SAT Pressure: To What End?

Ticket to Where, Exactly?

I’m surprised we don’t hear more stories like this one [excerpt and link below], in which a recent high school graduate was paid about $2000 by 6 current high school seniors to take the SAT for them– ostensibly to get higher scores, in their names, than they could have gotten themselves.

Some of the sources quoted in this story [excerpt and link below] cite the pressure that parents put on their offspring to get into “good” schools. If the pressure felt by these boys is enough to lead to fraud, something’s amiss: another sign of a culture gone out of balance.

I can’t read this as a “lapse in ethical standards” story, although that is a subplot. The real story here is the pressure, and more pointedly the questions that go unraised as we uncritically accept the status quo of school and college admissions as “the way things are.”

Questions like: What is education for? What counts as a “good” school? What is success– how is it defined? Is the way that our culture defines “success” a way that I value, reject, or some of both? What kinds of opportunities are important, in order that a person may lead a meaningful life?

Life has pressure and is stressful. The things that pressure and stress us, say something about who we are. May the sources of our pressure and stress be worthy of our high calling– a calling to live into the fullness of the lives we have been given.

The case of a Great Neck, N.Y., man accused of being paid to take the SAT for high school students is once again prompting questions nationwide about how much cheating goes on in the world of high-stakes testing. It’s also renewing concerns that the pressure placed on students to score well on a single test, which plays a big role in determining the academic future for so many high-schoolers, may be encouraging them to cheat.

Six students at Great Neck North High School are facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly paying $1,500 to $2,500 to Samuel Eshaghoff to take the test for them, according to a news release Tuesday by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice….

Great Neck is a wealthy community, and the fact that such a scandal is playing out there “is an illustration of the SAT arms race that takes place, particularly in very affluent towns where kids think they are failures unless they go to a school where their parents would be proud to put the bumper sticker in their back window,” says Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Boston, Mass., which tracks and critiques standardized tests….

via SAT cheating scandal: Are stakes getting too high for college admission? –


Believe in America?

“Believe in America” could be as simple as a call for the nation to buck up and find a new resolve to face its problems unafraid. However, for a culture that despairs of transcendence (its many outward appearances of religiosity often masking that despair, rather than seriously meeting it), “Believe in America” can be read as an invitation to pledge allegiance to the god of nation. This is an idolatry that a certain strand of triumphalist American Christianity– in thrall to the idea that America has God’s special favor– has aided.

The larger observation is that theological language is increasingly part of political discourse. One reason this is happening is that a large group of people see god [the small “g” is intentional] as being on their side– their party, their candidate– and so theological language seems natural and appropriate; another reason is that a different large group of people have no religious grounding, and so their deepest longings for purpose and meaning get projected into the political realm. For them, politics serves as a substitute religion.

The problem is obvious: no human being– no party of human beings, no nation of human beings– can fill the need we have for hope, for belief, for restoration. Meanwhile, parties and politicians will continue to appeal to our willingness to believe that, yes, they can deliver the new life we long for– even as we become increasingly angry when they inevitably cannot.

Restore America Now– A Sign for the Times

A thoughtful reader [editor’s note: all of our readers at this point qualify as “thoughtful”; apparently we are not attracting the “TMZ” crowd. Although I shouldn’t presume. You may confess your secret TMZ obsession confidentially, offline] writes the following regarding Ron Paul:

His message is generally that we should not be locating power in political institutions, and especially that America should not be militarily intervening abroad (much to the embarrassment of the other Republicans at the debates).

This thoughtful reader gets my larger point (whether he agrees or not, I’m not sure) that it’s problematic– and perhaps even wrongheaded– to look to the realm of politics for the restoration of America. The follow-up question, then, is: Can a politician’s anti-federal-government views, and proposed policies, effect– or at least abet– the restoration of America? And a related question– a question that goes way beyond Ron Paul– is: Is being anti-government the same thing as recognizing the limits of politics?

As a society I think we are seriously confused about that second question. I think there is a deeply shared feeling in America that we’ve gone badly astray. One response to that general dis-ease is to re-emphasize personal responsibility [a good thing]– and blame government [not altogether a good thing]. There are some things that we need government– even the federal government– to do, given the unprecedented-in-world-history interconnectedness of peoples, cultures, and economies. To recognize the limits of the political realm to effect the renewal we need, is not the same thing as saying– as many in our state of New Hampshire and around the country do– that government is, always and everywhere, bad.

To claim that government is always and everywhere bad, is the same coin– flipped, of course, but still the same coin– as claiming that the hope of the nation can be neatly pinned, like a campaign button, onto the outcome of a presidential election. The restoration of America– if it is to come at all– will come from a deeper place than where the “Got Hopers” and the “Tea Partiers” are looking.

More on “Restore America Now”

Ron Paul’s yard signs say: “Restore America Now.” A good idea, of course– but I question the implied link between such a restoration, and the election of this– or any other– politician.

This is not your usual broad-brushed contempt for “all those crooked politicians.” I’m not that cranky yet. Rather, I simply wonder whether those things that would “restore America” are those things that the world of politics can address.

Imagine a day in the future, when people of differing philosophies and commitments nevertheless agree on this: America is restored! What developments, what events, what changes– on that future day– will people point to as having led to America’s restoration?

Will it have been some American military conquest that will have led to America’s restoration? Some economic policy or federal budget, enacted by Congress, that will have led to such a restoration? Some charismatic president whose messiah-like appeal enables the nation to transcend its differences and unite its energy in common purpose?

The reason those– or any other developments in the world of politics– are unlikely to be cited as having led to America’s restoration, is that they’re all external. They locate all power in the political sphere, and cede to that sphere all resp0nsibility for our common life.

The restoration of America (if it happens) will have political ramifications, but it won’t be driven by politics. It will be driven by those components of culture that touch hearts and minds: education and learning; art and imagination; religion and faithfulness– all of which (if authentic) foster individual character and invigorate communities.

We’ve gone too far astray for the “restoration of America” to entail a simple course correction. At this point, such a restoration will involve transformation: qualitative (rather than quantitative) changes in values and ways of life.

Restore America Now?

A Ron Paul Bumpersticker

The political yard signs for president have emerged here in New Hampshire. I passed a Ron Paul “Restore America Now” on the way to work. Taking it at face value for the sake of discussion, does anyone really believe anymore that the restoration of America will happen because of who is president? Or because of which party controls Congress?