»  National Review Online

January 16, 2009

  Cutting Loose from History


I see the College Board is axing four of its AP courses after the current academic year. The axees are: Italian, Latin Literature, French Literature, and the higher-level of their two Computer Science courses.

AP stands for "Advanced Placement." These are courses taught to the brightest kids in high schools, allowing them to get college credits. Not just in high schools, either: the College Board is independent of the public-education and teacher-union power structures, and anyone can take an AP exam just by signing up and paying the (very modest) fee. AP is therefore a step in the direction of the general "certification" model of libertarian education, as described by Charles Murray in his recent book. AP programs are a Good Thing.

[Before continuing, I had better apologize for the gross act of political incorrectness I committed in the second sentence of my previous paragraph. It is of course not the case that some kids are "bright" while others are "dull." There are only "privileged" kids and "disadvantaged" kids. As the lady from the New York Times told Charles when interviewing him about his book:  "given the opportunity, most people could do most anything." To suggest otherwise is shameful, bigoted, and hurtful. I am sorry. Sorry sorry sorry! May I continue please? Thank you!]

Since AP programs are a Good Thing, the cancellation of four of them is a Bad Thing. It's especially a Bad Thing in the educational environment of today, when more and more public-education resources are devoted to the slower students [Gosh darn it, there I go again — Sorry! Sorry!] in pursuit of No Child Left Behind goals. If no child is to be left behind, teachers can justify giving most of their attention to the stragglers while ignoring the ones who are forging ahead. Something like this has been happening.

The cancellation of Italian is a doubly Bad Thing. This is the first time a language AP program has ever been cancelled in the all the fifty-odd years these programs have been available. Cancellation of programs is anyway a rare thing. A Music Appreciation course was dropped in 1991; I don't know of any other instances. In the case of Italian, the College Board declared that they were faced with "a question of funding." Some part of the fault lies with the Italian government, which had promised to help out with the funding. Unfortunately, the Italian government is even more hopelessly incompetent at getting anything done than the average national government — which is to say very, very incompetent indeed.

The College board emphasizes that these are small programs. Only 1,930 students nationwide took the AP Italian exam last May, compared with 4,322 for Chinese and over 100,000 for Spanish. We are, indeed, drifting towards a situation where "foreign language instruction" in public schools means Spanish. My own two kids were given a free choice of foreign language by their over-indulgent parents when the time came. They both opted for Spanish (from menus that included French, Italian, and Latin). We couldn't dissuade them. Why Spanish? "Because all my friends are doing it." References to Exodus 23-ii were of no avail.

I'm guessing, in any case, that my kids made the right choice. Though decently good students when pushed, neither shows signs of being an academic superstar. For ordinary middle-class Americans, Spanish probably is the best choice of a high school language, to the degree it matters. (Which is not, in my opinion, much. Very few of us can attain mastery of a foreign language by school instruction. Most of us, in fact, once we have graduated, lose whatever of our school language we had. Learning a foreign language is a good mental discipline, and in a few scattered cases it will have some future advantage; but vocation-wise, high school language instruction is mostly pointless.)

For the gifted few, though [Sorry! Sorry!] a different logic applies, or should. Charles Murray:

The proposition is not that America's future should depend on an elite that is educated to run the country; but that, whether we like it or not, America's future does depend on an elite that runs the country. The members of that elite are drawn overwhelmingly from among the academically gifted. We had better make sure that we do the best possible job of educating them.

These brightest [I am flagellating myself!] kids are exactly the ones taking AP programs in their Junior and Senior years of high school. The number is about a million, taking an average two programs each. That's out of a total of about sixteen million high-school-age Americans. For these members of our future elite, the rules should, as I said, be different. For them, considerations above and beyond the merely utilitarian and satisfactory should apply.

Of course we want all our young people to leave school acquainted with the civilization they belong to. I should be ashamed for my own kids to enter adulthood unfamiliar with at least the names, nationalities, and approximate dates of Plato and Aristotle, Alexander and Caesar, Henry VIII and Louis XIV, Newton and Darwin, Shakespeare and Dickens, and so on.

For elites, though, more should be required. These students should engage with our civilization and its high culture, and that involves good, close acquaintance with at least one modern European language and one ancient one. For ancient languages the choice is of course Latin or Greek. In modern languages, I'd put French at the head of the list, with German close behind, Italian below that, and Russian and Spanish, in that order, considerably below that. For complicated historical reasons, Spain simply didn't contribute much to European civilization. Spain had novelists, poets, painters, composers, philosophers, and scientists to be sure, but nothing like as many — not remotely as many — as the other great European nations. To take just one aspect of civilization dear to my own heart, try clicking on the various European regions here to see the birthplaces of great mathematicians.

To the degree — which, I say again, is not very far — that there is any point in teaching foreign languages to average, un-brilliant kids like mine, Spanish should be the language of choice, just because it's the other big language of our hemisphere, and most likely to be some use to them in adult life. On the gifted few, though — the ones taking AP programs — we should press those languages that encode the high civilization of the West. So far as modern languages are concerned, that means French, German, and Italian. With the decision of the College Board to drop Italian, something has been lost. Not much, perhaps; but at this point in our civilizational decay, how much can we afford to lose?