Sherlock Holmes is Not the Answer

Want higher test scores? Don’t think like Sherlock Holmes. Now this might seem counterintuitive to you. Isn’t Sherlock Holmes the greatest reasoner ever? Wouldn’t his method of logical inferences be completely baller on a standardized test? To those questions, the answer is yes. But incredible reasoning skills aren’t the only necessities for performing well on a standardized test. Fortunately for us, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, realized that incredible reasoning skills alone don’t make for a top-flight detective, either.

For both high scorers and high-performing detectives, interdisciplinary knowledge is fundamental to unraveling key clues. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, a limited area of knowledge also made for a rather difficult character to further develop. Here’s Dr. Watson’s description of him in A Study in Scarlet:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

I was on the point of asking him what that work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object.

That last line is a doozy. “He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object.” The difficulty of this line for Sherlock Holmes is an epistemological one. How does he know which knowledge bears on his object? Nevertheless, Holmes’s point is one echoed by many a high school student, often expressed as “Why should I learn something that I’m never going to use again in my life?” While the point is well made, Sherlock Holmes’s difficulty is now the student’s, too.

Here’s the thing: it’s quite possible to imagine a scenario in which Sherlock Holmes could benefit from knowing something about the Solar System or some other random tidbit, simply because a suspect might reference it in some way. Sherlock Holmes has made a closed world assumption that limits his knowledge base more than is beneficial to his bailiwick. Detective work often involves connecting disparate pieces of information. Closing off entire sets of knowledge constrains Holmes to a lesser group of crimes than his boast suggests he might solve with a proper criminal foil to apprehend:

   “There are no crimes and no criminals in these days,” he said, querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession. I know well that I have it in me to make my name famous. No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done. And what is the result? There is no crime to detect, or, at most, some bungling villainy with a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can see through it.”

The Holmes who hasn’t the slightest care for philosophy, etc. simply doesn’t seem ready or capable of apprehending a villain whose motives might escape both his and Scotland Yard’s comprehension. His fame would likely remain buried or at least lesser. (It is possible that he could still figure out such crimes by some authorial fiat, but that would almost certainly make Sherlock Holmes a twin character with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, the very literary character Holmes so vehemently describes as “inferior.”)

There’s also a difficulty in this line for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as an author: Sherlock Holmes could easily be a frightful bore of a character. I mean, who wants to read about a guy who is principally familiar with types of soil and chemistry labs? Even worse, the boring-at-a-dinner-party Holmes found in A Study in Scarlet would be limited to unmasking criminals of a particular set of errors. Mastermind criminals whose only observable screw-ups involve some literary or gardening obsession would remain hidden from Holmes’s normally acute analysis. Even if we did allow that Holmes could research such obsessions as they arose in each unique case and somehow find himself expert enough in them to engage the mastermind criminals on even ground, are we also to assume that Holmes would have enough time to develop his domain expertise and catch the criminals before they disappeared? It’s not like there’s a dictionary for every odd proclivity a person might have (unlike the awesome, crime-solving Dictionary of American Regional English for language). Eventually, one must give into a suspension of disbelief to account for all of the improbabilities with such a Sherlock Holmes.

Fortunately, Doyle recognized this. How could he write another story involving Sherlock Holmes unless Holmes were transformed into a multidimensional character? Who would want to read tomes on tobacco ash and soil types? The purpose of stories is that they are stories, not scientific treatises on obscure subjects. There’s nothing wrong with a scientific treatise, but that’s not what we expect to find when we pick up a detective story.

The second Sherlock Holmes novel presents a remarkably changed Holmes. He slips into French and German phrases, even quoting Goethe with ease and obvious familiarity. We now have a Sherlock Holmes who discusses another detective thusly:

“Oh, he rates my assistance too highly,” said Sherlock Holmes, lightly. “He has considerable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge; and that may come in time. He is now translating my small works into French.”

Now Holmes is talking here about his typical minutiae, specific tobacco ashes, but the rest of Doyle’s story presents a Holmes familiar with culture far beyond that found in a chemistry lab. That understanding of a broader culture helps Holmes appear a more interesting character and allows Doyle to craft more intricate crimes and criminals with whom Holmes can tangle.

The Sherlock Holmes who is the interdisciplinary savant is the Holmes we should model our SAT and ACT studies after. You see, the variance between each individual ACT or SAT is best addressed by students who have the interdisciplinary skills to handle the shift from test to test. To give you an ACT Reading example, though this could apply to SAT Reading just as easily, consider the difference between trying to analyze a science fiction story and a story involving Art Deco (see page 32). Even if both of those are stories, I don’t find them stylistically similar. I have to adjust my expectations of the narrative and perhaps even writing style. Of course, most students find the words “Art Deco” completely alien, so maybe both Art Deco and science fiction stories aren’t so dissimilar after all. (Yes, I’m punning on the word “alien” here. Mostly.)

Now, you don’t need to be a polymath who knows reams about sci-fi and Art Deco to survive the ACT and SAT, but you do need to develop a broad (not necessarily deep) knowledge of different genres of writing and literature. The same applies to science and math, sadly enough, though ACT and SAT math do occasionally address some math concepts in depth.

Many recent investigations into how students respond to reading strategies have shown that background knowledge (and vocabulary) is an essential element. That is, reading comprehension isn’t some exterior element that can truly be evaluated by a blunt tool like an ACT or SAT reading section. Reading is always contextual. I read and comprehend stories about tennis or football (American or English) much faster than I do volleyball or lacrosse. Why? I pay much more attention to the former sports than the latter. To put it another way, I understand essays about opera far better than essays about paintings or poetry. I know opera well; I’m a dilettante with the other two (despite my office’s remarkable artwork). Reading comprehension is contextual, not some abstraction that can be evaluated with any generic passage a test-maker selects.

To your great misfortune as a test-taker, the test-makers pretend that their blunt tool can evaluate reading comprehension as an abstract instead of contextual skill, so it becomes your task to develop a broad range of real background knowledge because what you “already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well [you] will learn new information relative to the content.” No matter how many “tips and tricks” your ACT or SAT guide books or advisors present you with, you will find yourself limited on at least the occasional ACT or SAT. Tips and tricks can only take you so far, no matter what the rumor and marketing mills try to tell you.

Unless you’d like to experience that occasional, seemingly unexplained drop in score, consistent testing excellence will only appear as you develop an interdisciplinary competence and confidence that will inure you to the test-makers’ incompetencies and machinations. As I note in my ACT and SAT prep book’s chapter “Pinpointing Your Folly,” consistent excellence is the goal of any test-taker, whether you’re shooting for a perfect score or hoping to scrape by just well enough to get into college. Consistent excellence is relative to you, but to establish that consistency and improve your testing performance, you’ll need to develop a breadth of background knowledge:

A study of [students’] reading comprehension found that background knowledge and vocabulary were the strongest predictors of comprehension and indirectly influenced whether a student would apply problem-solving strategies when meaning breaks down (Cromley & Azevedo, 2007). In other words, vocabulary and background knowledge do not simply sit dormant until needed; they mediate the extent to which other reading comprehension behaviors are utilized. Instruction of comprehension strategies is likely to be less effective when background knowledge is overlooked.

So if you want higher test scores, you can’t prepare like Sherlock Holmes. At least, you can’t prepare like the Sherlock Holmes indifferent to the Solar System and most other background knowledge. If you want higher test scores, prepare like the Holmes who can offhandedly say of a great German poet, “Goethe is always pithy.” That Sherlock Holmes is the answer.