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In Defense of the SAT Essay

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Logicians break down an argument into two basic elements: validity and soundness. A valid argument makes sense internally: It draws a logical conclusion from its premise, regardless of whether the premise itself is true. Soundness requires that the premise is factually true.

I enjoy all yellow foods. Eggplants are yellow. Therefore, I enjoy eggplants is valid, but not sound. The first premise is OK, but the second one has nothing to do with reality.

If you swap "aubergine" for "yellow," then you have a sound argument (but a lousy dinner party). For an argument to have any bearing on the real world, it must therefore be both valid and sound. (Soundness is a subset of validity; there's no such thing as a sound but invalid argument.) That doesn't mean, though, that unsound arguments serve no purpose.

Take the SAT essay.

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Everyone from college presidents to soccer moms has been abuzz over this week's news about changes to the SAT exam. To be implemented in 2016, the new SAT will include, among others, elimination of the Writing section and renaming of Math and Critical Reading, analysis of real-world texts, and de-emphasis of obscure vocabulary words. The change that has received the most attention is the elimination of the SAT essay requirement. An optional essay, based on historically significant documents, will replace it.

Of all the criticism that the SAT has borne, it's arguable that the essay that has inspired the most outright derision; some colleges ignore the Writing section entirely. As currently constituted, the SAT essay asks vague, quasi-philosophical questions, scrupulously phrased to be universal, unbiased, and, as such, untethered to everyday reality. They might include something like: What's better, teamwork or individualism? or Is it worthwhile to dwell on past successes or failures?

Students are encouraged to use examples from history, literature or even their own lives to illustrate their arguments. The best essays often focus on a single example, discussed in depth. Much to the public's incredulity, those examples don't even have to be true. An essay on famous chefs might invoke Michael Bloomberg's gumbo, Miley Cyrus's coq au vin, or Genghis Kahn's meatloaf. As long as the writing was clear and the argument well constructed (i.e. valid), even the most off-the-wall response can receive a perfect score.

(One criticism that I share is that students can almost memorize and regurgitate preconceived drafts. One that I don't share is that the SAT essay can be taught. Most people learn to do things by being taught.)

* * *

For a brief period, I scored the SAT essay for the College Board. For a few hours each day I had to set aside my knowledge of the real world in order to evaluate whether students' arguments were sound, regardless of how invalid they were. Unlike many of the SAT essay's critics, I never had a problem with this exercise.

I had coached high school debate for many years by the time I encountered the SAT essay. Many of my debaters were brilliant students. Not coincidentally, they tended to soak up college acceptances, and many went on to brilliant academic and professional careers.

The basics of competitive debate are pretty much what you'd imagine: debaters are given a topic (sometimes on the spot, depending on their type of debate) and are assigned a side. Then they must be nimble enough to come up with something cogent to say to support their side while refuting their opponents' arguments, and they must do so under intense time constraints. The topic itself typically has nothing to do with their daily lives. (This year's topics in the Lincoln-Douglas include organ donation, progressive taxation, Native American law, digital privacy and The Bomb.)

The debate rounds themselves have no bearing on anything. No one is running for election, no one is getting thrown in jail and no one is being forced to donate a kidney. Argumentation can take abstruse turns. Foucault and Kant sometimes chime in. One popular argument for keeping nuclear weapons is that they protect against alien invasion.

This is the same premise as that under which the SAT essay prompts operate, just without the political overtones. And yet, the SAT essay inspires ridicule while debate inspires admission to Yale. Students who do well in debate -- and on the SAT essay -- typically recognize that it's not a pragmatic activity but rather an intellectual exercise. It's jog on a treadmill, not an escape from marauding lions.

* * *

Abilities that are measured in simulation often transfer to work that matters. The ability to understand a question and come up with a reasonable argument -- often under time constraints -- is not exactly an esoteric skill.

What is the study of literature but the analysis of untrue premises and the creation of valid responses? What is the practice of law but the acceptance of the analysis of impersonal situations, and the presentation of sound arguments? What is computer programming but the presentation of a logical sequence of arguments, sometimes leading to aerial confrontations between irate birds and indignant swine? What is warfare but the act of making instant decisions that can save, or destroy, lives?

I don't want to remotely suggest that the SAT essay is perfect or even that it's a reasonable measure of a student's potential in college. It's limited. So is every other piece of writing, be it an English essay or Supreme Court decision. Even so, the process of answering it goes to the heart of human intellect.

Many arguments against the SAT may be valid, but that doesn't mean that all of them are sound.