Life, Liberty, and Advanced Placement for All




THE COLLEGE BOARD website reports that over the last 10 years, the number of students who took Advanced Placement exams rose by 65 percent. More than 1.24 million students in the class of 2018 — 38.9 percent of American high school seniors — took at least one exam. Why have these tests become staples of American high school education?

In her 2016 book Reading Children, Patricia Crain offers a framework for understanding the relationship between American political identity and education. “[F]rom the revolutionary generation on,” she writes, “children were seen to be raised in an environment alive with the Lockean idea that their own persons and, hence, the argument goes, freedom and capacity for consent were theirs by natural right.” In theory, American education aligns with Lockean values: readers’ minds are cultivated to be too dynamic and capacious for captivity. 

At the onset of the Cold War, the AP program grew out of educators’ impulse to look to Enlightenment-era ideals for the protection of democratic principles from the threat of communism. A committee of six — teachers representing Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville, and professors from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — worked together to develop a plan for improving the quality and efficiency of liberal education. Their report, General Education In School and College, puts plainly its allegiance to Lockean ideals of self-possession: “Individual persons are ends in themselves,” they wrote in justification of their project. “Liberal education and the democratic ideal are related to each other in a thousand ways. It is not too much to say that they stand and fall together.” Literacy training cultivates subjectivity instead of land and, in so doing, makes readers’ minds their most valuable property. It keeps them from being dispossessed.

Beyond liberal education’s potential to protect individual liberty, the committee understood its promotion as a civic responsibility. Adhering to the technocratic mandate to mobilize the nation’s “best and brightest” in the fight for democracy, Andover’s John Kemper presented the AP program in just these terms: “Boys from the best independent schools often report that their early courses in college are repetitious and dull […] It looks as though the country might no longer be able to afford the waste involved in the transition from school to college, especially for gifted and well-trained boys.” Although literacy has long been an instrument for empowerment and what we today call social mobility, by design, the committee’s initial vision for the program was cleanly reductive, protecting the integrity of American culture by apportioning scarce resources to the deserving few.

But Lockeanism and technocracy are not the only values embedded in this ever-growing program. The AP tests are overdetermined by liberal ideology from the 18th to mid-20th century — much of which fails to account for the diverse needs of 21st-century American students. Allusions to Thomas Jefferson, for example, are scattered throughout General Education in School and College. Most pointedly, the committee declares:

We believe in the “Jacksonian” ideal of extending the benefits of education as far down the scale of ability as it is possible; and as teachers we often spend the greater part of our time with the poorer students. But our task in the present study is to emphasize the “Jeffersonian” conception of the right of every able student to the best education from which he is capable of profiting.

Here, the names in quotation marks read like euphemisms. The committee’s original purpose was to ensure equity only in the Jeffersonian sense — with a nod to the existence of an invisible underlying hierarchy of intelligence that a meritocratic educational system could reveal.

Jefferson laid out his plan for education in his (rejected) Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1779). The phrase “diffusion of knowledge” appears frequently in early American writings on education. Washington, Adams, and Jackson all used it. For them, enlightenment was a scarce resource, produced and stored centrally and then filtered throughout the nation. Locke’s ideal plan for the education of “gentlemen’s sons” — the “best and brightest” of the 18th century — relied on individual tutors to give pupils “a sense of what is worthy and becoming” since schools diluted the “constant attention and particular application to every single boy” that high-quality education requires. By customizing a curriculum to meet the needs of a small, specific demographic, cutting “waste” from the liberal arts curriculum, and using the relatively new technology of standardized testing to quantify success, the 1952 committee hoped that a modernized education system could more efficiently equip an elite few to uphold a system in danger of descending into darkness. The new program would enlighten with the concentrated focus and intensity of a laser beam. As Locke put it in 1693, “That [population] most to be taken care of is the gentleman’s calling. For if those of that rank are by their education once set right, they will quickly bring all the rest into order.” The many would benefit from the few.

Like the 1952 committee, Jefferson was concerned with engineering “distillation” in service of eventual “diffusion.” In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), he offered a nuts-and-bolts plan for the preservation and dispersal of cultural capital, replete with mechanisms and numeric guidelines. He proposed that for every five or six square miles, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense.” Jefferson hoped that his plans would guard against aristocracy and tyranny, but conceded that, resources being limited, extended time spent in the acquisition of knowledge was the province of “those whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning.” Educational opportunity was more a matter of proportional than numerical equality for Jefferson, a precept that aligns with his concept of individual worth elsewhere in the Notes. He is committed to a racial hierarchy, for instance, describing white supremacy as an observable, objective scientific fact. The AP committee that drew inspiration and cover from his philosophy may not have shared his exact views on race, but their understanding of an implicit qualitative hierarchy of students is clear.

The committee wrote bluntly, “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.” Italics theirs. From the outset, the program was more about protecting the transmission and quality of cultural capital than it was about facilitating social mobility. The report makes no mention of race and hardly touches on class. The authors only once offer the caveat that they did want girls to benefit from their plans, but their program was a national one in a very narrow sense.

Andover students who reviewed General Education wrote in the school newspaper, “The tempo of our civilization does not allow for the leisurely type of education which the nineteenth century found so indispensable.” But Reading Children shows that, even in the 19th century, absent the threat of nuclear war, literacy education faced growing pains as Lockean ideals clashed with practical realities. Issues of quantity challenged concepts of quality, as churches and state and local governments acknowledged the need to teach poor, nonwhite residents of the continent how to read and write. Joseph Lancaster, an English education reformer, sold a system he designed for the London poor to American missionaries and government authorities. As Crain puts it, “Lancaster’s system promised wholesale acculturation and social control at discount prices.”

To get around the expensive, scarce resource of qualified tutors so prized in the Lockean model of education, Lancaster designed schools without regard for soul. He wrote in 1821 of his system, “In general, on the old plan of instruction, the authority of the master is merely personal […] In the army, authority is vested in the system, more than the person; the station, more than the man, commands obedience.” His manuals provide clear plans for the building of schools and the practical execution of educating the masses. Lancaster used the technology of the telegraph as a substitute for one-on-one interaction. Crain writes:

[M]uch of the promise of the system was embedded in the very terms of its promotion, communicating the soothing notion that rational principles of mechanization and manufacturing could apply to the thorny problem of education, for which organic metaphors of cultivation had long been the mainstay.

Perpetually broke and motivated by profit, Lancaster was literally invested in creating a system that appealed visually to authorities and was easily replicated. He was concerned with providing a quick, clean-sounding solution to a complicated problem of democratic education.

By contrast, the 1952 committee understood their plan for reform as bespoke:

There is no intent in what follows to call for reform of the whole educational system for the sake of a relatively small group of students […] There are many secondary schools and colleges to whom the principles and recommendations of the report will seem visionary and utterly unrelated to local realities.

They could not have known that in the coming years, the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights movement, advances in technology and data collection, A Nation At Risk, profit-minded personnel at Educational Testing Service and the College Board, and a maelstrom of reforms would turn their program into what it has become.

The committee’s original goal was to keep education challenging, lively, meaningful, and in turn, civically responsible. The epigraph to the 1952 study reads, “In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed.” This sentence’s author, Alfred North Whitehead, was a British mathematician, philosopher, and education reformer. In the same speech on education reform from which the authors of the study chose their guiding words, Whitehead said, “[T]he uniform external examination is deadly. We do not denounce it because we are cranks, and like denouncing established things. We are not so childish […] Our reason of dislike is very definite and very practical. It kills the best part of culture.” Whitehead believed that assessments should grow directly out of conversations between teachers and students — that they should reflect the vital relationships at the heart of the experience that give it meaning. Currently, however, the exams have the potential to distort the program’s original purpose and turn courses into rigidly Lancasterian displays of discipline, rules, and mechanical operations.

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If 38.9 percent of last year’s graduating class took AP courses, what percentage of teachers’ curricula were redefined by the program? Preparing students for high-stakes standardized tests can be, but is not necessarily, the same thing as teaching them that learning can be joyful, empowering, and liberating. Equal scores do not indicate equal outcomes if students leave courses with vastly different understandings of what thinking looks like and how to do it depending on a teacher’s decision to drill to the test.

Standardization sounds like a path to equity, but wealthy private schools are pulling out of the AP program in favor of independently designed courses. In an editorial to the Washington Post last year titled “Our Schools Will Get Rid of AP Courses. Here’s Why,” eight heads of Washington-area private schools listed among their reasons that they were hoping to “encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning,” “by capitalizing on the talents of our superb teachers and resources.” Seniors at Sidwell Friends, which boasts Malia Obama and Chelsea Clinton as alums, can now choose from among 11 carefully curated English electives instead of APs. These Lockean principles — cultivating students’ own talents and interests, valuing skilled teachers — were at the core of the original vision for the AP program. If removing the AP designation from the course descriptions doesn’t invalidate the quality of the offerings at private schools, what does its presence in public schools ensure?

The Lockean model of education still exists, but the AP program now dictates the limits of its development in public schools. Standardized exams serve as an accountability measure. Crain writes of the anxiety produced by reading instruction in the late 18th century:

[L]iteracy lacks substance; it has nothing to offer but the paper it’s written on, a promise of unspecified bounty. It’s true no one can take it away from you, but chances are you can’t trade it in for anything. And what does it amount to once you have it? It’s hard to say; certainly it’s famously hard to quantify.

But for many high school students, their families, and their teachers, quantification is easy: a 3 on the English Language or Literature APs potentially represents thousands of dollars in tuition if students choose to attend a college that recognizes scores for credit. Exam scores also appear to provide concrete answers to a complicated set of questions about how a year’s worth of time teaching and learning translates into possession. In some ways, drilling to the test is the most socially responsible way to teach underprivileged students, even if their experiences are less intellectually meaningful and teachers compromise their autonomy and authority. But, in direct contradiction of the program’s founding ideals and the current education of the privileged, the unspoken collateral may be that students learn that learning is about submission, not empowerment.

Crain concludes by arguing that one defining feature of 19th-century childhood — time spent reading — was a romanticized form of imaginative play. The current data-driven impulse to find the “best and brightest” beyond Locke’s “gentlemen’s sons” aligns with the best of the American political tradition. But the standardization, mechanization, and quantification the process unthinkingly reinforces a Jeffersonian definition and hierarchy of “talent” and worth.

Focusing on demographic data at the expense of attention to individual students aligns with a model of education that values profit and control over cultivation and trust, and with a political climate that undervalues process and quality. Contexts for reading matter. The context of the Advanced Placement English exams — multiple choice reading comprehension questions to be “decoded” and three timed essays that require strategy to surmount — has the potential to introject students with the notion that reading and writing are activities devoid of subjectivity. The political implications are disturbing.

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Annie Abrams teaches and writes in New York. Her website is annie-abrams.com.


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