March 11, 2014

ZAHOS | More Than a Feeling: Arts and the SAT

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So last week, the College Board announced big changes for the SATs, an awful and borderline anti-intellectual institution most of us — in college and beyond — survived and have since tried to forget. Who cares, right? Well, unfortunately, I do, because, effective in 2016, the College Board will no longer require students to write an essay. If you shoved any of my SAT essays (I took the test thrice) into my face today, I would hurl expletives, and maybe my lunch, back at you, because I’m sure they were platitudinous, benign and boring. But, goddammit, did I ace them. Removing the essay component in the SAT puts our academic priorities in all the wrong places, away from the written word, the value of a good argument and the process of creation.

I swear I’m not going to spend this whole column talking about SATs — I’ll get to movies shortly — but humor me for a little while as I reminiscence on that time of so much undue stress. On test day, a Saturday, I woke up around 6:15a.m., stood outside in the cold and waited on a slow-moving line just to flash my pass and student I.D. to some underpaid teacher. It was a miserable migraine of a so-called academic experience, yet the mood shifted once the SAT actually started.

I had 25 minutes to fill two pages with the best points, vocabulary and gerunds I could muster. There was no guessing, process of elimination or wasted seconds. You had to just go at it, and that’s what I did. Some impotent, probably underpaid knockoff of the Muse that Milton invoked so religiously in his poetry visited me in that high school classroom, for the thrill of besting my peers and the crunch of time inspired some … I wouldn’t call it literature, but it was some pretty good bullshit. And what surprised me, reading it over before the proctor called time, was how I packed all this ephemera into a discernible structure, with a shape to my argument and, most crucially, some evidence backing it up.

The rest of my SAT experience sucked, of course, but I value its essay component for reminding me what I excelled at, and how writing mattered as much as a doing a bunch of math problems. The College Board only introduced the writing section, — and the 800 points that came with it — in 2005. Whatever its motivations then, the dismissal of SAT writing now pushes the narrative that the humanities are on their way out — that numbers and filled-in circles equip prospective patrons of higher education better than an inspired, never-before-seen arrangement of words. This is a big problem in academia right now, one The Sun will dedicate a “Dialogue” to tomorrow in Ives Hall.

The delusion governing this administrative decision-making, in favor of STEM fields and against the liberal arts, is that the latter is not “practical” or even “rigorous.” This world needs more problem-solvers and fewer manchilds pouring their feelings onto a page or piece of canvas. While the belittling of art bothers me, I take issue with the fundamental dichotomy being drawn. The worst English essay abandons “practicality” just as the laziest scientific paper tosses out the scientific method. A misguided student may ignore form, coherence and citations when writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, and instead lapse into solipsism, asserting how touched he or she was by the book and why that emotional response is so precious. 1000-plus words later, the reader of this essay learns nothing and wonders how someone forced through the crucible of college essays and SAT writing could so thoroughly forget the lessons they were supposed to learn.

Art should never be devoid of feeling, but those evaluating it must keep that side of themselves in check. University humanities education focuses more on critical and analytical engagement with texts, whether they be books, paintings, films or songs, than the process of creating them. Whereas the former requires schooling and immersion in a medium’s theory and history, the latter depends on shakier, unteachable tenants like vision, originality and, again, the Muse. Great criticism is an art on its own, for the author tests and engages with those three things during the act of writing. But in order for an analysis to carry absolutely any import, a critic must follow some form and move past his or her initial emotional reaction: Okay, you like this movie. Now, what evidence can you share?

That word “form” matters. Even the most perplexing film, like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., hits you at a rational, analytical and thematic level. Part of the thrill of watching that movie depends on an ineffable engagement with it, yet I know it is truly great because I detect a rigorously constructed chassis of ideas and storylines underneath all the superficial and beautiful obfuscation. If I can glean order from a surrealist nightmare such as Mulholland Dr., what can I learn, and subsequently teach, from the crisis in Ukraine or our ongoing economic imbroglio? I’m not sure, since I have not invested much time investigating those issues and am content sticking with the arts, thank you very much.

But the point is that criticism, when done right, is inherently constructive. The act itself, of putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, constructs ideas, as if from whole cloth. Of course, we borrow and steal thoughts and turns of phrase more than we even know, but the balanced critic has come to terms with this. And when I use the word “critic,” I don’t mean the professional pundits who write for newspapers. Someone who just finished an SAT essay may find the cogs in his brain whirring at a most unusual brisk speed, surprised that such a stupid exam with such a stupid prompt can inspire such elevated, almost automatic thought. He continues to think; he continues to write; he wonders how to channel an awakened passion for good.