Founding America and Other Great Conversations
By Steve Leech
(Test Prep (ACT/SAT/SSAT), and English Literature Tutor at The Edge Learning Center)
One of the big challenges to international students that came up in the SAT’s 2016 redesign was the introduction of American Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation to the Reading section of the test. For many students, these passages—which regularly make up 40% of the Reading section—are especially challenging for a variety of reasons but, with the right planning, don’t have to be. Let’s take a look.
What are they?
In short, they are political texts addressing ideas and issues commonly found in US high school curricula. The American Founding Documents, as the name suggests, are documents focusing on the formation and establishment of the United States (the actual founding of America predates written accounts by a few dozen million years) and are mainly political texts from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Great Global Conversation, on the other hand, has a much broader focus; it looks at various documents from world history with a focus on a progressive ideology. There is some degree of overlap between the two—Abraham Lincoln, for example, was president almost a century after the founding of the United States, but his administration was massively important to the development of the country—but this shouldn’t pose too much of a problem to most people taking the test.
What kinds of topics are covered?
Essentially, both passage types are presenting a liberal Western ideology (but not too liberal because the SAT doesn’t really want to offend anyone). They focus on different parts of the world and different time periods, but often focus on the rights of the individual and the relationships between individuals and the state.
American Founding Documents focus on the political and philosophical underpinnings of the United States, such as liberty and equality. Many of these passages come from the Founding Fathers of the US and discuss issues more familiar to American students than to international ones: questions of federalism rarely come up in East Asian curricula. Students often struggle with these passages purely because they’re not familiar with the ideas discussed.
The Great Global Conversation takes a longer view of history. These passages can go back as far as Ancient Rome or be as recent as Hillary Clinton. Common topics include women’s suffrage, civil rights, union movements, and slavery. Anything that may currently be a hot political topic or that does not focus on human issues is unlikely to occur. While the human rights of women and ethnic minorities are essentially settled questions, LGBTQ rights (for example) are still controversial in many parts of the world, and the SAT still doesn’t really want to offend anyone. Topics such as global warming or drug legalization simply fall outside the scope of these passages.
What can we do!?
Fortunately, the United States was founded quite some time ago, and no one’s making the founding documents any more, so there’s a limited pool the College Board can draw from. Reading these documents helps in two important ways: first, it helps educate students about issues commonly discussed in American Founding Documents, and, second, it helps students get used to some of the archaic language found in political texts from the 1700s. This kind of boost in basic comprehension improves the effectiveness of other strategies as well as improving time management.
Similarly, while the Great Global Conversation continues, students can practice with past passages or similar to get a better understanding of not only what these topics discuss but also how the documents are structured and formatted. The SAT is unlikely to require us to have a deep knowledge of Cesar Chavez’s labor movement, but a basic familiarity with the issues helps reduce confusion and deepen understanding, raising the chances of getting answers right. Taking past papers is obviously a good start. You might also read up about Nobel Peace Prize laureates, who are good candidates to appear.
Understanding the test’s values and goals can often be as important as understanding its mechanisms. These political passages pose a stiff challenge to many students, but they’re not much more manageable with a little sensible preparation.
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