Visionaries and Psychopaths

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Lauren John encounters the limits of multiple choice tests while prepping a student for the SAT.

Last week, at a dining room table in Atherton, California, I helped a 15-year-old boy prep for the English part of the SAT college admissions test. We cracked open a test prep book weighing at least five pounds and began reading a passage from "Walden," naturalist Henry David Thoreau's ode to living off the grid.

In this passage Thoreau described his small cabin in the New England woods, near a pond, where he lived from 1845-1847. This cabin had just three chairs in it -- one for him, one for friends and one for acquaintances. Any more than that, and Thoreau felt crowded, preferring to hold one-to-one conversations by shouting across the pond. Thoughts need space to ricochet around, he said, emphasizing the word "ricochet". My student and I had not read the multiple-choice questions first—which many coaches advise. But surely we would see a question that said, “On line 36--the word "ricochet" most closely means...”

But then, suddenly, the kid looked up and said: "You know, this guy Thoreau? He really sounds like a psychopath!”

I started to laugh, because to a baby boomer like me, Thoreau is a hero. But then I thought, “Aha! An inference! Surely there would be questions about inference! Based on the passage, was Thoreau:       a) a visionary         b) a dreamer          c) a hermit         d) a psychopath.”

I felt sad because I wanted to have a fuller conversation beyond the multiple choice. I have read "Walden"—twice. I have been to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. There I learned that Thoreau left the pond from time to time to go home to his parent’s house for dinner. I longed to share that with my student. But I moved on because I had been hired to teach to the test. And in the SAT reading passage section, students have just over an hour in which to answer 52 multiple choice questions. That kind of pressure is enough to make a kid want to run away from home and live near a pond. But I doubt that this kid, spending sunny days indoors trying to ace the SAT, is headed for the wilderness.

One reader’s visionary is another reader’s psychopath.

With a Perspective, I’m Lauren John.

Lauren John teaches English at Menlo College and tutors high school students.