Friday, July 16, 2010

Surpassing the Test

Everybody knows the dice are loaded
everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
---- Leonard Cohen

If you're over 18 you've probably taken the SAT or ACT at some point in your life; the great gatekeepers for the college dream, the drawbridge of the nation-wide scheme that purports itself to be an educational meritocracy. Now I'm sure that there are some people who'd disagree but remain convinced that most of you who've been exposed to this know that whatever it is these things measure it is not an ability any reasonable human being would be proud of or identify as central to the highest shared aspirations of humanity.

Oddly, despite the fact that we all have first hand experience of the absurdity of these tests, they persist, as if they were inevitable facts of nature, changing about as fast as continents drift; a mental form of torture inevitable as tooth decay and dental drills. Despite our living in what is supposedly a democracy we don't vote this absurdity out of existence; as if perhaps our democracy were spelled 'm-o-c-k'.

Now part of this I am sure stems from the degree to which we have internalized the hidden premises of these tests and think our own less than perfect scores reflect something that is terribly terribly wrong with us that might not be obvious as long as we just keep silent. But what exactly are the premises of these tests? They suggest that what they measure is 'scholastic aptitude', but unlike any other aptitude, say like with a hammer and a nail, this is supposedly one you can't improve by practice, one that does not reflect previous educational opportunity but depicts an innate and unchanging ability.

Doesn't it seem like there are two Grand Canyon sized holes in this theory? First, if some people's innate abilities are lower shouldn't they be exposed to the best universities and education in order to promote justice and equality throughout the society -- to give them an equal chance to compete? (Where is the sense in giving more advantages to those who already have them, especially if they in no sense earned them, remember this 'aptitude' is supposedly innate.) And secondly, and even more importantly, don't we all already know that nothing these tests measure is innate? Why is it that even second and third rate schools have special courses to do nothing other than prepare kids for these tests, that there is a whole industry for doing this? And can anyone really believe that you could give the same test to someone who spoke French, or Swahili, or Chinese and that they would have every chance to do just as well as native English speakers? Clearly a person who couldn't even read the questions could not do well on such tests; but the language someone speaks is just as clearly not innate. Even if you translated the questions directly into French for example you would still confront the fact that something as basic as grammar is a social construction; whereas double-negatives are banned in English they are required in French, ne c'est pas?

But then again, doesn't everybody know the dice are loaded, and roll with their fingers crossed? That if your middle name is Dubya for Bush you have a million times the 'innate intelligence' of someone whose middle name is N for Blackman or G for Asian? And isn't that what people are really saying when they claim they 'just want what's best for their children'? If parents want to love their children don't they want that love to make a positive difference and improve their chances for success? Can anyone really blame a parent for wanting to make a positive difference, for wanting to make all the positive difference that they can in their children's lives. And when you try to make sure that your kids get to go to the best schools aren't you at the same time making sure that someone else's kids are in the worst? Unless you're living in Lake Woebegone Minnesota there is no way that all the kids can be above average; for every school that's above average there has to be one that's below; that's the way averages work

I remember I once asked the poet Major Ragain if the world were constructed in such a way that you could either have the greatest pleasure coupled to the greatest pain, or the least pain coupled to the least pleasure, how would you choose to live your life? And without skipping a beat he said 'right in the middle'.

Maybe that is the key. Maybe we can meet in the middle. Maybe instead of denouncing this as mediocrity we can recognize it for what it is: centeredness, well-roundedness, and understand that its opposite is not 'ex-cellence' but ex-tremity, narrowness, and that this leads to a gated community version of success that only regards itself as free when the universal surveillance cameras are watching behind the razor-wired walls. That the only true education is the one that encompasses and seeks to embody the cosmopolitan diversity of the world's rainbow, and not the blind bland blonde ideal of monochromatic Aryan supremacy? And don't kid yourself, the inventors of those self-evidently ridiculous tests, the SAT's and their predecessors the Stanford-Binet's and Army Alpha's and Beta's, these people were avid hereditarian eugenicists. Buried in the premises of those tests, the one's we use to choose who is anointed in our Marquis of Queensbury struggle for survival, is the rock-ribbed conservative belief that the Nordic races that first murdered their way into the manifest destiny of American rule were innately superior to everyone else --- and they have routinely finagled the numbers to the convenience of whatever drool-lipped spit-head happened to be in charge (what were George W.'s SAT's?) ever since.

When you look at the pedigree of these tests, see how they were used to restrict immigration quotas, ultimately preventing many European Jews from escaping Hitler's concentration camps, and used to justify state policies of forced sterilization against poor and minority women continuing on until 1972 (many if not most of whom were of normal intelligence but who were miscast as imbeciles by these innately flawed tests) --- how can anyone, anyone whose fingers aren't crossed, believe in these flagrant intellectual frauds? How can people who consider themselves educated, much less educators, professors, and educational leaders --- how can they ally themselves to this system of intellectual atrocity perpetrated in the name of the very education it defames? This would defy belief even if they'd been eliminated 70 years ago -- the tests were obsolete before they were invented, and the fact that they are still in use is a blatant warning that the people who are in charge and who have been in charge of education for more than a generation are incompetent and worse, and are not to be trusted with taking out the garbage much less the living treasure of our children's and our society's future.

And the only, I think the only thing that can be said in the defense of the history of these tests is that we must not allow them to be replaced --- by something worse. That if the interests of the persons who have been misrunning this system from time immemorial are allowed to continue to define the policy and direction of the country's schools, then it doesn't matter what the tests are, or what the rules are --- the plague of selfish founding-father hagiographic ignorance that has governed our states from their slave-codifying constitution will continue with the execution of the ideals of justice and human equality which alone can make for a better life for all, a life worth living, and what is truly, a more perfect union. And this can only happen when the ideal of the middle overcomes the illusory ideal of the extreme; when balance outweighs excellence; sharing replaces winning; social commitment surpasses obsessive personal security. When we stop speechifying as if we were in this to win, --- and begin to acknowledge that we are in this to--gether.

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