Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What counts as interesting?

I was talking to a friend and they said they think the standardized test writing prompts tend to be interesting. I don't know how common that sentiment is. My guess is that for people with a background in philosophy or who tend to think things out, the topics are very bland and trite. (This will sound extremely condescending. It is, but I don't judge people's worth on intelligence.) For people who don't think very often or study English (or something like that), I can see why they are interesting.

Let me explain with a few examples I grabbed from the web:

"Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?"

This is a scientific question. I don't think anyone has ever studied it so who the hell knows. Is it an important question? Not really--the question doesn't propose any programs for solving the problem if it exists. The key here, though, is that this isn't the kind of issue you can expect to make any progress on by writing down a bunch of "case studies" (e.g. anecdotes).

"Should schools help students understand moral choices and social issues?"

No one thinks schools shouldn't. Understanding moral/political issues are important and we do it in English and social science classes. The one thing that makes people feel uneasy is that schools can't avoid inculcating a certain moral perspective on issues. But teachers' views and peers' views are going to socialize students anyway, that is unavoidable. I think this one was settled a long time ago. The real question is to what extent should schools tell people what to think when discussing the issues. That is interesting but society has settled more or less on a consensus even there: schools should teach things nearly everyone believes, and if there is any controversy whatsoever, not discuss it. Maybe an interesting question that could come out of this is "What percentage of society has to disagree with a moral claim before it becomes unacceptable to teach it as accepted in schools?" (For example: what percentage of Americans have to find gay marriage acceptable for it to become acceptable to write about gay marriage in history books the same way we write about civil rights for blacks.)

"Do newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, the Internet, and other media determine what is important to most people?"

This is another scientific question. You can find out by running experiments to test to what extent changing the paper someone reads changes their priorities. I believe the answer is that, as anyone would expect, it changes their views a little bit. (There are two studies I can think of: one that studied the impact of Fox News on voting behavior and one that studied the impact of having a conservative or liberal paper deliver to the door.) The real question here is how much impact media has on values? That is going to be very hard to estimate and isn't even properly framed to start with. But whatever it is, writing some anecdotes about how watching CNN made you want to join the Peace Corp doesn't get us anywhere. But that's what the SAT wants . . . I think. (Comment: What do they mean by determine anyway? Do they mean if I ran a regression I'd get an R^2 of 1, as if nothing else beyond media socialized people's values. I'm just assuming they couldn't possibly mean that.)

GRE prompts can be even worse. My prompt was, in so many words, "can the ends justify the means?" That one was settled a long time ago. The answer is obvious.  Even more probing version of the question  are obvious (e.g. "when do the ends justify the means?" Answer: When the net outcome is better than the next best alternative.) I have a feeling that a lot of people in English departments never found out that that question was settled hundreds of years ago.

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