Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taking a Critical Lens to the Critical Lens Essay

Every state has its own education guidelines and requirements. In New York State these include the regents exams; a series of tests spread out over the four years of high school in every major subject. The English regents examine is perhaps the biggest of them. The test is taken in the Junior year, and it consists of two three-hour testing sessions. In my own experience the critical lens essay, a major component of the test, was what our school prepped us for with the greatest amount of rigor.

The critical lens essay, for those who are unfamiliar, is an essay which examines the validity of a quote, and either supports or refutes the statement using two pieces of literature to support their position. The perceived intent here is to show that our students are thinking creatures by asking them to interpret and analyse these quotes and by default the literature they have already read. That's a fine intention but the critical lens, at least within its present state, isn't the proper method of execution.

Firstly, let me share with you the quotes which have appeared on regents exam over the past two years or so
"A real hero is always a hero by mistake..."
-Umberto Eco

"Fear always springs from ignorance."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

"...the strongest man upon the earth is he who stands the most alone."
-Henrik Ibsen

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly..."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Whoever does wrong, wrongs himself..."
- Marcus Aurelius
Notice anything strange about these? You can, of course, form a dissenting opinion about anything but by large these quotes conform to general ideals. They're all very safe; notions chosen to elicit a conformity of opinion. And even if one were to disagree with Marcus Aurelius or Umberto Eco, how apt are they to do so on a weighty exam when the notion of consensus is so palpable?

Moreover, consider that, at least in my neck of the woods, it was actively encouraged by our under read educators not to draw support from literature outside of the school cannon. I challenge anyone to dissent with Ibsen when your primary support is limited to the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm. The answers and therefore the evaluation of these statements is built in; brainwashed. The suggestion of a literature pool limited to works you didn't select already conforms you to world view, even if the relative safeness of the quotes hasn't already forced a specific answer. Analysis within these parameters is a joke.

Now let's talk about the burden of proof, and literature analysis. In an ideal world a novel is written because an author wants to make statement about something. The shallow notions the regents tends to choose can conform to these intents because they're shallow. What does Eco's quote require of a text besides a reluctant protagonist? There are few components of storytelling that, to me, seem more text book. But the problem here as I see it is that the critical lens asks a student to conform at least moderately complex novels to simpler notions. The danger of this is that legitimate analysis of intent can devolve into an exposition of plot.

For instance Antoine de Saint-Exupery's quote can be interpreted as simplistically as "Our ability to view the world is dependent on a good conscience," which is in itself not an analysis but rephrased comprehension. A student can proceed to detail the events of To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, making point of Scout and Ralph respectively, for a legitimate "essay". Where in this are analytical reading skills demonstrated? Where are the major themes of these texts referenced in such an essay?

The truth is these types of tests are made easier by the year so that more students are able to pass and more funding is acquired. It's more important that book X be added to the curriculum next year than it is those who will read it understand it.

My two cents? Drop the critical lens essay entirely, and throw a piece of flash fiction on the test. Something like Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants or Carver's Little Things and ask students to analyse them much in the way I analyse books here, sans colloquium. Would this prove students read their assigned literature? No, but it would prove they know how to read.

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