The recent news that the SAT will drop the essay requirement got me thinking about the value of writing. When the SAT adopted the essay requirement in 2005, the message seemed to be that writing is important. Now that they’ve dropped it, well, I guess the message is that writing is…well…not that important? So just how important is it? If we argue that good writing simply reflects good thinking, then why not just emphasize good thinking? It seems that technology is slowly pushing into obsolescence the act of writing anyway. I am quite impressed, for example, with the ever-increasing sophistication of text-to-speech technology. My sense is that, in a hundred years, text-to-speech will have advanced to the point where it is able to transform relatively confused babblings into writing that is coherent and engaging. You laugh, but I imagine there are programmers right now diligently working on writing the code that will unlock the power and persuasion of Shakespeare for the masses.(Think Deep Blue for writing.) Even our signature is on the verge of becoming meaningless. Please put your finger in the DNA reader.
I confess I own five fountain pens. I enjoy taking out a clean sheet of paper, carefully dabbing the nib in a bottle of ink, and writing. For me, good thinking comes, in some part at least, from good writing. The act of writing, of forming the letters and the words, gives my thoughts time to breathe and form. I liken it to being a passenger in a car on a road that you have been on a thousand times as a driver. All of a sudden you are noticing houses, fences, pools, walls. Good Lord, what an amazing porch. I never noticed it. Ideas come to life and a new world is opened up. Then again, there is Socrates, who never wrote anything. And he was a pretty smart guy. As a teacher who enjoys writing, I admit my bias when it comes to teaching it. I recognize, however, that we all make sense of the world in different ways. Why, even if the illiterate Socrates were my student, he’d do all right. Sure, he’d have to come see me for extra help, but that’s OK. He’d do all right.
For me, the SAT’s decision to drop the essay requirement does not suggest that writing is unimportant, or that the SAT regards it as unimportant. I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years they reinstated the essay requirement. For me, the SAT’s decision to drop the essay serves as a humbling reminder of the shortcomings of all tests to measure who we are — wonderfully complex individuals who come to meaning in a great variety of ways.
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