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The PSAT's Genius Grant

The Educational Testing Service gets a question wrong and reveals too much of its literary tastes.

12:00 AM, May 15, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE EDUCATIONAL TESTING SERVICE, reports the Washington Post, has conceded that a grammar question on a recent PSAT contained an unintended error--making what was the official, correct answer wrong. The question asked whether there were any errors in the following sentence: "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured." Thanks to a vigilant English teacher from Maryland, the sentence has been proven to contain an error of grammar ("her" doesn't refer back to a proper female subject noun, but to the possessive "Toni Morrison's genius"). Far more troubling, however, is the sentence's definition of genius along with its celebration of a mediocre contemporary author. Talk about standards.

The logical claim found in the sentence has two parts. First, that it is an example of genius to write novels that arise from "the injustices African Americans have endured." This is plainly incorrect. The decision to write a novel about such issues is an example of something far more generic, what one might call an author's choice of subject. Many novels have been written about the injustices African Americans have endured. Their authors are not, one and all, therefore geniuses, though a handful may in fact deserve the most breathtaking superlatives available. To define as genius the decision to write about one's own racial or ethnic grievances is to ignore the word's real meaning and to substitute identity-politics cheerleading for literary criticism.

The second part of the claim is that it is also an example of genius to "express" the "injustices African Americans have endured." But expression is given to these injustices all the time, in book reports, term papers, museum exhibits, and in major and minor works of history, politics, biography, music, film, dance, poetry, and so on. The ability to express these injustices is so clearly not a matter of genius that we rightly test grammar students on their knowledge of major examples, like slavery. Genius may be found amidst the touring crowds visiting these desolate spots in the history of America, but the ability to return and report on what one has learned about antebellum cotton farming, for example, does not signify genius.

It may seem possible that the test makers intended only to report that the subject Morrison writes about is "the injustices African Americans have endured," while claiming that Morrison, because of her special gift for handling such material, should be considered a genius. Only, it's not very likely. The test writers at the National Testing Service are, after all, professionals. And were something amiss in the question as stated, it surely would have caught the attention of the dozens of people who make their living scrutinizing such material before it is ever published and sent out for testing. (According to the Post, a total of 30 ETS readers had seen the Toni Morrison sentence before it went out.)

Finally, there is the strictly literary claim here that should be investigated as well. Is Toni Morrison a genius? The argument that she is rests almost entirely on the qualities of "Beloved," her most celebrated work, but also her most pretentious and self-indulgent. Incidentally, even as an evocation of the injustices of slavery, it is thoroughly incoherent.

There are many other strikes against the novel. The prose is often impenetrable; the story's digressions, unfollowable; the governing metaphor of the story, tortured to within an inch of its life. The elevation of Beloved to the status of great modern novel represents just the kind of faddish, racialist, wishful thinking that our educational institutions should be guarding against, rather than enshrining as conventional wisdom in national aptitude exams.

A more erudite educator might choose even to make a true-false question or an essay theme of the claim that because Toni Morrison writes about the injustices African Americans have endured, she must be a genius.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.