Testing, Lists, the Loss of Knowledge and the Development of the Perpetual Present

My students come to college with only the most muddled idea of how things were in the past. They see historical change in terms of style and let it go at that.

At least part of the blame for this, believe it or not, lies with standardized testing and with the lists it is based on. Testing, after all, assumes static knowledge. If truth remains the same, the only change is appearance. Lists mask lack of knowledge and also pass for truth. But lists are themselves only surfaces.

Testing and lists also assume that everything can be enumerated, and that tests and lists concocted hither and yon are real and solid–that intellectual activity lies in counting things off. Even The New York Times falls for this. In a recent story lauding Jeb Bush as an intellectual, the paper praises him for emailing think tanks asking “What are the top five ways to achieve 4 percent economic growth?” That knowledge cannot be so reductive and remain useful isn’t even considered. That his question is more reflective of a high-school exam than real intellectual exploration is conveniently ignored.

In the Nick Hornby novel and subsequent movie High Fidelity, the characters mistake list creation for knowledge and understanding. Today, on the internet, lists have taken over everything. They are replacing argument and consideration with nothing more serious than discussion of ranking.

Reductive thinking of the sort leading to belief in standardized testing and in the intellectual primacy of lists has been around even longer than Mortimer Adler’s nearly century-old list of the “great” books.  And it has been parodied in English at least since Chaucer began making sly fun of people who think listing knowledge is the equivalent of understanding. Shakespeare does this, too: Polonius pontificates in Hamlet:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.

This says nothing; it’s simply a smokescreen of words making Polonius look tedious and dumb while thinking he’s saying something intelligent. Or that’s what it should be doing. Shakespeare’s audiences were not fooled. Today, unfortunately, so accepting are we of nonsense masquerading as thought that we take this character seriously. People nod in agreement to his advice to his son (another list):

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This, once comedy, passes for sage advice today, much as Budd Schulberg’s satiric What Makes Sammy Run? has become a how-to book for achieving success. The list now replaces analysis and grappling with issues–and with the reasons behind them. It becomes an absolute in itself and seems outside of time… and it seems the perfect rationale for standardized testing which is itself so often presented as an exercise in choosing from lists.

To make matters worse, our mania for “standards” has been exacerbated by this growing love of lists. We have reached the point where we believe that the lists that Hornby’s characters, for example, bounce off of each other as aids to discussion are in fact absolutes–that they can be the basis for “standards” that everyone should know.


Mastery of lists is only a semblance of knowledge and is not a sign of education at all. Chaucer and Shakespeare knew this, but we seem to have forgotten it, for the most part. Yet, in an age where information of overwhelming variety, density and veracity is at our fingertips, where we can concoct or find lists at a moment’s notice and without ever really thinking, we ignore this at our peril–at least, at the peril of our intelligence. Polonius already dominates our national discourse; shouldn’t we, as scholars and teachers, be fighting just a little more forcefully against taking his pronouncements so seriously?

If we don’t, the past will continue to become no more than a series of lists of changing hair styles, music genres, movies, and race cars. None of it will have any meaning and my students will come to college even less prepared to think and learn than they are today.

4 thoughts on “Testing, Lists, the Loss of Knowledge and the Development of the Perpetual Present

  1. This is a very insightful post–and I say that as a compulsive list maker, both on this blog and elsewhere.

    I think, however, that the fascination with lists may also be an indication of a sort of indiscriminate intellectual voraciousness, rather than simply a manifestation of the intellectual reductiveness that you highlight.

    I believe that I am classifiable as a digital hoarder, and like actual hoarders, I feel the compulsion (however illogical it might actually be) to put some things in boxes–which I can then throw onto the heap.

      • My literary tastes seem to go in opposite directions. On the one hand, I have greatly enjoyed and admired the works of meticulous stylists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Irwin Shaw, Wright Morris, Wallace Stegner, and John Updike. At the opposite extreme, I have read and re-read the works of writers whose work seems to strain against the limits of the page. Faulkner and Pynchon would seem to fit in this second category, along with some others whose work I have especially enjoyed such as James Jones, a largely forgotten Kansas novelist named Earl Thompson, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone, and, more recently, Richard Powers and William Vollmann.

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