Sunday, October 2, 2011

Most Tests are dumb

Well, at least the US History SAT2 Subject Test for high school.

ARG just took it yesterday, and I spent the last two weeks trying to cram useless bits of trivia about the 20th century in a (perhaps vain) effort to increase his test score. It seems that ARG's history teacher believes that American political though has not fundamentally changed since 1916, so he didn't really teach much more than the World Wars for the 1900's. This left him with a huge gap, as the 1/3 of the SAT2 US History test is on the 1900's. Hence my frantic efforts.

Some of the topics I found the most irrelevant and annoying:
- what was the slogan of the NonViolent Student Organizing Committee when the leaders changed in 1960something?
- what was Henry Clay's "American System"?
- be able to identify a quote as written by the IWW, NLU, AFL, CIO or Knights of Labor

I mean, who has ever heard of Henry Clay?

Out of 90 questions, a full 9 were analyzing political cartoons from an era - something requires very little historical knowledge, and lots of reasoning skills. In about the same amount of questions, the reader is asked to pick the statement which best describes a historical quote. Again, you don't really need to know history to do that - just good reading comprehension.

So basically, the test is a combination of questions that require little or no historical knowledge and questions testing the ability to memorize a plethora of minutia about historical events.

Poor ARG had to endure me constantly quizzing him about DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington, MLK and Malcolm X, Rachel Carson, the Harlem Renaissance, the Feminine Mystique, the Transcendentalist movement, the Whigs, the Populists, the Progressives, the Tet Offensive...etc.

While I think it is good, in general, to be aware of those people and movement, I truly do not think it is necessary to have complete mastery over every detail of them in order to understand US history and politics. After all, what is the purpose of history if not to inform decisions in the present? Knowing the exact founding dates, slogans and events related to every labor organization is not necessary to understand the general gist of the labor movement. I grew up a feminist, I understand feminism, and I never read or knew about the Feminine Mystique.

In the end, I've had to mostly agree with ARG's history teacher. Most of the themes from the 20th century can be easily learned by watching TV shows and documentaries. What's more, it is impossible to retain a zillion historical facts. The broad themes of history get lost in the detials. And so it all gets forgotten.

What a shame (for history and for us).