Quorsum Haec?

Glenn Ricketts

The study of Latin doesn’t usually generate headlines, but a tempestas has arisen from the College Board’s decision in April 2008 to eliminate one of the two Advanced Placement (AP) exams for high school Latin students. Beginning in 2010, the remaining Latin exam will focus exclusively on Virgil, and students will no longer have the opportunity to test their mastery of Cicero, Catullus, Horace or Ovid.   

The decision seems to have come as a bolt from the blue to classicists and high school Latin teachers. The American Classical League (ACL) objected that the College Board’s decision was taken without any prior consultation, and was simply presented as a fait accompli.  More galling, the shift came not long after high school Latin curricula had been strenuously revised—in collaboration with the College Board—to synchronize the two exams with the organization’s AP Latin syllabus. As the ACL noted further in its protest to the College Board, Latin enrollments have been growing steadily, as have the number of students taking the AP exams, which have nearly doubled from 4,700 to 8,700 during the last decade. And if Latin was still only a miniscule portion of the high school curriculum and Latin students a small fraction of AP test takers, these were hardly evidences of decline. So what exactly moved the College Board to ax half of its Latin inventory? 

An initial email from the College Board to Latin teachers provided no clue. It simply declared how firmly the organization was dedicated to fostering and expanding its already robust commitment to “world language and culture programs.” Then it added that the Latin Literature AP exam was being dropped – a non sequitur, unless the College Board thinks Latin is not of this world or has no link to cultura. That was it: no mention of the recent reworking of high school curricula, no reference to pressing budgetary considerations, no hint of the decision’s genesis or the lack of advance notice to the high school teachers and students who would be affected.  Many teachers protested that, in light of the decision, the entire Latin curriculum would have to be re-oriented toward Virgil and other authors eliminated. Enrollments were likely to decline, since there would be no opportunity to receive AP college credit for studying the works included in the current Latin literature exam. Why, then, had the College Board done this?

In a word, diversity. The problem, as the College Board saw it, appears to have been that too many white kids were taking the AP Latin exams and not enough kids of other colors. 

A brief news item appearing in Education Week a short time later [Scroll down to “College Board Intends to Drop AP Programs in Four Subjects – requires subscription] quoted College Board vice president Trevor Packer, who indicated that “the decision was made principally because of demographic considerations.” The Latin Literature exam, along with Italian, French literature and Computer Science, was being dropped since “only a tiny fraction of the members of underrepresented minority groups who take AP exams take the tests in one of these four areas.”  

The College Board, the piece notes, “has made it a priority to reach such students, including those who are African-American and Hispanic.” So that’s it: No grand shift in pedagogical paradigms, no catastrophic decline in student numbers, no unavoidable concessions to fiscal restraint moved the College Board to undermine secondary school Latin instruction, just “demographics.” The word of course is a euphemism. The actual demand for the test had increased substantially and was still rising. “Demographics” in this case doesn’t mean “not enough people” but rather “the wrong kinds of people.” The College Board hides its commitment to this liberal racism under the usual rhetorical mask.   It has this to say about “equity” in its AP Report to the Nation, 2008:

The College Board believes that students of all backgrounds deserve equal preparation for AP courses. We also believe true equity is not achieved until the demographics of AP participation and performance are identical to the demographics of the entire school. This year’s Report shows the demographics of AP participation (Figure 2) and, by state, the racial/ethnic demographics of the total high school class compared to the racial/ethnic demographics of the AP cohort scoring 3 or higher on an AP Exam (Table 2). An equity and excellence gap appears whenever the percentage of underserved students achieving access to and success on AP Exams is less than the percentage of underserved students in the entire class of 2007. In other words, if 20 percent of students in the entire high school cohort are African American, true equity and excellence would not be achieved until 20 percent of the students taking AP Exams, and scoring 3 or better, are African American as well.

If this weren’t so stultifying it would be breathtaking. The College Board believes, on its own confession, that “equity” consists of exact proportionality between racial distributions and performance on exams. Is there logic, rational argument, or a recognizable standard of justice to support this? Not that we can tell. It rests entirely on a grim determination to advance political correctness. 

The ideal that “students of all backgrounds deserve equal preparation for AP courses” seems anodyne. Of course, it assumes that all students “of all backgrounds” are equally interested in attending college, and that AP exams are an unalloyed good to be enjoyed equally or at least proportionately by all. And those assumptions may themselves be open to question. 

But assuming “AP for everyone” is the ideal, how does it follow that we should ditch programs that fail to attract significant numbers of minority students?  The College Board gets to this conclusion pretty much the way colleges and universities under pressure to create Title IX equity in sports opportunities get to the decision to ditch men’s athletic teams. It is easier to create the image of “statistical balance” by jettisoning the unwanted surplus of men than by finding more and more women to play sports. For some reason, more boys than girls are interested in playing college sports, but we must by law overcome the actual preferences of students.

The College Board has seized this logic and applied it to the disparity between whites and minority students taking AP exams. No doubt the College Board would like to see more minority students take the exams, but it can move faster to the illusory goal of creating statistical parity right now by excluding would-be white test takers. 

This is not equity. It is pettiness and, in a way, a mean-spirited form of self-righteousness on the part of the College Board. To feel good about their commitment to racial justice, the College Board officials have deprived American children—all American children—of an immensely valuable educational pursuit. I can imagine an alternative. It is unrealistic, but no matter. It is worth thinking about.

 We could provide Lingua Latina semper et ubique pro omnibus (Latin always and everywhere for everyone)! Useful as it might be, universal study of Latin would run athwart the advocates of “21st Century Skills.” This is not because Latin is an ancient language, but because it is intellectually demanding. Twenty-first century “skills,” by contrast, involve things like learning how to sign on to Facebook. 

 Latin study, as a form of mental calisthenics, is a great social equalizer, since school boys the world over have universally hated it, the way footballers hate working out with mandatory wind sprints, or piano students hate struggling with arpeggios, descending chromatics and scales.  But the study of Latin produces very tangible benefits that touch many other areas, especially grammar, vocabulary, mental concentration and writing ability in English. Perseverantia vincit! 

The idea may not be as fanciful as it at first sounds. For example, Philadelphia public schools in the late 1970s conducted an experiment in which control groups of students in grades 4-6 in schools throughout the district – at all socioeconomic levels – received daily Latin instruction focused on etymology, grammatical structure and vocabulary, along with some discussion of the heritage of Rome and its influence on modern institutions, such as the American Constitutional system. Students who participated in the program, including a significant segment of the racial minorities for whom the College Board professes particular solicitude, consistently displayed higher reading comprehension scores, breadth of vocabulary and superior writing ability in English. 

The program of course was discontinued, probably as a clear and present danger to someone’s self-esteem. Success, it seems, was no defense against the ideological predilections of educational bureaucrats.   The College Board has apparently axed the AP Latin Literature exam for similarly bad reasons. Incidentally, it’s hard to imagine that any of this would meet with the approval of NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, who had mastered Aeneid at age 14, or William Sanders Scarborough, born to slavery, but a consummate classical scholar inducted into the American Philological Association early in the 20th century. The author of a popular college primer, First Lessons in Greek, Scarborough noted that the APA then “thought more of scholarship and less of prejudice; the color of a man made no difference with them. It was his standing as a scholar and as a representative of American scholarship that counted.”

That’s very sound advice for all times and seasons, but it’s unlikely to carry any weight with the College Board, where politically correct a priori  “demographics” seem to override any other considerations, similar to the New Haven Fire Department’s promotion policies now being considered by the US Supreme Court. So whether we’re studying Latin or promoting fire fighters, the same rule applies: it’s much better that no one takes the AP test or gets a promotion if the random “demographics” don’t fit pre-cut notions of “equity.” Cui Bono?

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