AP World History (Ancient)

The College Board received push back a couple of weeks ago when it announced changes to the AP World History curriculum, making the course begin in 1450. Critics online gnashed their teeth about a number of things, raising the legitimate concern that this would further marginalize the pre-modern world and that the chosen date, such that it meant anything, would default to a Euro-centric world view. The board responded this week by announcing that the new date is 1200, not 1450. Critics gnashed their teeth, albeit also in befuddlement at the seemingly arbitrary date.

(For what it is worth, the College Board’s stated explanation for the date, that it will allow “a study of the civilizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia,” does check out. Now Genghis Khan, Mansa Musa, and the rise of the Aztecs all fall within the range. 1200 starts the course in media res, but that was inevitable when you put a start-date on a course.)

Reading the College Board’s announcement about the changes, I am of two minds. First, I am sympathetic when they say, based on the feedback from teachers that the current model is unsustainable because they are trying to do too much.

The current AP World History course and exam attempt to cover 10,000 years of human history—from the Paleolithic Era to the present. In contrast, colleges manage the unique breadth of world history by spreading the content across multiple courses.

The announcement is a little misleading when it says what college courses do and do not do—I did have a World History from the beginning of time to 1960 course in college—but, from the other side of the table, these broad strokes courses are incredibly hard to teach. Even “just” teaching a world history or Western Civilization before 1500 is covering a laughably enormous swathe of time, which is also the reason I have no pity for the US history professors who complain that there needs to be another mitotic division of their survey sequence, taking it from two to three courses. It has, however, been my position for a while that if I were made Grand Poobah of History Curriculum, I would invert the current paradigm and only teach the survey courses after students had been exposed to historical methods in specialized courses. The idea here is that by going from the specific to the general rather than the reverse, the students are better prepared to appreciate historiographical arguments and big themes.

The problem with this approach is that it is not scale-able as part of a standard test scheme meant to grant college credit. The situation the College Board finds itself in is quite the bind. It needs a single survey course to stand as a substitute for a college course because fragmenting the courses would neuter its ability to be a standard test and therefore undermine credibility. At the same time, the enormity of the course makes it difficult to teach the material in such a way that prepares the students to succeed at the work asked of them on the test. I don’t love this incentive structure with regard to student testing, but given the incentive structure in college courses I at least understand it. Moreover, in looking at old sample questions, the test itself isn’t bad in terms of the skills it is designed to measure. But it is also a lot. Obviously something needs to change.

This does not, however, mean that I agree with the changes the College Board made. My main issue is the decision to prioritize modernity, particularly because the AP European History, which starts in 1450, has already done the same thing. At this point I could start declaiming, ridiculing the absurdity of teaching a world history course that takes for granted the miracle that is agriculture, that conveniently forgets that Rome laid the groundwork for modern Europe, or that doesn’t bother trying to understand the founding and development of *any* of the world’s major religions. Yes, there are a couple of things that happened after 1200 (or 1400) that are important, but these are all built on precedents and developments that came before.

The college board has put out that it is open to creating a second AP World History (Ancient) course, which, despite the awkwardness of the name (congratulations, Richard I of England, you’re an ancient king!), is a fine ambition. But here is the thing: I am skeptical of how quickly yet another AP course can be developed and instituted, let alone how widely it would be picked up. Things have changed since I was in high school, but when I was coming up I didn’t even have access to one AP World History course, let alone two. I got my start with classes on all things ancient through my Latin teacher. Now I am fortunate enough to teach ancient history to college students and am consistently impressed with how many students from all sorts of disciplines come out to take my classes.

Maybe I am wrong and this interest will prompt dedicated high school teachers to make the second course come to fruition, but in the meantime I cannot help but think of this as a missed opportunity on the part of the College Board. There had to be a change to the AP World History course, but instead of even temporarily erasing antiquity, it should have kept the earlier portions, perhaps as an AP World History (Foundations), and developed (Modern) as the secondary offering.

Some Thoughts Concerning Contemporary Education

The assigned reading this week for the class in which I am a TA included several selections from John Locke, among them excerpts from his 1693 “Some thoughts concerning education.” In this piece, Locke argues that children need to be guided, encouraged, tempered, and, at times, disciplined, but that too much rigidity or punishment creates a “slavish” temperament. He calls the rod a lazy form of punishment that causes the student to study or learn out of fear and that it “breeds an aversion to that which it is the tutor’s business to creating a liking to.” Locke also calls for different education for different people, ostensibly because people learn at different rates and it is not necessary for everyone to know Latin. [1]

For their weekly discussion question, I asked my students to consider Locke’s proposals about education in relation to their own experiences. For a variety of reasons, I received fewer responses than usual this week and some of those responses got bogged down in the curriculum proposals rather than those about the educational theory. Some of the more insightful responses (paraphrased) were:

  1. Locke might be frustrated with the expedience of shipping kids to school because a one-size-fits-all approach will result in less efficient learning, particularly for students who learn slower and faster than “normal.”
  2. Children should not be coerced into study, but encouraged to be actively engaged. As such, students should be engaged in conversation, not lectured at. [2]
  3. Over-regulation and over-obedience results in people of slave-ish temperament, which is ill-suited for an engaged member of society. This is a tenet at least paid lip service to in education today.
  4. There should be (at least some) emphasis on skills of various sorts. [3]

The thing that jumped out at me in this exercise was the role of the teacher. The teacher’s job, according to Locke, is not just to inscribe trivia onto the mind of the students, but to give skills and interest in the subject so that the students can become engaged citizens. To wit, there are only so many hours that one can read for an English class in school, but someone who learns to love reading in school will continue to read later in life.

When the emphasis is on how well one performs on a canned test or testing the ability to produce cliched, hackneyed short essays after idly doodling through hours of lectures rather than engaging with material, it is an exercise in futility. Students are not conditioned to fear the rod or the lash, but they are equally conditioned. The topics in class are associated with drudgery that leads up to a test and so students want to know what will be on the test and what the answer is–they would just rather you skip the boring part. Of course, teachers are then evaluated on how well students perform on those tests, creating a vicious circle.

More than three hundred years have gone by and new expediencies have produced a similar result in education. Lectures, blue-book exams, standardized tests, these are all expediencies created in a world with large numbers of people and even more paperwork. Locke called the rod a lazy tool, but these new tools are not necessarily borne of sloth, but perhaps mechanization or standardization and the effects are just as insidious. I got the sense that some of my students thought I was being pedantic when I said that Locke has relevance and isn’t just another boring dead white guy rolling around in his grave. I may have been falling victim to the type of trap Locke lamented, but I wasn’t kidding.


[1] This is a somewhat gross exaggeration since Locke actually divides the curriculum by social class rather than just by ability. His divisions could still be applicable, though, if one were to assume that, regardless of actual class, there are underlying characteristics that map onto what Locke calls class. It likely behooves someone going into a trade to learn Spanish, for instance, while Latin may only be helpful for a smaller segment of the population. Of course everyone should learn Gree…oh, that is a personal picadillo? Nevermind, then.

[2] I find this answer simultaneously accurate, frustrating, and ironic since conversation is a great way to learn, but the standard for many college courses, including this one, is a lecture, and then it is at times excruciating to get the students to actually converse when given the opportunity, as if the discussion needs to be coerced.

[3] The student believed that this is something education today does emphasize to a degree, but disagreed with the idea that manual skills should be included because not everyone will need to use e.g. carpentry.

Standardized Tests and Exit Exams

Early in the ’03-’04 school year I was a senior in high school, class president and somewhere along the line I heard that I was supposed to attend student council meetings among my ‘duties’. I recall going to just one meeting: I sat on a table at the rear of the room as we were joined by members of the school board. The topic that day was standardized tests as Hazen Union had performed unacceptably and was close to losing funding under No Child Left Behind. We talked about the testing and ways to improve the scores, though I mostly railed against standardized tests at all, citing their ludicrous nature and how abysmally set up they were, especially in teaching to the test rather than teaching how to learn. In retrospect, I was really not helpful that afternoon.

The verdict was that students had no conception of why they were taking the tests, just that they were. Since early in elementary school the teachers had emphasized that the tests did not matter, which is not the same thing as not receiving a grade.1 Long story short, a group from the council was to have a discussion with each class about trying hard on the test, and I was volunteered to lead it.2 Thankfully it never actually happened, and now the high school is on some list of best high schools in the country, so ‘crisis’ averted. Now I am sure there are great teachers there, but considering the number of great teachers who have since retired or left for other reasons, I find it hard to fathom that the school went from the chopping block to highly esteemed in so few years.3

It seems odd to reminisce about this episode six years down the line and half a continent away, but today I read an article on the New York Times website about the continued proliferation of high school exit exams in the face of criticism–and more to come. Find the article here.

While I do not believe that decisions are made arbitrarily or maliciously on a large scale, they may still be misguided. Really three issues emerge: first the value of standardized tests, second the value of standardized exit exams, third the purpose of schools.

1) Standardized tests are made to ensure that every student is learning a certain amount, which is an enviable goal, but ultimately restricts teachers from teaching. Instead there is a situation where the powers that be decide what needs to be learned. In the humanities this is even more exaggerated since it often falls to rote memorization or simple narrative to make sure that the kids know what they need to know to perform on demand. Naturally funding is tied to these tests.

Of course the most gain to be had in those fields where testing names, dates, etc, is taking place is inherently in their flexibility. The chance for teachers to deviate from merely a time-line and engage students, or go beyond the novels deemed useful, but not too controversial, to engage the students, expose them to something new and teach them to think–rather the opposite from brainwashing, or nap-time.

This is just the current gripe, and while they are also a waste of time, the list could keep going on and on.

2) As bad as standardized tests are, exit exams are worse, and this is the focus of the article. A common effect of these exams is that dropout rates increase as students are held back by the district. Now at some level it may be good, and any system of grades that includes an ‘F’ equivalent and yet forces the students to be there until a certain age will hold some back, but exit exams increase that percentage as a second filter beyond the classes grades appears. The first problem here is that it inherently assumes that the teachers are unable to deal with students who do not keep up. The assumption adds to that of other standardized tests, only is an across the board assessment of those teachers, every year, soon to be kindergarten through high school.4

The more pressing issue in all of this is that exit exams are being simplified to make sure that most students can pass the tests. This defeats the purpose of the tests.

If, as claimed, these tests will ensure that high schoolers are ready for college, and that the powers that be decided that kids need to know a certain amount of information before graduating, then that is what they need to know. Reducing the standards because the education system did not rise to the expectations makes the test a waste of time and money, while keeping the standards and holding more students back admits failure of the education. In either situation the tests make no sense at all.

Either there needs to be continued evaluation of coursework, participation, and the rest of the traditional barometers of grading in each individual subject, or a single test at the end. Doubling them up makes the traditional grades moot, unless the students must first jump through those hoops to even take the exit examination.

3) In their work Who Killed Homer?, classicist John Heath and historian Victor Davis Hanson suggested that modern education pounds people into one broad mold, which continually restricts as people fall away until a select few academic masochists with no perceivable teaching skills emerge with PhD’s, everyone else choosing a point of this road to stop. Their suggestion, much in line with vocational schools and some college programs is that schools must teach skills, not just books. Traditional education usually consisted of skill training for most of the population, while only a select group even did academic work up through high school.

A re-division of society along those lines is too extreme and entirely infeasible, but merits thought. The goal of public high school education is college preparation, a rounded course of education that will enable students to succeed in college. Yet not all of those students will go to college, so the school must also teach this rounded skill set to those students, averaging out what curriculum is expected.

Everyone should know basic history, be able to read, write and do arithmetic, but academics is not for everyone. Once beyond the capacity to perform those functions, the more important task is to engage the students,5 push creativity and interest, which is only inhibited by making these students jump through ever increasing hoops.

As a quick aside, standardized tests basically ensure that schools cannot reasonably teach history to its fullest. A good teacher can still get students excited by the topic, but the beauty of it is how versatile history is towards promoting thinking. Anyone who knows how to research can learn that the Declaration of Independence was July 4, 1776, or that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, but without reading too much into the situations, both mark times and situations when people stood up and threw down tyranny and government overreach.

If only it were that easy for school reform.

1 Though I have heard some stories from my mother about my early schooling that make this oversight look quite good in comparison.
2 Yes, someone else volunteered me.
3 Those distinctions were based somewhat on different criteria, but not wholly.
4 Please, can someone tell me what exactly we are testing kindergartners on to let them move to first grade? I remember playing with blocks and going to time-out for throwing clay…I am not seeing much of an exit exam in all of that.
5 Incidents in middle and high school where I know I was not engaged (all during class): taping a friend to a door, napping outside in the sun, witnessing someone stapling his pants to his leg, reading kosher dietary regulations…to the class, singing little bunny foo-foo as a class to the freshmen in the next classroom, and ditching group projects to calculate how many dimples there were on a basketball (somewhere around 23,000, if I recall correctly).