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Jewish World Review June 13, 2002/ 3 Tamuz, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Refusing to sit still for sat exam silliness | Every time we think the politically correct educationists have outdone themselves, new idiocy emerges. The latest revelation affects all those students who must take SATs to determine where they spend their academic future. For dubious reasons, the scores on these tests are key to deciding which students "make it" at the elite colleges.

We should scrutinize more closely the people who are setting up these qualifications. It shouldn't surprise me (but it always does) that they're more concerned with sensitivity than learning. A lengthening list of taboo topics include bullying, abortion, divorce, drinking, drugs, date rape, terrorism, even parents dying of cancer.

"The SAT is not meant to test people's ability to confront controversial material, or challenge their beliefs," Ed Curley, director in charge of the verbal skills portion of the test, tells The New York Times. "This is a test to measure their reading and analysis skills, so we try to eliminate anything that would muddy the waters." (A nice example of metaphor muddying meaning.)

A dramatic example of what a terrible thing can happen is the story of the daughter of a logger in Montana. Her father had received death threats from tree-huggers. When she read a passage describing the value of forests, she thought of her dad and the tree huggers and became hysterical. She couldn't continue the test. The question was dropped.

Imagine what this young woman could have suffered if she had read the scene in "MacBeth" where Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane castle to kill the king. A botany class could have driven the poor child to a mental institution. (But we can't speak of that on SAT tests.)

It's not clear whether bullying is ruled out as a topic to spare the feelings of the bully or the bullied. Now that we've discovered the terrible ways popular teen-age girls can treat their less attractive (not to say "plain") classmates, the testing room could make the hysterical outbursts of the witches of Salem sound like the witches ordering tea and scones.

Ethnic specificity also requires special vigilance. The Afro-American of yesteryear must become African-American, though this could confuse (and wound) a white South African immigrant student.

To avoid sexual stereotyping, even the math questions must provide politically correct images. Instead of Brittany and her mother, it's Justin and his father who have to be counted on to do the dusting and the laundry. No consideration is given to the psyches of students who, if they're lucky enough to live with their daddies, have never seen them perform any such domestic duties. One plus one would equal zero.

Such absurdity is the stuff of comedy, but it has serious consequences. If the educationists who make up such questions are so weak and stupid, do we want them influencing how our children think and deciding which colleges they attend?

The reasoning of these educationally challenged test-makers logically leads to the elimination of most questions. So why not just hand out a blank sheet of paper and ask the kids to write what they know? They may surprise us. In fact, "essay questions" may be soon included for the first time.

James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and the author of the book "Living it Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury," conducted a fascinating experiment. He asked his students to identify terms from "Cultural Literacy," a book that addresses what every American should know to be considered literate.

Terms such as "Emancipation Proclamation" and "gross national product," or the meaning of irony, stumped many of the kids. But when he asked them about expensive labels identifying the best quality for the luxurious lifestyle, they were totally on top of the multicultural vocabulary: men's trousers - Georgio Armani; sports car - Porsche 911; Notebook computer - Toshiba; Watch - Patek Philippe.

The professor concedes that his sample is limited, but not off the wall. An international poll of college seniors found that 74 percent expect to become millionaires and enjoy those expensive-label products.

Two professors in the School of Business at Rutgers University asked their marketing students to name the brands they prefer and were astonished at how knowledgeable the kids are about possessions they don't have. (Would that they could say half as much about the great books they haven't read.) These young men and women aren't ashamed of smoking and drinking - only of smoking and drinking the wrong brands.

Marcel Duchamp, the avant-garde artist, observed that "Living is more a question of what one spends than of what one makes." We might add, "than of what one knows."

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS