by Diana Senechal
On standardized high school English examinations in New York, students must write what is often called a “critical lens” essay. They are given a quotation (the “lens”) and must interpret it, state whether they agree or disagree with it, and substantiate their position with examples from literary texts of their choice. This task has logical flaws and encourages poor reasoning and writing. The problem is largely due to the lack of a literature curriculum; when there are no common texts, essay questions on state tests become vague and diffuse. The test question needs an overhaul, and New York State needs a literature curriculum with some common texts and ample room for choice.
One flaw of the “critical lens” task is that students must interpret the quotation out of context. Students may or may not have read the source of the quotation; they are allowed to make it mean whatever they want it to mean (within reason). The test-taker must provide a “valid” interpretation of the quote, but without a context, “valid” simply means free of egregious error. When it comes to analysis, this is not good practice; the student latches onto the interpretation that comes to mind instead of searching for the most fitting one.
A sample New York Regents English examination illustrates how this might play out. (I discuss this example in my book, Republic of Noise.) Here the quotation is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” (See p. 21 of the PDF file.) This quotation can mean many things, but it has particular meaning in The Little Prince. It is the fox who speaks these words, after befriending the prince and being tamed by him. They have been meeting, day by day, at the same time and place; the regularity of the ritual allows the fox to prepare his heart for the prince’s arrival. Seeing with the heart in this case has to do with caring for another, spending time with another, honoring rituals together. But students are more likely to take the quotation as a comment on romantic attraction (and some of the sample responses do precisely that). Then they agree or disagree with the quotation on the basis of this incorrect interpretation.
Another flaw in the “critical lens” task is that it hinges on the student’s opinion (about a statement that may apply to a range of situations). The opinion may be hasty or superficial, yet it is unassailable. It would make more sense to ask the student to explain how a particular literary work affirms the quotation in some ways and negates it in others, and to decide whether the affirmation or the negation is ultimately stronger. That would require careful, thoughtful analysis and examination of a work and would leave room for the student’s ideas and judgment. At the very least, the prompt could ask the students to show how a literary work addresses or touches on the idea in the quotation. That runs the risk of reducing literature to ideas and themes, but at least it keeps the focus on the literature.
A third flaw is that students must cite examples from literature in support of their opinion. It is possible to do this, but one must do so cautiously. Literature is not a direct reflection of life; often its messages are oblique and contradictory. So, for instance, if one looks to Romeo and Juliet for examples of people blinded by love (not seeing rightly with the heart), one will find them, but one will also miss the point. In the play, love has both delusion and illumination and is part of a larger scheme. Help and harm intermingle, as Friar Laurence suggests in his monologue:
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
The play does not pass judgment on the lovers’ passion; rather, it shows the playing out of passions, feuds, and good intentions, where no one grasps the full situation until the end. But students who ignore this can get a high score on the essay. One can even ignore key details of plot and get a high score. A sample student response with the highest score (on p. 58) states that “if Romeo had not used his heart, he would have seen rightly. He could have stayed with Rosaline, and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless, love-inspired antics.” The student neglects the fact that Rosaline has sworn herself to chastity, that the Montagues and Capulets have antics of their own (the play begins with a fight that escalates), and that it is the lovers’ deaths that brings an end, finally, to the warring of the two families. This is at least partly the fault of the essay question; by requiring students to cite literary examples to support their opinion, it encourages (or at least does not penalize) shallow interpretations of these examples.
In short, the “critical lens” task rewards poor writing and thinking, precisely because it can rely on no common knowledge. There is no check on the student’s opinion; nothing challenges the student to examine the quotation or the works closely. The student who follows the directions does well. He may provide a flawed interpretation of the literary examples and quotation, yet receive a top score. He may even get basic plot details wrong without losing any points. It would not be surprising if some students made up the details and still passed. To fight this absurdity, we should have a few texts—just a few—that everybody reads, including those scoring the tests. The essay question could then pertain to the works themselves. This would allow for coherent, probing essays and would take students out of opinion’s muddier puddles.