As a palate cleanser I’m reposting a story that I shared nearly fourteen years ago on a very old, very pink iteration of my blog. The formatting got really funky at some point so it’s barely readable over there anymore, but it’s definitely worth revisiting on a regular basis.
What’s the Story Wishbone?
My senior year of high school I was enrolled in the Advanced Placement (AP) Language and Composition class, along with four other AP classes, so near the end of the year I didn’t have time to think about much else. When the annual AP tests were administered I spent the better part of two weeks in the local armory attempting to put a year’s worth of knowledge on paper. This was difficult at the best of times, but much more so when you’re faced with a question you’re not sure you have any idea how to answer.
Throughout the entire school year we had practiced writing essays from old AP Language tests so we thought we were prepared for whatever this year’s test had in store. We were wrong. Out of the three essay questions on the exam the first two were standard and self-explanatory, but the third threw us for a loop. Instead of asking us to use the excerpt in question to prove a point, it asked us to use our “own critical understanding of contemporary society as evidence” to agree or disagree with the author instead. It was bizarre. I remember sitting there staring at the question for at least a minute wondering what in the world I was going to write. Using the excerpt itself as evidence was one thing and drawing on my knowledge of literature was perfectly understandable considering it was an English test, but contemporary society seemed beyond the scope of the exam. It didn’t seem appropriate to use my own observations because they were completely subjective. Looking back on it, I suppose the point of the essay was to simply convince the reader of the point I wanted to make, but at the time I preferred to use something more concrete than my own thoughts to do so.
Here is the essay question:
“In the following passage, the contemporary social critic Neil Postman contrasts George Orwell’s vision of the future, as expressed in the novel 1984 (written in 1948), with that of Aldous Huxley in the novel Brave New World (1932). Read the passage, considering Postman’s assertion that Huxley’s vision is more relevant today than is Orwell’s. Then, using your own critical understanding of contemporary society as evidence, write a carefully argued essay that agrees or disagrees with Postman’s assertion.”
Even before I had read the excerpt I knew I was going to disagree with the author. For some reason I always felt that way about essay questions. No matter what point the author was trying to make I would find a way to disagree with it. It could have been anything. I think it was kind of a challenge to prove the author wrong. So what I needed was another literary reference that described a possible future for humankind and helped me discredit Postman. The problem was that I couldn’t remember ever reading anything like that. I sat there tapping my pen on the table, racking my brain for something I could use in my essay. Then I thought of something that would work perfectly, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, but I hadn’t exactly read it.
There was a show on PBS when I got home from school in the afternoon called “Wishbone” that used a little dog to present great works of literature to kids too young to read them. It was always funny to see how novels like Pride and Prejudice were depicted in thirty minutes using a couple of actors and a dog. In one episode, called “Bark to the Future,” the book in question was The Time Machine. From just watching that episode I gathered that a combination of technology and apathy was responsible for the decline of human intelligence, which was a mix of Huxley’s and Orwell’s writings. This would certainly help me disagree with Postman. So I used what little knowledge of The Time Machine that I gained from a children’s television program involving a dog to write my AP Language essay.
After the exam was over we learned that no one had ever seen a question like that before so there was no way we could have been ready for it. I was pretty proud of myself for finding a literary reference to help prove my point, even though I hadn’t actually read the book. I’ll never say that television doesn’t have its redeeming properties ever since “Wishbone” helped me pass an AP test. As soon as the test was over I swore I would read The Time Machine to make sure I hadn’t grossly misrepresented it, and I even bought a copy at the used book store, but I never actually sat down to read it. Maybe one day I’ll know if I used it correctly to prove that human indifference is not the greatest threat to our society, but at this point I don’t know any more about the book than I did then.
P.S. As of 9/25/18 I still have not read it! And I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t think my copy made the move to California with me sixteen years ago!