In Time magazine (March 5) article titled, “The New SAT: America treats its language like garbage,” John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University rebuts former University of California president Richard Atkinson’s speech to support exclusion of big words from SAT as follows:

“(In his 2001 speech) He described seeing schoolchildren studying verbal analogies such as “untruthful is to mendaciousness is as circumspect is to caution” in preparation for the SAT. Atkinson’s implication was that this was as depressing a sight as the kids being taught alchemy. But there was a time when what Atkinson saw was considered to be, well, school.”


I am unfamiliar with the usage of “school” used in this manner. For instance, OED carries 5 different ways of definitions of ‘school’ as a noun including

  1. An institution for educating children:
  2. The buildings used by a school:
  3. The pupils and staff of a school:
  4. A style, approach, or method of a specified character:
  5. A group of people, particularly writers, artists, or philosophers, sharing similar ideas or methods:

But none of the above definitions seems to be applicable to the line, "there was a time when what Atkinson saw was considered to be school.”

I doubt if the writer was confident of the use of ‘school’ in this context as he injected “well” before ‘school.”

What does ‘school” mean in the above quote? Does the word, ‘school’ have the meaning of “main school / stream"?

2 Answers 2


That’s school is a common construction meaning approximately “that’s what school means” or “that’s what you have to expect out of school” or “that’s what you have to put up with in school’. It is what it is.

In the same way, when something goes wrong in the theatre—when what you expected to be a hit flops, or the manager can’t pay the actors’—we say, “Well, that’s show biz.”. When Congress closes down the government, we say “That’s politics”.

And I dare say you had many occasions in your own career to say “That’s clients”.


The , well, is important here. He is saying that it was considered to be, (apology for unadorned, unpleasant truth), school. (meaning #1)

  • I always thought that a person with a higher IQ would know that hate based on melanin was, well, just plain stupid.
  • This got me thinking, not about the article, because the article was, well, just plain stupid.
  • Ivan IV is best known by his nickname Ivan the Terrible because he was, well, terrible.
  • The language was flat and imagery was, well, unimaginative, but it was an adored classic children's book in the early 20th century...
  • The buried alive part was, well, just awful and I suffocated along with Sam!
  • But there was a time when what Atkinson saw was considered to be, well, school.

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