Sunday, December 19, 2004

Thesis, Antithesis, Prosthesis

Years ago I had to prove that I could read French in my degree program. I expected that I’d have to take an intensive French course to get past the requirement, but just for fun I took the achievement exam to see what I was up against. Though I’d never studied French, I didn’t go in quite unprepared. In the week before the test, I spent a couple of evenings looking over one of those laminated crib sheets for French grammar. Nevertheless, I certainly couldn’t read, speak, or understand the language in any meaningful sense. As a consequence, I was a bit surprised when I not only passed the test but scored well above the cutoff line. I remember thinking to myself that it was too bad I hadn’t taken the Chinese, Arabic, and Sanskrit tests on the same occasion so I could be fluent in those languages too.

Lots of folks denounce multiple choice tests. Frank McCourt, the genial author of Angela’s Ashes and himself a former school teacher, once referred to them as “the most hideous invention America has ever come up with.” I used to be dead set against them myself and inflicted essay exams on my students in a former life, but I’ve come to think that my dislike of them was mere ingratitude in view of the business about the French requirement and the many other occasions in which standardized tests have rewarded my superficial cleverness. Besides, multiple choice tests really are quintessentially American and patriotic to boot, having been invented for the benefit of our army by Arthur S. Otis in 1917. After 9/11 one is advised not to knock our heritage, at least publicly. Anyhow, multiple choice tests also have a metaphysical significance that marks them as something more important than just another piece of cultural detritus. They implement a powerful historical tendency, the grand process of simplification that allows us to live with the complexity our own activities create. In this way, multiple choice tests help fend off the never quite looming menace of epistemia gravis, aka information sickness or, to use a quaint old term, Harrison’s Fatheadedness.

Just as human beings are not adapted to live in nature without clothes, we are hardly prepared to learn about history, science, and literature without a host of mediating instrumentalities that protect our egos from the awful truth about how hard it is to figure things out. And that’s true even for people who happen to have the motivation and aptitude for learning. If the goal is to create an entire nation of people with some intellectual self respect and, moreover, to do it on the cheap—always the American way!—the intelligible world will have to be turned into a cartoon. Pretending there are at most four or five alternative responses to each mental challenge is a good start especially when you remember what it was like to grade blue books.

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