Driving with my father through Chevy Chase, Maryland, when I was young, I once asked him, “What do people in a country club do?”
My Dad, never having been a member, evoked F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.
"From what I’m told, they play polo and are 'rich together.'"
A decade later, I finally understand what he meant. Some of these intermingling rich people drink scotch together, play a few leisurely rounds of golf every Sunday, and otherwise revel in their common membership in an elite institution.
But I know about another club.
As a twelfth grader living in the shadows of numerous prestigious high schools, I encounter peers who are not only smart but actively smart together, basking in the glory of their exclusive intellectual status.
The qualifications for admission to this club are neither money nor social connections (although these certainly don’t hurt). You’re a full member of the club, endowed with unrestricted privileges to boast freely and judge smugly, only if you have a high SAT score.
Members of the club take as gospel the premise of the SAT: that real, valuable intelligence is reducible to a few objectively measurable skills. They brag about their grades and swoon over J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein and Richard Dawkins—not for their contributions to humanity but for their high IQ scores. The problem is that whatever academic attributes the SAT assesses, nobody claims that it measures our morality or our commitment to others, qualities for which Kaplan offers no preparation. It distinguishes neither the sociopaths from the do-gooders, nor the apathetic from the culturally engaged.
Even if the SAT is an accurate prognosis of academic capabilities (which, as we know, is a highly contested view), it is merely an indicator of how advanced our literary essays or mathematical analyses could be, if only we ever choose to create them. For the same reason that having the ability to compose a symphony isn’t praiseworthy if you don’t actually produce and perform a musical number for eager listeners, your high SAT score means nothing if you never make creative use of your mind and heart.
When I did well on my SAT as an eleventh grader, I tried not to take pride in my score, feeling that accomplishment must precede pride. The commonplace message that “you should be proud of your high SAT score” broadcasts a false notion of success, conflating academic possibilities with real achievements.
When all of the propaganda about test-taking is circulated, too many bright students inhale. Believing that they’ve actually done something valuable by scoring big, they start mingling among themselves and themselves alone, sealing their specialness with the experience of “being smart together.” It may be an understandably defensive response to the exclusivity of rich kids or the anti-intellectual thrust of high-school hierarchies, but it can be hurtful to everyone else.