Are A.P. Classes a Waste of Time?

From The New Republic:

In 2019, an anonymous high school student posted on Reddit that they had worked out a “nice formula” to game the Advanced Placement English language test, one of the 38 subject areas in which the College Board, a private company, sells high school students a chance to take exams for college credit. By “very deeply analyzing the organizational patterns of high scoring previously released essays,” the student found, one could avoid the kind of independent analysis the A.P. language test is meant to measure. “Even though it’s kinda weird imitating other people’s styles of expression,” the Reddit poster writes, “it definitely may improve your score nonetheless because you’d be writing exactly as they want you to.”

At Colby College, where I teach, we don’t accept A.P. English Literature for credit or for placement, nor does Colby’s Writing Program accept A.P. English Language in lieu of the college’s first-year writing course (W1), which all matriculating students are required to take. But many students arrive here and elsewhere having taken A.P. classes; in 2022, the College Board boasts, roughly 1.2 million students took more than four million A.P. exams in public high schools throughout the country. And when I teach a first-year writing course, or an introductory course in the English major, I inevitably spend the first few weeks undoing the damage the A.P. system does to how students understand both writing and the study of literature.

The damage is familiar to college faculty across disciplines: writing as a form of Frankfurtian bullshit for which it’s more important to be superficially convincing than rigorous or factually correct; the study of literature as exercise in literary device-hunting, a trick-mirror image of literary formalism from 75 years ago. If you want to ruin an English professor’s mood, just say “logos, pathos, and ethos,” which show up every year in a preponderance of first-year student essays, regardless of subject matter. In more concrete terms, the A.P. English exams make it harder for college faculty to teach students how to write for the rhetorical situations they’ll actually face—such as writing the City Council to get a dangerous intersection fixed or explaining to a co-worker what’s misleading about a client’s data visualization—and how to engage with literature for a lifetime rather than for a mark meant to exempt them from college-level work.

As Annie Abrams documents in Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students, the choice not to accept A.P. English and other A.P. exams for credit or placement is the norm at highly selective colleges and universities, like Colby, in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, the Ivy League, and at other perennial targets of the nation’s most privileged high school students. Private academies that aim to place their students in highly selective colleges and universities also eschew A.P. in favor of a more substantive and autonomous curriculum.

The result is that, although the A.P. program is meant to create egalitarian pathways to a rigorous and rewarding education, it ends up encouraging still more rote learning—especially in less privileged high schools—replicating the system it was meant to replace. Today’s A.P. system may purport to scale advanced learning opportunities beyond the elite, to give as many students as possible a chance at college-level work in high school, but what it really teaches is which boxes to tick so you don’t have to do college-level work in a given subject. What’s supposed to be the beginning of inquiry too often becomes its ending.

A.P. emerged in the mid-twentieth century, in the wake of World War II, when many of the nation’s leaders had an eye on how to reform education to promote democracy. Harvard president James Conant, among others, was an influential proponent of “general education,” which Abrams tells us was a synonym for a “liberal education” that was “soulful, democratic, and multidimensional.” Gordon Chalmers, then president of Kenyon College, wanted education reform as, in Abrams’ words, a “response to concerns about the Korean War, Communism, and increased demands for a well-educated polity.” Chalmers partnered with the Ford Foundation to promote “intellectualism and individualism” as twinned public goods, providing institutional and financial backing to committees to study education reform.

One such body, the Blackmer Committee, was initiated by Andover headmaster John Kemper after lunch with popular Andover English teacher Alan Blackmer. The goal was to figure out how best to coordinate between schools and colleges. One of Kemper’s suggestions was that “schools could take full responsibility for liberal arts, while colleges could focus on specialization.” Another was to “somehow shrink the last two years of high school and four years of college into four years total.” In 1951, Andover would join a group of prestigious schools and colleges—Exeter and Lawrenceville, along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—as part of a study of the relationship between school and college curricula.

From the beginning, Abrams shows, A.P. was explicitly designed to serve the most advanced and elite students. “The program was more concerned with reproducing habits of mind in the emerging ruling class,” Abrams writes, “than it was with understanding the American education system as a mechanism for rapid social restructuring.” Hence the schools and colleges in the inaugural study were a sampling of the most elite institutions. And the final report of the Blackmer Committee explains its intentions to improve education from the top down, starting with the most elite with the hope that the benefits would ultimately extend further through the system: “We believe in the ‘Jacksonian’ ideal of extending the benefits of education as far down the scale of ability as it is possible,” the authors declared. “But our task in the present study is to emphasize the ‘Jeffersonian’ concept of the right of every able student to the best education from which he is capable of profiting.… While we have tried to outline a program of study which would offer all students of college caliber a better education, we have been particularly concerned about the superior student.”   

. . . .

The first of Abrams’s two major theses, then, is that the reality of A.P. today—mechanistic, superficial, increasingly delivered through an artificially paced, software-forward program, and with too many constraints on those trying to teach it—neither democratizes elite education nor achieves any of the liberal humanist ideals of its founders. One of those founders, Henry Bragdon, wrote in 1968, “Tests too often encourage bad pedagogy,” therefore “teachers should emancipate themselves from the tyranny of testing-cum-grades and try to evolve a variety of intellectual exercises in which grading is subordinated to training in reading, writing, discourse, methods of inquiry, and critical thought.”

Today, however, the A.P. test score is the alpha and omega of students’ experience with A.P. coursework, with lesson plans and pacing shoehorned into test-preparation packages dictated by the College Board.

. . . .

From my experience as an English professor, I think Abrams is right to raise concerns about this system. Most of the damage control I have to do in my introductory college courses involves disabusing students of the truisms they learned from a test-driven A.P. curriculum. One is that writing is a “soft” exercise of rhetorical flourish in which factual accuracy, sound reasoning, research and data-gathering, and appropriate treatment of evidence don’t matter. Another is that literature is purely subjective, so literature’s facts—whether contextual or within the fictional world of a novel or a play—don’t matter; a text is just a prompt for expressing your opinions. 

One problem with such impressions is they reinforce for students the false notion that studying literature or history—or forming an argument in writing—is neither real nor applicable analytical work; that it doesn’t matter if you read carefully or develop a knowledge base that informs what you’re studying and what you get out of it. A more serious problem is that, emptied of the stakes of being right or wrong, accountable or not, there’s no joy in studying something that seems pointless. You write “exactly as they want you to,” you tick the box, you move on. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

. . . .

Broad-based access to quality higher education is both essential and extremely complicated to achieve. A.P. was not designed for such challenges—certainly not the ones we face today—and there’s no good reason to empower it with such influence over high school and college curricular decisions.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

The Liberating Arts

From The Wall Street Journal:

Higher education in the 21st century has been marked by a series of financial and existential crises. The great recession of 2007-08 raised difficult choices about which programs universities should invest in and which should be targeted for elimination. Generally when universities need to tighten their belts, liberal-arts disciplines are among the first to find themselves in the crosshairs, and at that point traditional disciplines like classics, philosophy, history and art have already begun to contract. Students, administrations believe, vote with their feet: If consumer demand is absent, universities respond not by supporting a curriculum they know is formative and valuable but by giving their customers what they say they want.

Once universities adjusted and recovered from the great recession, the 2020 Covid pandemic blindsided them. This disruption, including the long period where professors were out of the classroom, prompted a group of Christian humanists, many of whom teach in small liberal-arts colleges, to contemplate the value of the liberal-arts education they’ve spent their careers providing. The timing was auspicious—political movements that arose after the murder of George Floyd were calling for the decolonization of syllabi, and the #DisruptTexts movement began to associate classic texts with white supremacy. Many administrators, meanwhile, adopted the argument that liberal arts are a luxury that cannot be afforded in times of austerity. The liberal arts were under fire from all sides.

One result of that moment was a series of conversations, begun informally and then organized through videoconferences and supported by a grant, which has resulted in a collection of essays, “The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education,” edited by Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson and David Henreckson. Fourteen of its contributors are professors, five are administrators, two are students, and four are writers who are friendly to the liberal arts. The essays are organized as a series of responses to common critiques: Do we need this sort of education? Is it a waste of time? Is it racist?

As dean of an honors college explicitly dedicated to liberal learning through the study of classic texts, I find myself mostly in agreement with the vision of higher education put forward here. I agree with David Henreckson that the liberal arts are not mere skills or techniques but a way of life that allows human beings to flourish. I find myself nodding along when Zena Hitz argues that liberal learning has fundamentally to do with leisure, the cultivation of habits of contemplation and reflection that allow us to pursue the highest human activities. And I could not be more thrilled to read Brandon McCoy’s argument that “the goal of education should be to create liberated persons who seek to examine life in its fullness, to enjoy friendships with others, and to foster the health of their communities.”

But I’m not the one who needs convincing. It is noteworthy that the book’s most compelling arguments for learning as truly liberating do not come from professors or administrators but from students and readers outside the university. For example, Sean Sword speaks movingly about his incarceration; Calvin University’s Prison Initiative, he tells us, offers a way in which “the liberal arts play a key role in the prisoner’s restoration to society.” In a similar vein, the testimony from students in the Odyssey Project, which brings “great works” courses in literature, philosophy, art and history to low-income adults, 95% of them from communities of color, is compelling and inspirational. Angel Adams Parham speaks movingly of her work with the Nyansa Classical Community, a program founded to bring classical learning and literature to young people of diverse backgrounds, especially from the African diaspora.

When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern—the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG has been increasingly bothered by the inflation of tuition and fees at a great many colleges and universities in the United States.

The idea that going into serious debt will be made right by increased earning power resulting from learning almost anything from higher education institutions can be financially dangerous if the graduate is unable or unwilling to take a remunerative job upon graduation.

In the United States, student loans are generally not subject to discharge in a bankruptcy proceeding, one of a small number of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Suppose someone buys a house or a car that turns out to be more costly than they can afford due to job loss or other financial setbacks. In that case, bankruptcy law will extinguish those obligations entirely or allow the debtor to pay a portion of the debt if the debtor can do so.

Ditto for large medical bills and nearly all other financial mistakes or mishaps. PG wonders why borrowing for college costs (in reasonable or outsized amounts) should be privileged over healthcare or other non-discretionary debts an individual is likely to incur.

PG admits that some of his attitudes result from his experience in college,, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in an impractical subject that did almost nothing to prepare him for any sort of job available in a large city.

If he had not graduated when employers needed many employees who seemed likely candidates to be trained in a subject of which they were utterly ignorant, PG would have been in a bad way financially.

New PEN America Report Documents Surge in ‘Educational Intimidation’ Bills

From Publishers Weekly:

Since 2021, PEN America has documented the rise of state laws that have sought to directly censor books and curricula in schools and libraries under the guise of “parental rights.” But a new report released this week documents the rise of a new wave of state legislation designed to force librarians and educators to self-censor.

The report, Educational Intimidation: How ‘Parental Rights’ Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn, tracks the introduction of nearly 400 bills across the nation that target the work of professional teachers, librarians, and school administrators. But unlike the more direct “educational gag orders” that PEN America has previously tracked (bills and policies that directly ban what can be taught in schools and libraries), these “educational intimidation” bills, a number of which have passed and become law, lead to censorship in schools through more indirect mechanisms, such as requiring opt outs for certain lessons or creating new standards to evaluate and challenge books.

“Fear is the new watchword in public education,” the report bluntly states. “While transparency for public institutions and the promotion of parental involvement in schools are common sense propositions, these bills have an ulterior motive driving them: to empower a vocal and censorship-minded minority with greater opportunity to scrutinize public education and intimidate educators with threats of punishment.”

The report looks at the history and organizations behind this new wave of bills, and offers a “comprehensive taxonomy” of recent efforts, including an Index of Educational Intimidation Bills that shows the variety of laws being employed. These include burdensome inspection provisions for classrooms, teachers, and libraries; opt outs that essentially create an “à la carte” curriculum; “harmful to minors” laws that expand what is considered “obscene,” often with provisions that criminalize librarians and educators who violate these vague new definitions; and a host of anti-DEI and anti-LGBTQ+ measures and “parental rights enforcement mechanisms,” like tip lines.

As an example, the report tells of an art teacher in Tennessee who no longer teaches Frida Kahlo or Keith Haring because the state’s recently passed HB 529 requires teachers to alert parents to any LGBTQ+ content so they can withdraw their children from the lesson. The report also notes recently enacted laws in nine states that require educators to notify parents of any changes to their child’s gender expression or sexual orientation.

The report points to three “principal dangers” from the rise of these “educational intimidation” laws: They “spur self-censorship” by making instruction more burdensome, costly, or risky; they make schools “a less welcoming place for students to freely express themselves,” especially for LGBTQ+ students, who are often targeted by such laws; and, such laws empower a handful of parents (and in some cases one parent) to “make decisions about what can be taught or read,” at a school or in a library, thus “disempowering” the majority of parents” in favor of a vocal minority.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

How illiteracy silenced my father

From Unherd:

The signs were there throughout his entire life that my father could not write. I can see them now but only with the benefit of hindsight and only when it is far too late. In fairness, he hid them well. He was an old-school stoic and there are many things a man, particularly of my father’s time, could conceal behind a beard, a host of tattoos, and silence. “Still waters run deep” my mother would say of him, or “It’s the quiet ones you have to watch” at other, more apprehensive, moments.

Some of the signs seem obvious now. A heartfelt but garbled message he’d chalked for my mother’s birthday before he left for work. How he would hover around, very slowly and subtly, trying to get us, his primary school-age children, to fill in forms he needed. In terms of boundless curiosity and the vastness of his references, from the intricacies of Brehon Law to the Latin names for plants to obscure battles of the Second World War, he was perhaps the smartest man I’ve ever met. And yet he carried the burden of illiteracy, silently, since he was a boy. Were I not his son in terms of unsentimental temperament, it would break my heart to think about.

In the end, there was no space to hide it any longer, no room left to evade or disguise. It was silence itself that revealed the condition. Unexpectedly and brutally stricken with Covid, my father ended up critically ill in ICU. Breathing via a ventilator and tracheostomy, it was impossible for him to talk. When the nurses approached him with pen and paper, and then an alphabet chart to point at in order to communicate, he waved them away. At first, they thought it was intransigence, but it soon became clear what the real issue was. Though an avid reader, he could not spell even the simplest of words.

For the next six months, they tried their best to understand him at his bedside, as did we; attempting, on glitching video calls, to read his lips. Due to the facial necrosis he suffered when they had laid him in the prone position to initially save his life, there wasn’t a great deal to read. In my weaker moments now, waking in the blue hours of night for instance, I feel haunted by the one word he mouthed that I could unmistakably make out — “home”, a place to which he never managed to return.

Since then, I have sought to understand the origin of my father’s illiteracy, which has led me deeper and deeper into the issue itself. Though I have worked in schools and witnessed, first-hand, children who struggled or were left behind, I hadn’t fully appreciated the immense scale of the issue. In global terms, according to UNICEF: “Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.” The OECD has found that one in six adults in England, over seven million people, “have very poor literacy skills”. Though studies differ in measuring terms, they do point to literacy difficulties being even more prevalent in Scotland (one in four people) and Northern Ireland (one in five). The Treasury’s Leitch Review of Skills in 2006 aired on the conservative estimate that “one seventh (five million) are not functionally literate”. In truth, the numbers vary and are frequently contested but all the studies suggest that millions of lives are profoundly impacted.

Why, then, is there such silence on the issue? One reason is the marginalisation of those who are affected; chief among whom are children, a group who can’t advocate for themselves, and, in particular, poor children. According to the Department of Education in 2019, 65% of children leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics, meaning that 35% will not.

Poverty plays a massive part in this, coupled with lack of resourcing, social exclusion, familial cycles of deprivation and so on. In 2019, End Child Poverty claimed there were 4.3 million children (30%) living in poverty in Britain. The correlation between poverty and illiteracy comes up again and again, both additionally linked to mortality. The National Literacy Trust’s findings in their Literacy and life expectancy study are staggering and scandalous: “A boy born in Stockton Town Centre (which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country) has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford (which has some of the fewest literacy challenges).” The issue casts a shadow over entire, foreshortened lifespans.

Economics go a long way in terms of explanation, but aren’t the only factor. Instead, we face a complex tapestry of failings and unmet needs that suggest negligence at best and, at worst, the wilful discarding of swathes of the population in terms of class, geography, demographics and so on. End Child Poverty has pointed out that “46% of children from black and minority ethnic families are growing up in poverty, compared with 26% of children in white British families”. Meanwhile, a 2018 government study of Year One pupils in England who have met the expected standards in phonics, one of the building blocks of literacy, found attainment by children from Roma and Irish Traveller backgrounds to be around half that of every other demographic (roughly 40% compared to 80%+). Between the groups are disadvantaged/working-class white boys, with 62% meeting the standard. Many groups are being let down in different though related ways. A society can be judged by how it treats its young. Children do not fail but rather are failed.

. . . .

There are always outcomes to consider. In 2009, KPMG declared that: “Low levels of literacy undermine the UK’s economic competitiveness, costing the taxpayer [up to] £2.5 billion every year.” In some ways, the possibilities are even worse than they were in my father’s day. At least he had the refuge of almost-entirely manual labour to move into. Most jobs now require a degree of literacy, with the digital revolution spreading into every aspect of life. The DCMS No Longer Optional report claimed digital skills were essential for two thirds of occupations, including 77% of so-called “low-skill jobs”. The WEF indicate the issue will only get worse, with many at risk of being left behind: “In the future, nine out of ten jobs will require digital skills, yet today 44% of Europeans aged 16-74 lack even basic digital abilities.” Employers are already feeling the deficit. In 2013, the CBI’s Changing the pace study found 32% of employers were dissatisfied with the literacy levels of young people, while a BIS report in 2016 found that “one in eight (12%) workplaces in England report a literacy and/or numeracy gap whereby at least one member of staff is unable to perform certain literacy… tasks to the level required in their day-to-day job”. While enlightening, statistics and particularly the managerial approach to society may be part of the problem, however. We need, instead, to look at the cost from a human level.

The issue is exponential and cyclical, something akin to a phenomenon called “the Drowning Machine”, which requires some explanation. My father worked for the council and though his role as a gardener-groundsman was a largely peaceful horticultural one, it involved the use of heavy machinery; equipment that could, if one were not careful, result in the loss of an eye or a finger, the permanent damaging of one’s back, and so on. One of the methods employed by managers, to underline the need for health, safety and endless vigilance, was to show the crew footage that would sear into their minds. My father would come home, take off his Hi Vis vest and boots, shake his head and say to my mother: “Christ, you wouldn’t believe what we watched in work today.” Then, thinking he was out of earshot of his kids, he would relate the real-life video horrors they’d witnessed of the Bradford City stadium fire, footage of some poor factory worker being sucked into a machine or sinking into a silo. I was a curious child, of a slightly morbid disposition, so my ears pricked up at each pitiful and graphic description.

Link to the rest at Unherd