The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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June 8, 2013

THOMAS SABO | SAT exam sharpens tools

JOHNSTOWN — Do you remember the televised cereal commercial that showed a cartoon rabbit trying to eat a kid’s cereal? It had the punch line: “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!”

Well, silly sports fan, the Super Bowl is not just for football players.

Every spring, high school students play their version. It is called the SAT exam. Like the Super Bowl, they have one, and only one, opportunity to demonstrate for college admission personnel that they are the sharper tools in the shed and have the potential to make the school proud if admitted.

What is this test that can separate the academic wheat from the chaff?

SAT designers believe the brain’s plumb line can be determined by testing two areas: Math and verbal. The verbal section was redesigned a few years ago by dropping a section called “analogies” and adding a written essay.

Well, maybe not completely. The reader of the essay would make note of the use of analogies in the paragraphs above.

Still, it is the essay that will be the winning drive in this academic Super Bowl, or the disastrous fumble that ends the game.

To help students prepare for the exam, the creator of the exam publishes online practice questions and essay prompts taken from previous tests. Recently, SAT test-takers were given the opportunity to expound upon the following topic:

Prompt 1. Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

People use the term “wisdom” to mean many things. They describe someone as wise if that person is intelligent, well-informed, or capable of making good decisions. These descriptions, however, are not really useful in distinguishing wise people from unwise ones. Happiness is a better measure of wisdom: A wise person is a happy person. Even the most intelligent people should not be called wise if they are not happy.

Assignment: Is it best to determine how wise people are by how happy they are? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience or observations.

Let’s see what I would write:

If Billy Graham were taking the test, I’m sure he would smile. Graham, the most prominent evangelist of the second half of the 20th century, was frequently invited to rub elbows with the world’s most powerful leaders. I’ve read about the time he visited a rich man, a man so rich he could, and did, own his own island, but in spite of his riches was essentially unhappy. Graham advised the man of his problem: He lacked wisdom, an awareness of the long-term meaning of life and the futility of laying up treasures on earth.

Graham undoubtedly talked to the man about the stories in the Bible, particularly those of King Solomon. When told by God that he could have anything he wanted, Solomon

didn’t ask for the things most men want: Silly temporal things like power and wealth; he asked for wisdom.

Gaining wisdom, however, if not granted by God, can be like trying to catch the wind in a net, or a man trying to understand the mind of a woman. (Without the aid of “inflection,” I can only hope you took the woman thing as tongue in cheek.)

While in the arena of religion, I might mention a connection to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley developed what he called the quadrilateral. A person’s religious beliefs, he said, are based on four things: Reading scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

It occurs to me while thinking about this prompt that he is establishing the basis of wisdom.

A new idea occurs when there is juxtaposition of two ideas and a flash of insight sees a connection between them not seen before. If the SAT reader is willing to think this Wesley insight is new for me, I should get bonus points: It is a sign of original thinking, which should contribute to college success.

Both Wesley and the SAT test say I should call upon experience to develop my ideas. How about this one:

The high school principal was telling his Pennsylvania faculty about how different teaching can be in California. He described the set of parents who waited for their son to be handed his graduation certificate before they sued the school’s teachers, administration and school board. Their accusation: The school system, and all involved in it, had made their son smarter, but had failed to make him wiser. Without wisdom, they argued, the rest is futile.

Curious, the staff wanted to know how the case turned out. Wisdom is like creativity: How do you teach it?

The principal said the judge ruled that “wisdom” is like “obscenity”: Neither can be properly defined. He dismissed the suit.

Not being a California judge, I think I have a better handle of what wisdom is. Knowledge, as the name implies, is what a person knows. Wisdom is making best choices (the prompt says “decisions”) about what do to with knowledge.

Einstein, one of the most intelligent people (as suggested I should write about in the prompt), for example, created new knowledge – the possibility of nuclear fission. He considered concealing the knowledge because of fear of man’s limited wisdom: What would he do with such terrible power? Einstein’s happiness about his discovery was tainted by fear concerning lack of wisdom.

Ask the parents of a teenager whose life is destroyed by acquiring knowledge of drugs before understanding how to deal with their danger. Where is the wisdom? Where is the happiness?

Ignorance may be bliss, but if happiness is to be connected to wisdom, maybe Billy Graham had the answer.

OK, SAT essay reader, I’m out of space and time. Take the writing helmet off; game over.

Asked how I did by a sideline commentator, I respond, “My answer was not limited to ‘personal opinion.’ It is ‘informed opinion,’ what the SAT wants, drawing upon what Wesley said I should: What I have read, American traditions, my experiences and how I reason it together into what I would call wisdom.’ ”

Thanks, off to the showers.

Thomas A. Sabo of  Johnstown is a former newsman and former English teacher in the  Westmont Hilltop district.

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