I was discharged from the Army in 1980, having entered in 1976 at 17. I graduated from college in 1982, but only attended the University of New Hampshire for a semester and a half. Without wanting to turn this into a math word puzzle, how can this be? How did I apparently earn two-and-a-half years of college credit during my four years of service?
I’d like to say I buckled down, taking college classes at every available moment, but that would be a lie. Oh, I took, I believe, three or four classes during my enlistment. As I recall, the University of Maryland’s European Division offered an Intro to Anthropology class, from which I learned the word “paradigm” and a Philosophy for the Infantryman course, which introduced me to the verbal gymnastics of Saint Anselm and his ontological proof. From Drury College, I took a writing class. The teacher was very nice, but I can’t think of anything I took away. These classes, though, add up to less than a semester’s work. How did I earn all that college credit? Let me phrase it as a multiple-choice question:
The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is
- A way for nontraditional students to demonstrate mastery of college material through successful completion of standardized testing instruments
- A means for students gifted at test-taking to “game the system” by successfully guessing the answers a test designer would use
- A diversion for soldiers allowed to spend one morning every two weeks taking tests instead of maintaining a jeep in the motor pool
- A short-sighted ruse that identifies smart students by testing them and makes it less likely they will ever truly understand the subjects they have earned college credit in.
- All of the above
I earned college credit in such subjects as art history, psychology, sociology, advanced math, chemistry and world cultures. I knew very little about any of these, but I knew how to take standardized tests. Although I’d graduated from high school third from the bottom of my class, I’d also been name a National Merit Scholarship Semi-Finalist for my high PSAT scores. (The semi-finalist designation came when the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the manufacturers of the SAT and the CLEP tests, did minimal due diligence and discovered I had a D- average in my actual classes.) Standardized tests, whether designed to test “intelligence,” “achievement” or “aptitude,” had always come easily to me, owing to an ability to think like a test designer.
I don’t think I’m necessarily smarter than people who do poorly on tests, but I’m significantly better at taking tests. I know this is syllogistic, but the entire test-taking industry is based on a syllogism: we’ll define “intelligence,” for example, as “that which is measured on intelligence tests.” Then, in a classic bait-and-switch, we’ll declare people who do well on such tests to be more intelligent, using the more common meaning: “having enough smarts to figure stuff out.” QED. (Before I studied Latin, and learned that stood to “quod erat demonstratum,” I’d done my own reverse engineering and come up with “Quite Elegantly Done,” a formation I like better.) But I digress.
CLEP tests were, and maybe still are, a way to “’demonstrate’ ‘mastery’” of a given subject area. The flying inverted commas in the previous sentence are necessary, I’m afraid, for I don’t think I “demonstrated” anything, much less mastery of art history, by knowing Picasso (not Da Vinci, Winslow Homer or Grandma Moses) had a “Blue Period.” I’ve always been a reader, and as an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old soldier I had the time to read books indiscriminately and the funds to subscribe to, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Mother Jones, New Times, The New York Review of Books and The Village Voice. None of this reading taught me art history, the way a college semester of organized studying paintings, drawings and sculptures would. If you read enough challenging material by enough smart people, you’ll hear about Picasso. (I’m struck by the similarity of that sentence to the notion of infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters, but don’t have time to develop it here.)
Likewise, the US History CLEP test asked questions like, “Which US President declared, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’?” Knowing the answer to this question, of course, gives no notion of the antebellum period, the rise of industrial production in the northeast, the class distinctions among the settlers in the west. It’s simply a matching game, one I’m good at. Without wanting to be crude (although that’s a pious hope, given all I’ve previously written) I’m reminded of a bit of public bathroom verse I saw as a child: “Here I sit, broken-hearted. Paid my nickel and only farted.” Here, though, that becomes
Here I sit, with college credit.
Don’t know what it means but I know who said it.
But, as always, I digress.
I know the College Level Examination Program is designed to help deserving students earn college credit for material they already know—and to make money for ETS with each test given. I know US soldiers are lucky to have the chance to take these tests at no cost to the solider—and avoid motor-pool duty. I know I benefitted financially from the transaction—or at least had extra GI Bill benefits to use for graduate school and seminary. There’s just one thing I don’t know: during his Blue Period, why was Picasso so sad?