03 May 2014

Idealism and mutual exclusivity

Once someone is consistently scoring above a certain level — say 720 or so — on Critical Reading, their mistakes are usually pretty random. A sentence completion here, a passage-based question there… Often, there doesn’t seem to be any clear pattern to the questions they miss. It’s more an issue of how they work through the test, especially when they don’t see the answer immediately, than it is of what they know. Except, of course, when their understanding actually does fall short.

Among my higher-scoring students, I’ve started to notice that two regularly tested concepts tend to give them trouble: idealism and mutual exclusivity. Not coincidentally, those ideas tend to show up on hard questions. If my students scoring well into the 700s have trouble, I think it’s safe to assume that most people who aren’t hitting the 700 mark have difficulty as well. I also couldn’t help but noticed a question targeting the concept of an idealistic stance among the sample questions for the new SAT — it’s probably safe to say that concept isn’t about get jettisoned anytime time soon. (Gosh, it’s amazing how these obscure words just seem to crop up everywhere!) So in the hopes of offering some clarification:

1) Idealism

An idealist is, quite simply, a person who places more of an importance on principles than on practical (or pragmatic) concerns. Someone more interested in the way things should be than the way they actually are.

I suspect that this concept poses so much difficult because American culture views practical concerns as the be-all end-all of human existence. (The point of school is to become college and career ready! The new SAT will encourage practical, hands-on learning that will allow students to really dig into real-world problems!) When everything you do is conceived of as means toward and end, adhering to principles for their own sake is a non-concept. Indeed, the pragmatic mindset is so pervasive that it becomes extremely difficult to recognize it as one of many beliefs systems as opposed to reality itself.

2) Mutual Exclusivity

This simply means that two options cannot both be possible at the same time — one precludes or prevents the other (darn it, there I go with the obscure words again!) So, for example, say you want to see a movie that starts at 8pm, but unfortunately your friend’s basketball game also starts at 8pm. The two options — movie and basketball game — are mutually exclusive. That is, if you do one, you cannot do the other.

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