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How the Verbal Killed the Word

2003-09-10 - 9:30 a.m.

I would like to take this time to ask standardized testing to kiss my ass.

As many of you know, I took the GRE last night. It was a very annoying experience, more than anything else. It's a five part test these days. One opinion essay (which I kinda sucked at, because if anything I'm too opinionated, and I had to keep from going off on how much I hate the influence on multinationals on US foreign policy HALLIBURTON YOU MOTHERFnevermind), one argument analysis essay (kicked it's butt, thanks to Marlee Matlin's guest appearances on The West Wing, in which she remarked that a survey should not only ask about a subject's opinion, but about how much their opinion matters to them) two quantitative sections (one of which was apparently an "experimental" section and was not counted towards my score, SO WHY DID I HAVE TO DO IT?!?!?!) and one verbal section.

I won't know about the essay scores for a week or two, but I got 730 on the verbal and 710 on the math.


Okay, not meh, I know. Actually, the 710 I am VERY happy about. It's exactly what I got on the SAT math. And if you read my previous entry, you'll know that I had to study like a freak until I climbed back up to that score. So math, I'm fine with.

But the verbal. Meh.

Again, not meh. Most people would love to get a 730, particularly on their first try. But I'm used to doing better than that. AND I'M AN ENGLISH MAJOR, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!

Which, in my opinion, is the reason why I did worse on the GRE. Six or so years ago, when I took the SAT, I looked at the verbal and said "This is easy!" Today, I look at the verbal and say, "This is stupid."

It might have been different had I studied Hemingway, or Henry James, or Jane Austen. These authors see the English language as the Law, the beauty of the Law. They are absolutists, a word for everything and everything with it's word. Words are rigid enough to build monuments out of, and precise enough to perform surgery with. These kind of people could ace the GRE in their sleep.

But I didn't study those people. I avoided James and Hemingway like the pague on mankind that they are, and as for Jane Austen I usually studied her only in the context of "Bridget Jones's Diary." No, I was a modernist and a post-modernist, with a particular attraction to post-colonial literature. I studied James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, and Arundhati Roy. In my spare time I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Tom Robbins. I read the authors for whom words were music, or naked bodies, or the chains of oppression that could be used to shackle the master if turned around. James Joyce, inspired by atomic theory, believed that words could explode, and that we should play with them until they do, showering us with definitions and connotations that we can in turn play with until they explode. Words, phrases, and sentences all had multiple meanings, all had different interpretations.

So don't tell me to find the best analogy among a set of five. They might all be correct, given enough time and energy. And don't ask me what can be inferred from what an author wrote. After the four years I spent studying literature, I can infer any goddamn thing I want.

The one set of analogies that really got to me, actually, was on a practice test. The analogy was as follows:

Intractable : Mule

a) turbulent : horse

b) wily : fox

c) candid : dog

d) fickle : wolf

e) inexorable : tiger

Now, this question is testing your knowledge of the word "intractable." If you know it means "stubborn," you can then recognize the axiom "stubborn as a mule." Then, you have to decide which of these is the most recognizable, true analogy.

And before you say "wily as a fox," which is the correct answer, and what I wound up guessing, let your imagination take a spin.

. . . a stallion just taken from the wild, struggling against its bridle, springing from the ground and neighing and grunting, hoping that the insolent rider will fall hard enough to kill himself . . .

. . . a faithful old bloodhound, raising its head as its mistress comes home with a stranger, rising up and barking with all the air in its old lungs, because this man has the stink of the predator on him . . .

. . . the first wolf that came to the fire and was fed by the man with his stone tools and second skins, cold and hungry in the middle of winter, eyeing its human hunting partner with only the thought of meat in its still too animal mind . . .

. . . the hunter lost in the woods, his gun out of ammo, the village miles away, out of his element in the Indian heat, listening carefully for the soft padded tread of orange paws, knowing that before the night is over, he will feel teeth on his neck, the last thing he'll ever feel . . .

Turbulent as a horse. Candid as a dog. Fickle as a wolf. Inexorable as a tiger.

I'm turning those into short stories, you mark my words.

Standardized testing isn't about how intelligent you are, particularly in the verbal section. It limits the mind, asking for definitive answers where none exist, and punishing those who can't recognize what is least wrong. Such thinking breeds complacency.

I hope to never take another standardized test again. I think it screws over smart people who don't think the same way as the authors of the test. And I, for one, am glad I don't think that way as much anymore.

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