What’s Your Attitude about Aptitude? (And at What Altitude?)
Just kidding about the last part
By Ed Goldman
When my fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Payne asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said, “Older.” This got me a trip to the vice-principal’s office. But since I had a crush on Mrs. DeLeon, the vice-principal, I didn’t mind.
In fact, when I was asked the same question the next year by a different teacher, I answered “Oligarch” in the hope it’d result in a return trip. But my teacher, Miss Hodgson, possibly sensing I was up to no good, defused everything by turning it into a Learning Moment for the class. “Interesting,” she said as the laughter died down. “And how many of you know what an oligarch is?”
Predictably, no hands went up. So she turned to me and asked me to define the word for my (now-former) friends. And just as predictably, I didn’t know. I just thought it was a funny word. More laughter—though this time at my expense, not at my behest. Then she regaled us all with a lecture about the history of Russia. Recess, 45 minutes later, never sounded like a brighter prospect, comrades.
I was thinking about this the other day after reading an opinion piece about aptitude tests. You remember those—the ones that said you’d be a mathematician even if you had as much difficulty converting fractions to percentages as you’d have had converting Quakers to Taoism.
In this instance, the playing field was institutional racism.
“The lack of minority representation in academic programs stems from the intentional effects of aptitude testing,” wrote Courtney Garrett, a juris doctorate candidate at the University of Alabama Law School, in 2022. It appeared in the Tennessee Journal of Race, Gender, & Social Justice (Vol. 12: Issue. 1, Article 3, if you’re playing the home version).
For example, the law school admissions test (‘LSAT’) is designed to induce predictable results that place Black students in adverse situations,” the student continued. “The LSAT has tended to prevent many students from entering law school, but Black students in particular…Some scholars… label the LSAT as another form of institutional racism, (while others) have documented the problematic history of the founders of aptitude testing in America, as well as how it continues to yield disparate results.”
Well, I was never Black and I never studied law but I can relate on at least one particular level. My aptitude tests in high school indicated I should become an attorney, even though no one in my circle of cousins, acquaintances and friends—which includes a master gardener and a couple of bar owners—would be less qualified to practice law than I. I’d say I simply have no aptitude for it but clearly, testers felt otherwise.
None of this is to slam lawyers, many of whom are close friends and one of whom is (blush) my oh-so-significant other. In summary, I like attorneys as a general species. The ones I pal around with are highly intelligent, articulate, well-read and funny. But they all have certain traits I lack which I think should have been obvious to the aptitude testers, to wit:
- I get bored doing research;
- I don’t mind losing;
- My summations of nearly everything—movies, books, scandals—either have gaping holes or are misleadingly more entertaining than the subject;
- I enjoy wearing suits but not ties, carrying a notebook but not a briefcase, and
- I have a hard time calling someone younger, the same age or older than me “Your honor” except ironically; and
- I haven’t the slightest idea whodunnit.
About that last, my cluelessness about clue-strewn scenarios is real. I can watch the exact same mystery movie three times and still be a bit surprised by the outcome. This is because I get so absorbed in the characters, photography and dialogue that I couldn’t care less who pushed the car containing the Sternwood’s family chauffeur into the ocean (“The Big Sleep”), murdered Captain Jacoby (“The Maltese Falcon”) or stole the last all-chocolate Haagen Dazs ice cream bar from the freezer.
Finally, I’ve found that aptitude, like “potential,” can be a double-edged sword. I was at a reception not long ago during which someone said, “It’s an established fact that married people live longer.” Without thinking (per usual), I blurted back, “Oh, I’m sure it just seems longer.”
That garnered a few uncomfortable laughs—the person who’d made the observation was, at the time, married to me—but prompted one guy to take me aside and, in that solemn way the man who gave Benjamin Braddock one-word career advice in “The Graduate” (“Plastics”), said to me, “I bet you could be a writer.”
I thanked him and said I’d give it some serious thought—even though my real dream is to become an oligarch.
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