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Hillary Clinton, the SATs and the triumph of narrative

 Hillary Clinton at an event in Des Moines last month. Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

Hillary Clinton at an event in Des Moines last month. Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

At first glance a change in the direction of the SATs to a more reading-heavy format would seem to have little to do with the presidential candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But those of us who enjoy connecting the dots have seen a pattern emerge – one of narrative.

Control the story, and you control public opinion – it’s a theme of my debut novel “Water Music” and the forthcoming “The Penalty for Holding,” one of the games men – and women – play.

Even our visual, numbers-oriented culture seems to have gotten the message. The new SAT contains more sophisticated reading passages along with math problems that are more text-driven, which critics fear will disadvantage non-English speakers and those for whom verbal skills do not come easily.

One student quoted in The New York Times article above was momentarily stymied by a math problem that began with a story of an anthropologist until she remembered to extrapolate the math formula. (Ah yes, as in the classic distance problems that always began, “A train leaves Chicago at 3 p.m….” I always began imagining, What train was it? The Twentieth Century Limited? I could see it speeding through the night, its passengers bound for different destinies. By the time I finished daydreaming, the distance problem formula was long behind me.)

As for the 16-year-old who didn’t know what an anthropologist was, well, if she’s a high school junior and has no clue what an anthropologist does, I’d say she has bigger problems than math and storytelling. She has serious gaps in her basic knowledge, gaps that should’ve been filled in middle school.

As for Clinton, no one doubts that there are few gaps in her knowledge. But there are those who say she has a different kind of storytelling problem, that is, she has no story – or has failed to annunciate one, unlike her Democratic presidential rival Bernie Sanders. His story is simple – Wall Street, bad; sharing the wealth, good.

Perhaps, however, it’s not so much a case of Clinton having no narrative but rather a more complex story. The campaign is more than one issue, she said in the most recent debate, her best performance to date, and she is more than a one-issue candidate.

The problem for her is that she is speaking to a populace that includes those who are the adult equivalent of the student who doesn’t know what an anthropologist is and is quickly sidetracked. It’s easier to grasp the message of “Feel the Bern”ie Sanders: Wall Street billionaires should be made to pay taxes so the 99 percent can have more. But simple messages tend to have complex corollaries and Sanders’ is this: That one of the reasons the big shots make a lot on Wall Street is because they tend to take risks on our behalf, risks that pay off in dividends that allow the members of the middle class to send their children to college and fund their vacations, home repairs and retirements.

Wall Street isn’t a pie – remove one slice, and the rest remains intact. It’s more like a watch. Remove one pin and the whole thing might break down.

Which is not to say that billionaires shouldn’t pay more tax. Rather it’s to suggest that the problem isn’t as simple as it seems.

It’s a good thing, then, that the SATs have gotten more complex. The sooner students understand that life isn’t 2+2=4, the better.