Friday, June 19, 2009

The GRE: Reflections on Academic Irrelevance

By RTTF * Others by RTTF

I recently began preparing to take the GRE, the great standard-bearer of graduate admissions. I was buzzing haplessly along when I stumbled upon the following analogy:


a) terminus: voyage

b) guerdon: repetition

c) accolade: campaign

d) epitome: culture

e) anomaly: puzzle

Now, I imagine many of you – like me – thought that 'quarry' was a stone pit, and so may be having difficulties solving this particular analogy. If not, bear with me as I enlighten my fellow philistines as to the more sophisticated definition of this fine word.

Quarry (kwor-ee)

Etymology: Middle English quirre, querre entrails of game given to the hounds, from Anglo-French cureie, quereie, from quir, cuir skin, hide (on which the entrails were placed), from Latin corium

Date:14th century

1: obsolete: a heap of the game killed in a hunt

2: game; specifically : game hunted with hawks

3: one that is sought or pursued : prey

Now, maybe I’m just bitter, but when did academic excellence require me to know about hawk- hunting? Is this the Graduate Record Exam -- or the Germanic Regent’s Exam? Am I applying to be an 18th-century Duke?

Granted, a person may know this word from reading Jane Austen novels or adventure books. And granted, I am now indebted to the GRE for enlightening me to an interesting double-meaning in the title of Morissey’s album You Are the Quarry which had hitherto gone unnoticed. But, while gleaning vocabulary from novels about landed gentry may be a contingent indicator of education, it seems absurd to presume any direct relationship between your general level of intelligence and knowing obscure -- and specialized --vocabulary. If we’re going Jane Austen, why not science fiction? Can we just have a whole section on words Kurt Vonnegut made up? Chrono-synclastic infundibulum, anyone?

More to the point, if we’re going to test for specialized knowledge, couldn’t it at least be knowledge that is relevant to today’s society? Why not test a person’s knowledge of slang, or street culture? May I suggest:


a) quart: milk

b) salary: money

c) forty: olde english

d) box: barrel

Now this is a good analogy. In order to get this right, you have to make the connection that not only is a ‘dub sack’ something that contains an amount of pot, but that the certain amount is not fixed by volume or quantity. Rather, it depends on the quality of weed, and current market conditions. Similarly, while a quart always contains the same amount of milk, the amount of money that is contained in a person’s salary is not fixed, but depends on the quality of the worker and the conditions of the market.

As a prospective candidate for a Sociology degree, I’m pretty sure the knowledge tested in this analogy will help me a little more than the word for the prey sought by hawk-hunters. And yes, Educational Testing Service, I am currently accepting job offers.

The sad part of this is that the specialization and disconnectedness from everyday life that is reflected in the GREs is an all-too-accurate indicator of the state of academia. Anyone who’s spent much time on the websites of our premier academic institutions knows that the bios of faculty and the curricula of courses can read like a catalogue of sub-fields and jargon. Which strikes me as self-defeating. The principle of specialization, just like comparative advantage, works on the assumption that people are working on what they're best at and then sharing it. A company divides its work among specialists and then puts it all together. But when the very language in which our 'knowledge specialists' are learning to express themselves is meaningless to anyone who doesn't share their specialty, interdisciplinary work becomes impossible. And here's a stoner thought if you ever need one: isn't, like, life interdisciplinary, man?

A few months ago the New York Times ran an op-ed in which a professor at Columbia suggested that academic departments be reorganized not around disciplines but around fundamental problems such as Time, Work, Media, Water, Mind, and Money. Then economists, philosophers, biologists, literary critics, psychologists and all the rest could teach and gain multiple perspectives on central problems in our lives. This professor points out that from a practical, problem-solving perspective, this is necessary. He notes for example that those who study religion and those who study international relations haven't really worked together before, and now might be the time to start.

The use of varying methodologies and sensibilities could make the humanities a little more rigorous, and the 'practical' subjects a little more, well, human. The first step in this is that academics learn to express themselves in ways that communicate their ideas, not just show off how terribly well-read they are. So if we want a society that makes decisions with its brain and not with its guts, we might want to start by getting its institutional head out of the hawk-hunting clouds.


  1. I understand your GRE cynicism, but, in my experience, the link between the GRE and the academic institutions that require it is almost nonexistent. (And I say that as an English PhD candidate.) The problem seems to be with the test itself rather than academia: although nearly all schools require the GRE, almost none pay too much attention to your score - unless, that is, you do miserably.

    When you get to graduate school, you'll find that those interdepartmental connections already exist, that they are not as disconnected from everyday life as you might expect, and that there is a more or less unanimous sense that interdepartmental cooperation is the most exciting part of being an academic. So too will you find that academics are almost too willing to share their research with a larger, non-specialized community.

    That being said, graduate school does contain its tedium, and the application process is certainly that. Hopefully once you start, you'll find it worthwhile.

  2. Standard, I certainly hope you are right, particularly about interdepartmental cooperation. The op-ed in the New York Times I referenced in my post was not so encouraging. There was a particularly disturbing part where the professor who wrote the article mentioned that his colleague's best PhD student was doing his dissertation on the use of footnotes by a certain medieval theologian. From other faculty and student bios I've seen, this seems extreme, but not outside of the trend.

    Perhaps the issue is that exciting conversations and interdisciplinary thought occurs, but mostly informally, or in seminars and conferences. That was certainly my experience in college. Dining hall conversations were about big issues, fundamental problems. Senior theses... not so much. I think there's a lot of reasons for this, not all or even most of which are the fault of bad intentions or bad institutions. It is a shame, however, that the best of what academia can produce appears to be inaccessible to those not currently in that world. (If it was accessible, heck, I wouldn't feel such a need to go back!)