Today, the SAT; tomorrow, Paranormal State

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I’m always amused by the argument that watching TV is unhealthy for kids. For half a century, I’ve heard supposed experts claim that children need to be pursuing more salutary activities -- like sports, which get them out in the nice, fresh air to nab some vital exercise while they learn to bond with their peers.

Yeah, right. When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend five straight hours in the company of Sid and Marty Krofft. And on those rare occasions when I dared venture out onto my porch to see what the neighbor kids were up to, I usually faced their swift and brutal censure over my many shortcomings – chiefly my inability to manage any physical activity more complicated than hunting for the remote beneath a big box of Cinnamon Crunch.

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So TV was unhealthy? It sure seemed like a healthy alternative to getting my ass kicked. In a very palpable sense, TV saved my life. Which is why I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life trying to give something back to it.

It’s also why I’ve always pitied kids whose parents (and I am not making this up) forbid them to watch the tube at all. Their reasoning is usually along the lines of “We want him to learn to appreciate the finer things.” In English, that translates as “We want him to be so utterly devoid of cultural currency that even Ralph Wiggum will hold him in complete contempt.” (Those beatings I alluded to earlier? You could often talk your way out of them by changing the subject to whatever Fonzie had been up to the night before.)

Worse yet, some of those sheltered little snobs really think they have something to be thankful for. And according to The New York Times, they’re rearing their pointy heads en masse this semester, decrying a question on some versions of the SAT that they feel is simply beneath them and their superior upbringing.

The passage that’s generated all this agita? An essay question about the relative merits of reality TV.

According to the Times, test-takers are flocking to web forums, claiming deep mental anguish over having been asked to weigh the pros and cons of Vinny Guadagnino’s spray-tan.

“I don’t watch tv at all so it was hard for me,” someone by the name of “krndandaman” huffed on College Confidential, according to the Times report. “I have no interest in reality TV shows

“I ended up talking about Jacob Riis and how any form of media cannot capture reality objectively,” someone called “littlepenguin” related. “I kinda want to cry right now.”

No, no, no. When I knee you in your model-U.N.-attending little weenus, that’s when you’re going to cry.

I mean, what’s the matter with kids today? For decades, SAT essay questions have had a reputation for being stiff, stuffy, and hopelessly divorced from the average teen’s experiences. Now the College Board has bent over backwards to enable that kid to write about something he might be sort of halfway interested in – and this is the thanks they get?

Hey, kids: Do you know how elated I would have been to open my SAT booklet and find a prompt to compare and contrast the last two seasons of Barnaby Jones? Five minutes and one No. 2 pencil later, I would have been planning the color scheme of my dorm room at Harvard. So don’t complain to me that you “don’t watch TV.” I had to write about agrarian economies and make it sound like I gave two flakes of a shit.

The American educational system just can’t win here. If it upholds the intellectual standards it’s ostensibly supposed to, it risks hopelessly alienating the youth it’s trying to “save.” But if it tries to meet them halfway by engaging them on a subject that, as many of them have indicated, they might genuinely care about, it gets pilloried for pandering. By other kids, yet.

Unfortunately, the College Board didn’t exactly commit to the bit. Instead of reasoning that an essay on reality TV is a legitimate idea on its face, vice president of communications Peter Kauffmann assured the Times that only one answer to the controversial question is really possible. What’s more, he said, that answer is telegraphed right there in the prompt: “Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled.”

Well, that settles that. I guess it’s too much to ask that students be able to share how they feel about a cultural product, as opposed to how adults want them to feel about it. (And since when do “most” people of any age think Dog the Bounty Hunter is legit?) Worse, Kauffmann seems to feel that the question is valid because it can be answered without any actual foreknowledge of the subject matter. The wording of the question, he said, includes a helpful definition of “reality TV”-- I suppose for the benefit of the five junior NPR listeners nationwide who would otherwise be terminally confused.

“[E]verything you need to write the essay is in the essay prompt,” Kauffmann assured the Times.

So what goes around, comes back around. Just as I was forced to bluff my way through a discussion of Argentinean cattle farming, so are today’s college hopefuls able to finesse the finer points of Project Runway. What a perfect symbol it is of our hysterical “race to the top” that we’re now perfectly happy to force-feed our kids answers when the question at hand is no more profound than “Tim Gunn: Real flamer or fake? Show your work.”

Or, as Fonzie once said, “Bull makes the world go ’round.” He was so enamored of that thought that he wrote it on the bathroom wall. But I’m all educated and stuff, so I posted it here.

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