17 May 2009

To Rage Against the Machine or to Fight for Some Time at the Wheel?

Jane Miriam Epperson Brinley has written an interesting piece for the Washington Post on the College Board's decision to reduce the Latin AP exam to just Virgil. No more Catullus. No more Cicero. No more Horace. No more Ovid. As far as the College Board is concerned, Virgil is Latin literature.

She's frustrated, and rightly so. Her career and passion just got kicked in the teeth, was just labeled "unnecessary." As a medievalist, I feel her pain. But her response, her analysis of why this happened is way off. She comments:
In the gap created by our national reluctance to centralize education policy, the College Board, an unelected body, has ended up as the de facto Education Ministry, and when it makes decisions we have no recourse....The College Board's curriculum-setting role goes beyond the AP course itself. Latin courses for elementary schools (a growth area), middle schools and high schools will now change, and textbooks will change along with them....So long as AP exams continue to influence high school curricula and so long as financial, and not educational, imperatives seem to drive College Board decisions, we should be asking who we really want in charge of all our disciplines.
She's lamenting the lack of a centralized "Education Ministry"; leaving my objections to the Euro-centric nomenclature of "Ministry" aside, I'd respond that such an entity is problematic in its own right and isn't the magic bullet she seems to think it is. No Child Left Behind mandates a state-wide standard that all students should meet. This creates at least two unfavorable outcomes: 1) a child in Portland, Oregon will be held to a different standard than a child 10 miles away in Vancouver, Washington. 2) Children in Orange County, Compton, and Berkeley, California all must meet the same standard--even though their resources, skill levels, environments, and perhaps even goals for education will be quite different.

NCLB is a top-down approach that demands teachers "teach to the test" because that is how the so-called progress of each school will be judged. It essentially creates a centralized "Education Ministry" in the form of state bureaucracies that pretend they know what children need to learn. I cannot understand how someone living in Indianapolis, Indiana knows what a child in Tell City needs to learn--but even worse is the presumption of knowing how she needs to learn it.

Alongside the NCLB at the elementary and secondary level we also have magazines like US News & World Report shaping our universities. In 2001, Baylor University adopted what became known as the 2012 Vision which has as its goal "moving Baylor into the upper echelons of higher education." These 12 imperatives follow closely the criteria by which US News & World Report judges the so-called "Best Colleges." In fact, they look like Baylor just imported the criteria wholesale and added "with a Christian identity" to a few of them. So really, Baylor is spending a decade to get a national magazine to like it.

And Baylor hasn't even tried to hide this:
  • Larry Lyon, the head of the Graduate School was using the magazine as his benchmark when he said "The universities that are listed as top tier undergraduate universities by US News & World Report have, on average, 40 percent of their students enrolled in graduate education. We average about 12 percent."
  • In its pitch for the Bush Presidential Library the PR folks apparently thought the magazine's judgment of the university was a selling point, writing: "Over the years Baylor's academic programs have received national and international recognition through solid rankings in U.S.News and World Report and other respected publications." Baylor didn't get the Bush Presidential Library--even though it probably should have.
  • And then there is the May 2007 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that flatly states: "Baylor is clear about how it will calibrate its success...its overarching goal is to enter the top tier of institutions, as determined by U.S. News & World Report's college rankings."
So a magazine is the entity controlling the long-term direction of a major university (and I'm sure Baylor isn't the only one--which just makes it worse). What is wrong with that picture? I mean, I'd take the College Board over the US News & World Report any day of the week and twice on Sunday. What's more, neither NCLB nor US News & World Report have anything close to the sort of system of appeals that Brinley wants. And I doubt that any larger "Education Ministry" would, either.

Even if it did, it doesn't sound like Brinley could make a compelling case for keeping a more thorough Latin program. Here is her big rationale for the importance of Latin:
Latin, revered by Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders -- John Adams declaimed the speeches of Cicero, once even in a toga -- has been placed in the hands of a bunch of administrative functionaries.
I hate to be catty toward someone who's trying to work through some of the things that medievalists are facing at the university level, but this argument is not going to cut it. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams loved Latin? OK...great. What have you done for me lately?

That rationale doesn't even make me want to save Latin, and I love Latin (without strong Latin programs, medieval programs get weaker, too). I say scrap the complaints about the system itself and the financial motivations of the puppet-masters of education (the College Board may be financially driven but it's actually just following the lead of almost every university in the nation). Start telling everyone why you matter, why Latin programs shouldn't be anything past "Latin for Pre-Med" or "Latin for Pre-Law"--what one Latin professor I had at the University of Texas called "Words for Turds."

If you start thinking about that, you'll find that defending reading Ovid's Metamorphoses or Catullus' poems to Lesbia puts you in the same boat as the medievalist who's defending his work on footnotes in Duns Scotus or the cultural anthropologist who's defending her work on Nicaraguan Lesbian Poetry. It seems that if we could just all row in the same direction, we'd have something going.

But we can't seem to. Hell, we can't even seem to agree if we're in the same boat. I guess the real disagreement I have with Brinley is that which animates lots of discussions about what to do. From Marxism (Social Democrats and Communists) to medievalists (Bonnie Wheeler and Eileen Joy at Kalamazoo), it seems to run along the same lines: reformists changing things from within, revolutionaries making radical breaks from without. I don't mean to pick on Brinley, and I don't have a problem with radical breaks (sometimes they're the only option). But issuing a weak-voiced call for resistance to a well-funded, fully-entrenched institution like the College Board in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post doesn't seem like the kind of call to revolution we need. It just seems to me emblematic of a lot of the response from the academic community. We keep appealing to the better angels of the lawmakers' and citizenry's natures, but we're talking to people who largely don't get that allusion. Or what an allusion even is.

Maybe we need to stop complaining and waiting for someone to step in. Maybe we need to stop looking up at our so-called betters and begging Oliver Twist-like for some more. Maybe we should either damn the torpedoes and continue, Roark-style, with our chosen work--perhaps tell everyone else what they need instead of asking if they'd like to hear us now. Or even better we could collectively shrug and unseat the world. Personally, if we're going to do something, I'd prefer the latter. If we did it and the world went on without us, at least we would know where we stand and stop kidding ourselves about our importance. If we did it and it all started sliding downhill, at least for awhile we'd get the respect we deserved.


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