Does being ethical make it hard to be successful? Is it sometimes necessary to be impolite? Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame or power? Is the way something seems to be not always the same as it actually is? Do people learn who they are only when they are forced into action? Do closed doors make us creative? Are bad choices and good choices equally likely to have negative consequences? Are people’s lives the result of the choices they make? Do people have to be highly competitive in order to succeed?
The English language part of the College Board’s “Scholastic Aptitude Test” now incorporates a writing component. [Back before electricity when I took this exam there was no such thing – and for shame! Because I definitely would have outscored my BFF if there had been. As it stands he got me by 10 points – while sleeping through half the exam.] The above are all actual examples of the essay prompts from the exam. They also provide some brief polemical quotation, generally from a lesser (read = UN) known source to preface the question. As I spend an extraordinary amount of time helping students prepare for this segment of the SAT (another thing we did not do back in the day… where we took the test once and then – you know, whatever) I have started writing essay responses with them recently to demonstrate that in fact, they are not exactly “Yes” or “No” questions as one of my students insists.
“Amanda, that question is stupid.”
“Well, okay, yeah, probably. But the point is you can’t control that, you still need to answer it.”
“But how can I write an essay about it? It is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.”
“You have to explain your position – say why it is yes or no.”
“But that is stupid.”
“Uh-huh, right. So, are you ready then?”
To be fair, the SAT is stupid, but I think the writing part may be the least stupid element. If there is a categorical weakness in my students, it is in their written expression. One of my other students came in the other day with this epiphany:
“I know why I can’t write.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Because I hate doing it.”
“Yes, I thought we had established that.”
“But I hate doing it because I hate to read. I don’t read, so how can I write?”
One of the smartest things he has ever said.
And I cannot make them read. So we write. Frequently. Repeatedly. Obsessively some might say. And then we talk about our essays (meant to be 350 words, give or take, in 25 minutes.) Then my students tell me it is not fair that it is so easy for me to come up with ideas. Again, they are correct. It is not fair. And these questions are not only completely easy to work out when you have, let’s say, 38 years of life experience like someone I know… they are actually kind of fun. As a philosophical exercise I think they are great.I love that there is no answer to bubble in.
As a measure of ‘scholastic aptitude’? I am not so sure.
Here are some excerpts:
“People’s lives are the result of the choices they make, however many other factors may impact on their lives like fate, destiny or just pure luck, so lives cannot just depend on the right choices or the wrong choices.”
“Many restraints and obstacles are encountered during one’s lifetime. Restraints, unexpected events and limited opportunity often force people to have to improvise and be creative with the resources that they are given.”
“Good choices usually have better outcomes than bad choices. Although the good choice might be accompanied with a consequence, if thought out carefully it wouldn’t be as bad as the bad choice.”
“”When unexpected events intervene, a well thought out choice can lead to bad things happening, so these choices that once seemed to be good choices may not seem so anymore.”
“Closed doors do make us creative. To overcome a ‘closed door,’ you would need to think of a solution. Usually, it is a tough problem and would require an amazing plan.”
I see a clear trend here… Are they all Calvinists giving it all up to fate and predestination? Probably, it is more reflective of how it feels to be an adolescent and like you have no control. I think the ambiguity and uncertainty that these guys feel when they are facing these questions is real and complicating. And it is what makes writing these essays so hard for them. I am not sure I have really worked it out any better than they have. I think I am just more comfortable taking a stand – maybe less worried about jinxing the outcome than I might have been at one time. Sure, they are yes or no questions. But it is the gray area that makes them so fun to talk about. At least fun for me. Peremptory apologies to all those students who will have to listen…
Faced with these kinds of questions what would your 16 year-old self say?
What would your ______ year-old self say?
Think about it, you may be surprised.