President William L. Fox '75

The Subtle Mind

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

Every blue book i filled to pass my college and graduate school courses was done with the same five-dollar Parker fountain pen. I still write with a fountain pen, but happily my days of sitting for exams are left to distant memory and anxiety dreams. No one likes taking tests. All of mine, even in science and math, required ink on the page of the commonplace blue book. Many who teach sometimes wonder about the necessity of exams, as grading is usually the least favorite part of the job. And yet, the purpose of testing is not going away; and its value as an instrument of education ought to remain self-evident, up to a point.

Long after one’s last college final, there will be tests for professional certification, tests that are called job interviews, tests that grant licenses to practice, and tests to achieve national citizenship. Perhaps the best known of all tests in life are those that are (or once were) required for admission to American colleges— specifically, the SAT and ACT. These entrance exams were designed with confident claims of scientific precision that could accurately assess the academic qualifications, readiness, and future promise of college applicants, doing so under the reasonable desire to establish a common standard of fairness for all. It turns out, generally, that the predictive assumptions are not perfectly reliable, given that scores correlate strongly with family background, bend advantage to those who can afford prep coaching, and cannot objectively measure individual circumstances, such as personal ambition.

Over the years, the form of standardized tests, particularly for college admissions, has been tested for precision and fairness. And the results of that scrutiny, even as revisions in content and “norming” occurred periodically, leave the issue in doubt. Further, the increasingly fragile trustworthiness of the ordeal, a moment punctuated by the unforgettable punchline, “stop, put your pencils down,” has a major secondary deficit. Testing is not a public service. It is, instead, a big, lucrative business with all the entangled self-interest of maximizing profits. Standardized testing may have once been inspired by altruism, but that founding inspiration has become a fig-leaf of idealism covering huge market returns.

I am asked often about national standardized testing or, more pointedly, why St. Lawrence makes optional the submission of test scores for those applying (more than 60 percent, however, will send us their results). My caution about one-size-fits-all, multiple-choice testing is long-standing, partly personal, but is also informed by the scholarship of learning, much of it in the field of cognitive studies, drawing from the work of behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists.

The personal moment returning to me now is the first conversation I had with the department chair of the small Ph.D. program I had just entered about 35-years ago. There were only a few of us admitted that year, though no one, especially me, was made to feel very special, for the simple reason that one of our number had a perfect score on the Graduate Record Exam (the GRE is the graduate school equivalent to the SAT). 

Our fellow student was extolled in the highest by the department chair as the sole bright star in the class, perhaps the only one who had the ability to handle the work load of a long-haul course of study. Because of the “advance proof” of his test scores, which had completely enamored our program leader, we were individually told that keeping up with the competition would be extremely difficult and that there was no shame in dropping out if it all became too much. This was the ubiquitous dean’s orientation speech scaled down, “look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here a year from now.” As it turned out, every one of us earned our doctoral degrees on time, save one. The ace of the GRE folded his hand after struggling for about ten years.

The Columbia University legend Jacques Barzun, well ahead of his time more than fifty years ago, sharply expressed his objection to the SAT in an acid bath of criticism. He had famously shown, in parsing one of the exam’s questions, that all four choices offered were logically plausible right answers, not just the one that the examiner had in mind. His surgical dissection confirmed that each of the multiple-choice alternatives were arguably as good as the others, making none of them absolutely determinative of the student’s capacity to think clearly. 

One of Barzun’s former students remembered his professor’s supreme advocacy of “the subtle mind.” It’s the sort of mind that can manage more than one idea simultaneously, see a topic from several perspectives, keep a cool head in the presence of conflicting theories, or adapt as needed by using both quick and deep thinking. The subtle mind seems highly predisposed to the liberal arts mental architecture, a house plan that calls for shutterless windows so the most natural light
may enter the interior spaces. The test for that kind of integrative, complex, multi-dimensional, and creative thinking has not yet been invented in standardized terms. It would probably be a mistake to score it anyway.

Howard Gardner, more recently, and after decades of extensive research at Harvard on how the mind works and how human beings possess a diversity of cognitive strengths, commented that “most standardized measures of learning are of little use.” Gardner would easily recognize “the subtle mind” as a base assumption for his theory of multiple intelligences, an influential theory he developed in the 1980s. In other words, there are many ways to be smart, or even to be intelligent with subtlety, in differentiating proportions that include logic, language, spatial awareness, music, coordination of the body, personal sensibility, and social genius. 

The future will need a variety of minds—some geared toward an intense discipline, some capacious enough to synthesize a narrative from many storylines, some inventive enough to be unencumbered by precedent, some inclined toward the respect of human differentness, and some that can conceptualize and articulate a system of ethical values. 

A liberal arts college is the surest home of the subtle mind. Above its door are the words: “You are not your SAT score.” It is furnished with qualities that ultimately cannot be tested or measured, but, in its formative nuances, creates the lifelong habit of skillful good thinking. To me, it has always been a familiar pattern, for my hand gripping a fountain pen seems forever scribbling in a blue book.