Testing your children's mettle is very much the rage today. Mettle's but a variation of metal from the Greek metallion, "to seek after or explore." Early on it defined the temper of a sword, later a person's temperament — the spelling tempered to "mettle" or "metal" around 1700. A subject's mettle told you a lot about a subject's hardness and flexibility, be it a person or a sword.
It's a neat tale, but it doesn't explain how in that same year we had a quiz recorded as an "odd or eccentric person."
We once put metal to the acid test to see if it were genuine gold, a substance impervious to attack by most acids. Today the acid test describes a decisive trial by which quality or worth is determined. For the young its standardized state testing, capped by the SATs — trials all students must go through to discover their true mettle.
Meanwhile, parents stand by anxiously, hoping the chemistry is right — that everything will come together properly to create the desired results, as if under controlled laboratory conditions.
The chemistry of the Middle Ages was called Alchemy, its prime focus being the transformation of baser metals into gold. By successfully preparing students to achieve high scores on these tests, schools today practice a similar art, magically transforming ordinary students into "college material."
Parents couldn't be prouder. Their progeny's mettle having been successfully tested, they now have proof of what they always believed to be true — that their kids are — as "good as gold,"
Thinking of children as "material" is an interesting concept. The title of a Canadian documentary on education (created by the children themselves) suggests, "What they want us to become is not what we want to be."
Kids, what do they know anyway?