Badly written SAT question about reality TV prompts predictable, lazy anti-reality TV response

High schooolers who took the SAT on Saturday had to write an essay as part of their exam, and while some were asked “Is patience a virtue?”, one-third of the teenagers got lucky and were asked, “Do we benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called ‘reality,’ or are such shows harmful?”

That is, of course, an awful sentence. It is also a false dichotomy, and a ridiculously broad question that forces generalization. Can you imagine an SAT question that asks whether novels harm or benefit society? So, it’s a question that’s worthy of criticism–though the one about patience is just as bad. (Asking them to write about a cliche, really? That’s so hilariously ironic.) But of course, the criticism has been about reality TV, because it’s the easiest thing to kick around and lazy columnists and kids and parents can pick on it without much objection.

But this isn’t a bad topic, and asking kids to think critically about their entertainment is something we should celebrate.

Still, after some kids freaked out online, Joanna Molloy complained in The New York Daily News today that this question “dumb[ed] down the venerable 110-year-old exam.” She talks to complainers who are both kids (“I guess the kids who watch crap TV did well,” an honors student said) and adults (the VP for a tutoring service said, “One of our students has no TVs in his house, and certainly a large number of our students have limited TV watching. Other families are very religious, or on the other side of the spectrum are very progressive. Neither want their children watching reality shows.”)

But give me a break. Besides the fact that I imagine only a small minority of kids have never seen a reality TV show, the question does not require kids to own a television to answer it. In fact, there are many perfectly acceptable and even smart answers that wouldn’t have required specific examples of reality TV harming or benefiting society, because you could easily make an argument about the role of popular culture, or television, or nonfiction/documentary. Plus, as many people have made clear over the past 11 years, you do not need to have ever watched a second of reality TV to spout off about it.

I’d be fascinated to read how those who took the test responded, because I’d bet their answers were a lot less dumb than adults’ reactions to the question.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.