Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Analogies, Bad Uses Of

Many years ago, before the Earth had finished cooling, there was a test called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. (Actually, it was called the Scholastic Achievement Test at first, then the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, and now just goes by SAT. Anyway.)

On this test were questions on something known as analogies. You might have heard of them. They looked like this*:

(Think over your answer. I'll wait.)

I absolutely HATED analogy questions. It was rare that I'd find an answer that I felt conveyed the same  relationship as the original; more commonly, I'd find that there was more than one I could equate to the original.

In any event, my experience with them led me to be skeptical about their use as a rhetorical device, because they could be deployed with such ease that often the deployer wouldn't realize they were inapt. They would be used to draw comparisons between events or situations that just were not equivalent in any meaningful way.**

I've not had to think about analogies for years, which has been nice. However, over the last month or so they've reared their (IMO) ugly heads. I'm not going to go into details, except to say that one of them involved apartheid, and the other involved the Tuskegee experiment. Both of them were used as analogies to situations going on in public education right now - by people presumably defending public education.

Here's my problem with that.

Folks who defend public education need to make their case to the public not only with clarity and with purpose, but with accuracy. And using analogies that are inflammatory, that are unkind, that open unhealed historical wounds does not help.

It's on us to be the ones that are above board and clear and accurate. We can be righteous in our rage - we can be strong and unwavering in our voices - but we cannot become like those we disagree with. We have to be better.

And some may say that this is unfair, and this is not right, and this puts us at a disadvantage. And they'd be right. But, while I'm normally known as a Bible-quoter, this passage sticks with me in response: "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:26).

Education isn't a contest to be "won". (Bad analogy!) Education is about helping students and families and communities. And if we are going to help make education better for students and families and communities we have to be thoughtful in our language, consistent in our voices, and above all, fair in our comparisons.

*Here's the answer to the analogy. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
**Godwin's Law is the canonical example of inapt comparisons on the Internet. We really, really don't want to go down that kind of road, do we?


  1. Hmm. Two of the wrong answers in the explanation are not present among the actual given choices.

    And I would NEVER trust unofficial examples of standardized test problems, particularly not those created by the ETS or ACT, and extra-particularly examples created by Stanley Kaplan or taken from books that are commercially sold by companies like Barrons, McGraw-Hill, ad nauseam. Their problems are frequently ill-posed or of absurdly high levels of difficulty compared with actual tests.

    That said, I knew the right answer to this one, first because the other choices absolutely didn't work and second because the first choice "fit well enough." Experienced test-takers who do well on such tests learn to think along similar lines to the test-makers. While there's no substitute on challenging analogy problems (which are no longer on the SAT) for having a strong vocabulary and an understanding of what comprises the majority of the members of the set of "relationships that the test-makers consider reasonable," sometimes, you have to use process of elimination and chose the least bad answer. That might be the case here, though what actually went through my head was, "medicine reduces illness (and is intended prevent it"; "law reduces anarchy and is intended to prevent it." Close enough for jazz, particularly given the other choices.

    No analogy is perfect. It would be impossible to create one, unless the first words are exact synonyms and so are the second words. That isn't generally done on the tests I've seen.

    For a better set of challenging analogies, check out the Psychological Corporation's MILLER ANALOGIES TEST. That one is a bear.

  2. Analogies. Not a fan. Especially when they are used in persuasive argumentation or debates. Doubly so in the good ol' SAT. This one was pretty clear however. Did I actually get smarter, or just lucky? (I guess we can ask that about our entire lives, too).