (and standardized testing in general), one thing is brutally clear: they were never intended to be part of students’ curricula. They were in part intended to measure what students were learning in school, to overhear, in a way, what was going on. They were supposed to be an adjunct, a sideshow, not the main event. Classes were to go on as planned, with the tests (originally said to be un-preppable) as momentary interruptions probing one slice of one’s education.

And yet here we are, with ACT and SAT prep front and center, consuming hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars while boring the life out of teachers and students condemned to memorize contextless words and drill the structure of each test into their heads. But the cost in hours and dollars is nothing compared to the erosion of real learning possibilities that go unfulfilled and the “distortion of education” into a wasteland of surface meaning and literalness.

We have come to a moment when what seems to matter is only that which can be measured, however shakily. Schools keep public track of and are “graded” on the test scores of their students (I’ve seen bulletin boards with big graphs of ACT score “progress”); non-fiction is privileged over fiction in the new curricular guidelines (it’s what “really” happened); math and the sciences dominate the hand-wringing of administrators and educational bureaucrats; students themselves are reduced to their GPAs and scores as engineers-turned-counselors figure out where they should apply to college.

Brigham predicted that the present “weak and restricted procedures” would wreck education if they got a foothold, and he was right. No time for discussion, imaginative distractions or following students’ unexpected interest in a topic. We have to get through the AP’s prescribed units so you can do well on the test! There’s just enough time to take notes and regurgitate them for the weeks of review for that exam, meaning that the actual days of learning new things are themselves cut short.

And if there’s no time for discursiveness, there’s no time for metaphor, no room for poetics, no space for contrariness. All the “filigree” has to be ground away so the “basics” can be taught since that’s what will be on the exam. It’s straight to the ABCs of every topic and to hell with the rest. Students may be able to define”simile” or “metaphor” but damned if they can enjoy or understand one. (And let’s not forget that math and science are imaginative realms as much as are fiction and the arts; many of the great theories began as metaphors and many of the great scientists were also great writers. Casting them simply as fact-based subjects susceptible to rote learning is to vastly misinterpret them. How do we describe an atom? As a little solar system…)

That’s no small thing, either. It may sound like uselessness to plutocrats who found charter schools to create “pipelines” of semi-educated laborers, but a literal education without the expansiveness of poetics (taken broadly) stunts the mind and disables thinking. Students who have never been exposed to the twists and turns of language or history see only the surface of things; they can’t interpret or question. This suits plutocrats and those who believe “education” equals “order” and “discipline” just fine, since students who can’t question can’t ask good questions about the world around them, the social order, or their own lives.

A great educational system doesn’t only teach students their subjects, it teaches the things underlying them, not by pounding them into each student’s head but through subtle and sometimes undetectable methods, so that each will “By indirections find directions out…”

Look at the wealth of meaning in the line, “Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth.” Polonius wants Reynaldo to find out what’s bugging Hamlet but not by asking him directly; that wouldn’t get an answer or at least not a usable one. No, Reynaldo will have to approach Hamlet like a fisherman, subtly, using some ruse as “bait” to “catch” the truth from the gloomy Prince. Here’s the conversation, imagine an actual fisherman; now you know what you need to do! We have the literal image of a fisherman and his catch; Reynaldo and Hamlet as metaphorical same; Polonius himself as a schemer “casting” for the truth; and along the way a question of how falsehood can elicit truth. And why choose the image of a fisherman? Why not a hunter? A scholar? A miner? And that’s only the beginning.

In a decent English class, we might take some time with these ideas (as well as with the wonderful phrasing and sounds the words and lines make) and probably not have nearly enough time to cover everything. But the important thing is not that students will be able to recognize this particular set of images on a test (“Define the literary term Shakespeare uses in the line.”), but that they will be able to see images wherever they occur and be sensitive to their meaning and implications. While they are doing one thing, reading and discussing the passage, they are unwittingly learning another that’s unsaid. They are glimpsing something deeper than what’s in front of them.

I love that line “By indirections find directions out” not only for its perfect sounds and rhythm but also for its truth–for this is the way we learn the most and the most deeply, when we don’t even realize it. I created an event for Chicago Scholars I called the Amazing College Race that had nearly 300 students and their mentors in teams (like TV’s The Amazing Race) traveling throughout the city visiting colleges and performing tasks on each campus while attending admission sessions and “tagging up” at city landmarks. Many  students had never been far out of their neighborhoods and most had never realized how many colleges were so close by or how much the city had to offer right out in the open. At the end of the Race its first year, one young woman came up to me, exhausted but elated. I asked her how she felt and she said, “Great! It was so much fun and we didn’t have to learn anything!” She then proceeded to tell me everything she had learned throughout her day in the city–the complexity of the CTA, the beauty of college campuses, how easy it was to apply to college, and so on. She had had a brilliant day!

Appealing to the imagination rather than to clumsy literal methodology (he could have had Polonius tell Reynaldo to threaten Hamlet with a club, after all), Shakespeare opens us up to the possibilities of language, which opens us up to everything. We are metaphor-making creatures and we think in symbols. Testing and drilling strip that all away.

Carl Brigham was right to worry. Standardized testing opened the door to the dullness of data collection as the motivating force of education; it made the world safe for Scantron sheets and that much less hospitable for minds that can’t fit into those little bubbles. I know there are wonderful students and teachers out there who cringe and suffer under school administrators and bureaucrats who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (The metaphor of children as blank hard drives comes to mind; some see only the need to inscribe “data” on them.) I hope for all our sakes students deprived of a deep and rich education will one day demand it for their children.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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