October 5, 2010

The Test

To mark the occasion of my two-hundredth blog, I thought I would write something a little longer than usual. My thoughts in this essay follow the recent Pew study of American’s knowledge of religion . In keeping with the theme, I have posted a picture of one of my recent paintings, “Archangel II.” at right.

On a recent autumn morning before heading off to work my husband told me that he had just taken a test posted on the CNN website on the knowledge of religion and had made a perfect score. I looked at the test and noticed that they gave it the somewhat intimidating title of “Religious IQ.” The article that accompanied the test was the usual forlorn one that Americans write about their sorry level of knowledge as evidenced by their nearly universal poor performance on a “test.” The test that my husband took was the somewhat attenuated version of the 32 question test of religious knowledge used in a recent survey on religious knowledge in America by the Pew Foundation. Nevertheless, according to CNN, most Americans cannot even get more than half the questions on the short version right. I usually have serious doubts about the ability of such tests to actually prove much of anything but out of curiosity I took the test. I made a perfect score.

What was interesting to me here, however, was not that fact that both my husband and I made perfect scores but by the completely opposite reactions we had to our “achievement.” It seemed to make my husband confident about his stature as an educated man and he could barely conceal his glee over the affirmation of intellectual prowess. For me it was merely a possible indication that I done more reading about religion than the average American. But when I read that my score and predilections, according to the Pew survey, put me in the category of 4 % of Americans, I actually got gloomy. I hope this doesn’t mean that ninety-six percent of Americans will disown me. I thought to myself. Just to be certain, I read more about the questions on the extended version of the religion test. I got all those questions right as well. It confirmed my suspicion that I was indeed doomed.

I tried to go about my work that day, but there was a distinct cloud of unease hanging over everything due to the AM religion test that sent my husband off to work in a cheerful mood and me down to my studio in a funk. I suspected that there was more to this than just gender differences and personality. And, after a little more reading and re-examination I assured myself that what was at the bottom of all this uneasiness was an experience of how, in both past and present circumstances, both personal and general, tests have been interpreted. For most of my suspicions about the way surveys and tests are conducted in the United States come not from the test itself but by the way some “expert” or other fills in the blank at the end of the sentence, “The results of this test indicate that you are ........”

My skepticism about the interpretation of tests began ages ago, with an experience in Princeton High School. To start with, I recall a guidance counselor calling me in to her office to tell me that I had scored high on a test for engineering skills and that it indicated that I was “not a normal girl.” ( My mother happened to be very good at taking small machines apart and putting them back together again so perhaps I had inherited some of her “abnormality.”) My later career identity tests rattled the nerves of the guidance counselor even more for the results indicated that the most suitable career for me would be navy officer with army officer running a close second. Neither came to pass, I’m afraid.

But in addition to the humiliation of test pigeon-holing that teenagers then and now are subjected to, students at Princeton High School had the dubious honor of being used for informal psychology “tests” by students in the psychology department of Princeton University. I recall some of their more ridiculous research on peer pressure and self-esteem. I call it ridiculous because questions were posited to students without the students themselves being allowed a chance to explain their circumstances, motivations or actions. There was only one possible explanation for any youthful decision - and that was determined by the researchers. To give an example, I remember that a question was posited by the researchers as to whether or not we might downplay a high test score if everyone else in the class had not performed well. No one answered right away, but one brave boy raised his hand to say that under certain circumstances he might. Without waiting to hear what those circumstances might be, the Princeton University psychology students barked out at him, “That’s peer pressure.” and proceeded to worry him about his low self-esteem. It might be worth noting here that since he was the only student who dared to raise his hand while the rest of us were trying hard to look stony-faced and not even twitch it could easily be deduced that he was in fact the only one to NOT cave in to peer pressure. Had I myself been a bolder student I would have proposed to the Princeton University students that they were confusing discretion with low self-esteem and peer pressure with simple self preservation. But I had no empirical experience from which to draw those conclusions until a few years later in a class in Analytical Chemistry.

While a student majoring in both art and science in college I found analytical chemistry challenging but interesting. I loved the system of equations and the logic of flow charts. But I generally found that my grades hovered around a B and I just managed to keep up. One week, however, I found myself in the unusual position of being ahead of my studies so I decided to do some extra reading in analytical chemistry. The extra reading served me well because the next exam I took seemed to relate more to my extra reading than to our most recent text assignment. In the exam room, I noticed that the other students taking the exam looked confused and that there were not a lot of pencils moving. Had I not done my extra reading I would have been among them.

The following day, when the test results came in the professor announced that the results were very disappointing. Everyone in the class had failed save one person. He explained furthermore that because that one person had earned an “A” he was obliged to grade on a curve and give everyone else a “D” or an “F.” I had found the test challenging but not impossible so I was confused by the outcome. As the professor passed back our exam papers the anger among students grew. All eyes were upon the papers with grades of 40%, 45%, 35% as they seemed to fall on desk tops with a resounding “boom!” Everyone was waiting for the paper that blew the curve to come floating down upon desk of the person who had condemned the class to failure. I was also eagerly looking around to see who it was that messed up my analytical chemistry grade. I was so intent on finding out who it was that I did not notice the paper with the number 96 scrawled in bright red ink at the top lying in clear view on my desk. When I did see it I could not wait to grab it and stash it somewhere out of sight. Of course, if I were the Princeton University psychology department’s ideal of a self-actualized youth with high self-esteem I should have instantly leapt to the top of my desk, waved my paper around and loudly proclaimed victory. It appeared, however, that I had a sudden attack of low self-esteem so I quietly tucked the paper away instead But it was too late. It had been spotted and I heard the words rumbling in low disgruntled tones and spreading with viral intensity around the classroom: “It was Janet.” And I was obliged to sit through that class for the remainder of another two-hour lecture. It may have conceivably been the longest lecture of my college days. I could feel hostile, incredulous eyes burning a hole in my back, from my sides, and from across the room.

Hopefully at this point in my essay I have allowed readers to come to a false assumption. Was I brighter than the other students? No I was not. In fact I failed just as many tests as I made good on. If I hadn’t I would not be an artist today but would have gone on to medical school like I had planned. So what did it mean? It simply meant that on that day, by a strange coincidence, the professor had designed a test that dovetailed with my extra reading rather than the assigned text. And of course anyone with an ounce of intelligence would understand that the circumstances in the above instance warranted discretion rather than a public announcement.

Things are not always what they seem in tests and surveys and their interpretation is largely subjective. Such was the case for the “self esteem and peer pressure” questions, the odd circumstance of a science exam and for the most recent Pew test on religious knowledge. In the latter case I believe that the way the results of that particular test were perceived and disseminated explains why a man with a perfect score would smile and his wife with an identical score would frown, especially with regards to the conclusions that were drawn concerning the beliefs of the test takers.

As an agnostic I was personally rather nonplused at being thrown into the same category as “atheist.” We could not be further apart. An agnostic simply neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. An atheist affirms a belief that God does not exist. One questions, the other answers. One is not committed to a specific dogma or belief, the other is. In this regard, an atheist actually has more in common with a believer than an agnostic does.

When a spokesperson for the Pew foundation was interviewed recently about the results of the religious knowledge test for Americans he made an interesting assumption in his interpretation. Asked about why atheists and agnostics outperformed all others of various religious persuasions on the test, he concluded that it meant that the people in the former group came to their atheism and agnosticism only after studying religion carefully and weighing all the options. That may be so for some people. For me it was entirely the opposite. I was an agnostic well before I studied world religions. It was not a cause and effect relationship. In fact, I had no intention to read about religions in order to “rate” them. And yet the media latched on to this rather utilitarian concept and pronounced it to be so - as if we really were looking at religions of the world like they were themselves a multiple choice test:

A. Christianity - wrong!
B. Judaism - wrong!
C. Buddhism - wrong!
The answer is “D” None of the above!

Further exacerbating the problem of the biased way the test was interpreted was that it appeared that the only mouths allowed to comment on behalf of atheists and agnostics were spokespersons who seemed to be unfavorable to religion. I am not unfavorable to religion I just happen not to belong to any at the present time. It does not mean that I have concluded that I never will belong.

Nor does it mean that I hold myself as more intellectually enlightened than people of faith. So what did the test mean for me? And why would an agnostic make a perfect score? In my case the spokesperson for the Pew foundation came to the wrong conclusion, although that is not to say that he was not spot on with regard to others. But the simple truth for me was that I made a high test score because I read about religions with no other motives in mind other than to enhance my knowledge and understanding of art and in order to enrich my knowledge of the various beliefs of world cultures. And I suppose it helps to have friends from diverse religious backgrounds.

As an artist, it behooves me to understand art history. In the history of art, secular art has been the exception rather than the rule. The church has been a major patron of the arts throughout history, as has the religions of most other cultures. It would be impossible to have a grasp of world art without knowing at least something about the history and beliefs of the religions that inspired and supported it.

In addition to understanding the world of art, a knowledge of religious history supports the understanding of literature, philosophy and ethics. In most religious writing there is at the center a belief in a supreme good, an absolute truth. Much of religious writing is about the striving to be as close as humanly possible to that supreme good or absolute truth. Some of the most sublime writing that human beings have penned is about this striving to be better humans by means of closeness to their God. It is worth reading on that merit alone.

It would be unfortunate if those who misinterpret cause and effect in the recent survey of religious knowledge would use that to dissuade people from reading about religion and theological history. I can easily see how someone with less than ethical motivations might use the idea that knowledge and faith are mutually exclusive as leverage to prohibit religious inquiry. That would be a shame. It would be equally unfortunate if educated people conclude that a low test score on religious knowledge casts too much doubt on the motivations of a group as a whole. One highly educated man I spoke with recently, for instance, concluded that the low test scores among Catholics meant that they are “just believing whatever they are told.” That may be, but it also could mean that the Catholic church has made greater inroads to poor communities than other denominations have - someone working three jobs to support his family will not have the time to sit around and read about Maimonides.

In conclusion, test scores are just indications of the knowledge of people at a particular time and place. How we each got there is a mixture of chance and opportunity. The results are often highly individual and idiosyncratic and should never be used as a tool to embarrass others or define people in accordance with preconceived notions - whether their scores are high or low.
And now that I have clarified this I might join my husband in smiling.

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