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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Rhetoric or Substance?

By Richard W. Paul — October 02, 2002 4 min read
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In testing writing, what should we test for?

When I first read of University of California President Richard C. Atkinson’s insistence that the SAT I include a writing component, I was pleased. After all, the ability of students to use writing in the learning process is essential to success in virtually every academic discipline. Essay testing is common in many subjects at the university, and a well-designed essay test can challenge students to integrate important concepts into an extended line of reasoning. Indeed, only when students can articulate in writing the basic principles they are learning in such fields as biology, psychology, anthropology, history, engineering, medicine, and the law can we be sure that they are internalizing those principles in an intellectually coherent way.

I naturally assumed, therefore, that when President Atkinson called for an SAT writing component, he envisioned such a component to be analytic, intellectual, and academic in nature. I was surprised, then, to find that the writing to be tested on the revised SAT is that emphasized in some rhetorically oriented composition courses, with an emphasis on style, variety of sentence structure, and rhetorical principles.

The fact is that rhetorically powerful writing may be, and in our culture often is, intellectually bankrupt. Many intellectually impoverished thinkers write well in the purely rhetorical sense. Propaganda, for one, is often expressed in a rhetorically effective way. Political speeches empty of significant content are often rhetorically well-designed. Sophistry and self-delusion often thrive in rhetorically proficient prose.

A New York Times special supplement on education this summer (Aug. 4, 2002) included a description of the new SAT focused on a “20-minute writing exercise.” The ill-defined “prompt” students were asked to write on was as follows: “There is always a however.”

One might as justifiably ask students to write on the theme, “There is always an always.” Or, “There is never a never.” Such writing prompts are the equivalent of an intellectual Rorschach inkblot. They do not define a clear intellectual task. There is no issue to be reasoned through. Thus, the writer is encouraged to pontificate using psychological associations, rather than reason using intellectual good sense.

Rhetorically powerful writing may be, and in our culture often is, intellectually bankrupt.

In sample essays, high scores were given to answers that argued (quite vaguely) for intellectual relativism. The result of a large-scale use of ill- defined prompts in writing classes is predictable. It encourages what is already a major problem at high schools and universities: smooth but intellectually thin writing, writing best identified as that produced by “the elite disabled.”

But let’s imagine another possibility. Suppose, in contrast to a rhetorical model, a critical-thinking model were used (after all, the SAT claims to be testing for critical thinking and problem-solving as well as communication skills). Students would be given an intellectually well-defined task. The criteria for assessment would include universal intellectual criteria of importance in all academic disciplines: clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, and significance (rather than rhetorical style and flourish).

There are numerous possibilities for designing such a writing task. For one, it is possible to combine the writing component with the task of reading and commenting on an intellectually challenging passage. This passage could be taken from an introductory chapter of a textbook or from an essay by an important commentator on the roots of our life and times (such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Paine, Caesar Chavez, Henry David Thoreau, Erich Fromm, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Henry Steele Commager, Bertrand Russell, or Albert Einstein—to name a few obvious candidates).

From any well-designed analytic-writing task, we would simultaneously get valuable information on the students' ability to read, write, and think with substance.

There are a number of other fruitful options. For example, students could be asked to summarize in their own words the reasoning in the excerpt and then to develop further (or critique) any point in that reasoning.

Alternatively, they could be asked to comment briefly on the intellectual structure of the original, completing the following sentence frames:

  • The main purpose of the author is ...
  • The key question at issue is ...
  • The most salient information is ...
  • The main conclusion of the author is ...
  • The key assumptions are ...
  • The central idea or concept is ...
  • The point of view of the author is ...
  • The main strength of the excerpt is ...
  • One possible question or objection one might raise is ...

From any well-designed analytic-writing task, we would simultaneously get valuable information on the students’ ability to read, write, and think with substance: on their capacity to think within an intellectually significant point of view, on their ability to identify important structures in thinking, and on their ability to begin to take ownership of ideas worth understanding.

Such an approach would send an important message to high school teachers: “Teach your students to write and think with intellectual discipline about matters of substance.” Compare this message with that sent by a rhetorically designed prompt: “Teach your students to write in a smooth, fluent, and superficial fashion. Don’t worry about their having something of importance to say. Just make sure that what they say sounds good. It is not what you know that is important. It is what you appear to know, whom you can impress.”

The University of California president has successfully persuaded the College Board to rethink the SAT. Let us now persuade the board to—please!—Think again. We want substance, not puffery. We want students who can reason through clearly defined, challenging intellectual tasks—not emerging sophists ready to debate whether or not Coke is the Real Thing.

Richard W. Paul is the director of research and professional development at the Foundation for Critical Thinking in Dillon Beach, Calif. (E-mail: cct@criticalthinking.org).

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