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'Unproductive Anxiety' And The Solo Act Of Essay Writing

The essay portion of the SAT exam will become optional in 2016, the College Board announced this week.
The essay portion of the SAT exam will become optional in 2016, the College Board announced this week.

"If you are squeamish
Don't prod the
beach rubble."

Those wise words from Sappho, the Greek woman lyric poet born around 610 B.C. came to mind this week when the College Board announced it will make the essay on the SAT exam optional.

The association says students have been writing for length, not clarity; they hang obscure words in the text for decoration — how positively empyreal! — and insert memorized quotes, pertinent or not, from famous people, hoping to impress examiners with their erudition and run up their scores.

Or as Erasmus, the Dutch philosopher born in 1469 in Rotterdam, said, "A man who sees a gourd and takes it for his wife is called insane because this happens to very few people."

How true, how true.

College Board President David Coleman said this week that the SAT is being revised in several ways because it's "become disconnected from the work of our high schools" and "filled with unproductive anxiety." Such anxiety has spawned an expanding industry of prep books and tutors, which parents hope will help their children raise their scores and win scholarships to MIT and, perhaps, one day support their parents.

There may be "unproductive anxiety" for the College Board, too. The SAT was once considered essential for college admissions. But last year, more U.S. students took the ACT exam.

Most educators seem convinced that a high school student's classroom record is a better indication of academic aptitude than the ACT or SAT, and David Coleman said, "It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming."

Or, as Plutarch, the Greek historian, born 46 A.D., once observed, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." Or maybe that was Yogi Berra, who hit .285. Sorry, can't find my notes.

I've grown to see writing an essay for this show every week as a little like writing an SAT essay week after week, and I'm saddened to think the importance of the essay may be diminished.

I am among those people — a lot of us seem to wind up in journalism — who wouldn't have gotten past the fourth grade if we had to answer too many questions so specifically, like in math. Essays are a solo act; only you know the steps. You might stumble and make a few wrong moves, but hope to have a rousing finish that will make the crowd go, "Ah!"

Or as Julius Nyerere, the African leader born 1922 in Butiama-Musoma, once said, "Just as surely as the tickbird follows the rhino."

How true, how true.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.