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Faux Passing?

June 19th, 2009 · 15 Comments

Here’s one you’ve probably heard—and groaned at—before: You know how you can tell Parisians are the most worldly, sophisticated people in the world? Even the children there speak French!

It’s a dumb joke, but I think it also goes a ways toward explaining why Dana Goldstein thinks the essay prompts on France’s college entrance exams cover “complex, intellectual topics” that their U.S. counterparts would never be expected to attempt. Like Michael Moynihan, I’m not quite as impressed. First, the prompts are pretty vague and, like the ones I remember seeing on similar tests as a teenager, offer a fair amount of latitude: They’re the kind of  questions that give a middling student the opportunity to produce a competent response, and a stellar student room to show off. So let’s look at a couple of the questions:

1) Does objectivity in history suppose impartiality in the historian?

In almost every case here, we’re dealing translations that preserve the form of the original French sentence, and we’re culturally programmed to find this especially—how do you say?— impressionnant. I bet we’re not quite as bowled over by:

If a historian is to write objective history, is it necessary that she treat her subject matter impartially?

There’s a sort of boringly obvious “yes” answer any competent student should be able to knock out. A slightly more sophisticated version might warn against treating “past as prologue” and note the dangerous temptation to forget that our own values are an inheritance from history’s winners. The “no” answer runs through ways that excessive impartiality can prevent us from passing judgments that reveal objective truths.

Does language betray thought?

In fairness, I’m not even sure what this one means, mostly because of the ambiguity of the English “betray.” But I can think of two or three readings, all of which can be worded rather less pompously as questions I’d expect a college-bound 18-year-old to muster something coherent about.

Is it absurd to desire the impossible?

That “absurd” is doing a lot of the intimidation work here, dragging in the specter of Camus  and the problem of meaning in a disenchanted world. How about:

Does it ever make sense to want what you can’t have?

Basically the same question, no longer anything we’d blink at on an American SAT.

Are there questions which no science can answer?

The wording of this one doesn’t seem quite as important, but a college applicant who’s presumably had plenty of science courses should be able to run through the basics of the scientific method and come up with a couple of the obvious questions it’s not well-suited to answer. A clever contrarian might pick a couple of these and show how science actually sheds more light than is usually supposed—evolutionary biology and neurochemistry make headway on the “mysteries of love”after all. A very sophisticated answer might play logical positivist and argue for a sort of constitutional interdependence between what counts as a meaningful “question” and whether there is “a science”—broadly construed as some systematic process for arriving at knowledge—capable in principle of evaluating it.
The common thread I see is that almost all of these  sound rather lofty and, well, French as they are. But they can all be pretty easily paraphrased to sound less highbrow without materially altering the question. Once we’ve done that, they look an awful lot like the essay prompts on comparable American tests: Allowing the brightest students to spread their wings, but also capable of acceptable if rather more workmanlike answers. Now, probably someone like Dana looks at these prompts and immediately starts imagining the kind of complex answer that she, as a college-educated adult, would give to a question like that. Once you make that move, of course, it’s natural to think: “My God, that’s what they expect of their 18-year-olds?”  But it’s probably not—it’s what the question leaves space for the brightest of the 18-year-olds to attempt , not the baseline for an acceptable answer.

Tags: Academia


       

 

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Franklin Harris // Jun 19, 2009 at 2:15 am

    This reminds me of how I aced my AP History exam: I took a contrarian position on every question even if it wasn’t my own. The people who grade those things are easily impressed by clever contrarianism , I find. (Don’t ask me what the questions were, though. That was nearly 20 years ago.)

  • 2 sidereal // Jun 19, 2009 at 3:39 am

    Basically the same question, no longer anything we’d blink at on an American SAT.

    Actually, we’d blink pretty rapidly, because the SAT doesn’t contain essay questions. At least it didn’t when I took it. All multiple choice.

    Of course, most college applications require some sort of open-ended writing, so we’ve just moved it from the exam to the application.

  • 3 arthegall // Jun 19, 2009 at 8:18 am

    In fairness, I’m not even sure what this one means, mostly because of the ambiguity of the English “betray.”

    FWIW, it looks like the original question was “Le langage trahit-il la pensée ?”, so it’s possible that that ambiguity was present in the French version as well.

  • 4 Doug // Jun 19, 2009 at 9:18 am

    There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than your 250 word essay can contain.

  • 5 Jesse F // Jun 19, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Sidereal: The SAT I has had an essay question since 2003, when it absorbed the SAT II Writing Test. Here’s a few prompts grabbed off my tutoring shelf from the 1/06 exam:

    Are all important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?

    Do people accomplish more when they are allowed to do things in their own way?

    Is it necessary to make mistakes, even when doing so has negative consequences?

    Can any obstacle or disadvantage be turned into something good?

    Note that each question is preceded by a paragraph-long quote that helps to prompt the student. I’d say that, even with Julian’s re-translations, the French questions are a notch above on the abstraction scale. But it’s certainly not apples and oranges.

  • 6 Jesse F // Jun 19, 2009 at 11:20 am

    P.S. Julian, if you’ve been enjoying some Steve Reich lately, see if you can check out Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece’s album “Like a Duck to Water.” It’s much, much less wacky than that unfortunate name led me to believe, so I avoided them for years, but that album is some top-notch synthy minimalism. And if you’re acquianted with DJ Shadow’s “Stem/Long Stem”, the first track will sound very very familiar…

  • 7 B. Kennedy // Jun 19, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Semantics is a refuge for those overcompensating for something.

    I remember a story from one of the speakers at a university event. His final exam for philosophy consisted of a single word:

    Why?

    He then went on to explain some of his student answers, some of them ranging from long tracts about the nature of human inquiry, but his favorite answer was this:

    “Why Not?”

    I defy anyone to think of a more brilliant final exam question. Or perhaps I’m just easily impressed.

  • 8 Alex Knapp // Jun 19, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    @B. Kennedy,

    A much better urban legend is about the philosophy professor whose final exam consisted of the question: “Define courage.” One student puportedly turned in an empty blue book and received an A.

  • 9 OchoHa // Jun 21, 2009 at 2:40 am

    When the subject is inanimate “trahir” translates to “to reveal”. So JS is correct, the question isn’t all that difficult.

  • 10 Ils Ne Font Pas Des Notes d’une Falaise Pour Cela « Around The Sphere // Jun 21, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez The common thread I see is that almost all of these  sound rather lofty and, well, French as they are. But they can all be pretty easily paraphrased to sound less highbrow without materially altering the question. Once we’ve done that, they look an awful lot like the essay prompts on comparable American tests: Allowing the brightest students to spread their wings, but also capable of acceptable if rather more workmanlike answers. Now, probably someone like Dana looks at these prompts and immediately starts imagining the kind of complex answer that she, as a college-educated adult, would give to a question like that. Once you make that move, of course, it’s natural to think: “My God, that’s what they expect of their 18-year-olds?”  But it’s probably not—it’s what the question leaves space for the brightest of the 18-year-olds to attempt , not the baseline for an acceptable answer. […]

  • 11 Metropolis // Jun 22, 2009 at 1:51 am

    “When the subject is inanimate “trahir” translates to “to reveal”. So JS is correct, the question isn’t all that difficult.”

    You are wrong.
    I’m french student in terminale (I’ve just passed my bac – I apologize for any inconvenience about my english inadequacies), and I was wondering how other countries regard our baccalaureate, so I’ve finally reached this website.

    “Betray”, in French as in English, does have two meanings.
    1/ Language could betray thought since it could revel it.
    BUT
    2/ language could also betray thought since it is insufficient to transcribe it in its fullness.
    Beckett for example, denounced this betraying in “Waiting for Godot”.
    Considering the question as only one is a reprehensible error that will affect one’s grade.

    Anyway, philosophy is not only about knowing how to build a thesis/antithesis analysis. It is all about learning to acquire an autoreferential conception of life, to escape of my individuality and accept one’s point of view. In my opinion, here lasts an essential difference between the SAT english essays that doesn’t require great philosophers knowledge.
    This year made me open my eyes upon a new dimension of my perception -because life is such a phenomenon that deserves the plurality of point of views to explain it. Since I’ve followed philosophy class, my approach of every thing is so much less trivial, linear, obvious than what I was used to.

    Seize life in its heart-breaking complexity is the most beautiful praise that we could deliver to it. Not only a matter of french narrow-minded traditions.

  • 12 The Doughty Traveler » Blog Archive » Those Amazing French Youths // Jun 23, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    […] Sanchez is less than impressed by yet another paean to the brilliance of the French youth. Here’s one you’ve probably […]

  • 13 Will Wilkinson // Jun 24, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Metropolis,

    B+

    Sorry.

  • 14 Metropolis // Jun 30, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Wikk Wilkinson,

    What a brilliant argumentation!

    Really, Aristote would have been proud of you.

    (And in France, our grades goes from 0/20 to 20/20)

  • 15 Metropolis // Jun 30, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Will Wilkinson,

    What a brilliant argumentation!

    Really, Aristote would have been proud of you.

    (And in France, our grades goes from 0/20 to 20/20)

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