Last month, The New York Times reported something that Latin teachers everywhere already know: This supposedly “dead language” is attracting increasing numbers of students who recognize the good things it does to their minds. The National Latin Exam has drawn the participation of more than 130,000 students in each of the last two years, and the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement examinations in Virgil or Latin literature has almost doubled over the past decade: from 4,700 in 1997 to 8,654 in 2007.
To those who care about Latin in schools, it now seems as critical to attract, train, and keep qualified Latin teachers as it is to draw students to the subject. A recent decision by the College Board, however, may make it harder to extend the advantages of Latin to the students likely to gain the most from them.
In April, the College Board decided to eliminate the Latin literature AP exam, along with exams in French literature, Italian, and advanced computer science. The decision on Latin literature took classicists in both universities and K-12 schools by surprise, since the College Board had not seen fit to consult with either experts in the field or the teachers who put the AP course’s syllabus into practice and prepare students for the exams.
Classicists in both schools and universities, acting individually and through professional associations like the American Classical League and the American Philological Association, were quick to protest. Seven past chairs of the Advanced Placement test-development committee and five former chief readers for the Latin AP exam (who hadn’t been consulted either) joined in a public letter to the College Board trustees. The board responded with a flurry of different justifications.
Predictably, money and numbers led off. Italian, French and Latin literature, and computer science accounted for only about one-half of 1 percent of the 2,533,431 Advanced Placement examinations taken last spring by students who paid $83 for each. It costs money to devise, administer, and grade examinations, and if Latin and the others don’t bring in enough to cover the College Board’s expenses, the board cannot justify continuing with them. It’s a bean-counter’s decision: shortsighted and regrettable if you care about Latin, but understandable to anyone who has ever had to balance a budget.
There’s more, though. Trevor Packer, the College Board’s vice president in charge of the Advanced Placement program, told this publication in April that demographics, not budget, were behind the decision. (“College Board Intends to Drop AP Programs in Four Subjects,” April 9, 2008.) The board has made a laudable effort recently to bring underrepresented groups, and especially African-American and Hispanic young people, into its Advanced Placement program. Only a very few of these students, Packer explained, take the four AP subjects that were eliminated. Not just low numbers alone, then, but the combination of low numbers and negligible minority participation guided the College Board’s decision.
In a letter to high school principals in September, Packer repeated this argument, with a slight variation and a little more precision. The canceled exams, he said, provided “less than five one-thousandths of 1 percent of minority students with their sole AP experience.” This is indeed a minute percentage, but hardly persuasive. All it means is that not very many minority students took, let’s say, Latin literature and no other AP exam.
The College Board may be counting on an old and pernicious association between Latin and elite, mostly white culture to make its arguments resonate with educators. As Baynard Woods, an inner-city Washington teacher, wrote in the online edition of Education Week on Sept. 22, 2008, Latin students at his charter high school were quick to notice that other Latin students were mostly white and mostly from private schools. But Woods and his students demonstrated something else that Latin teachers know well: The study of Latin pays off for everyone, and especially for students from groups typically on the short end of access to high-level literacy and social capital. His conclusion bears repeating: “The introduction and systematic instruction of Latin could thus go a long way in lessening education’s achievement gaps, while also taking aim at society’s power and prestige gaps.”
The College Board deserves credit for trying to expand educational opportunity, but it has an odd idea of how to go about doing so. If little Skippy or Jason has a better shot at Harvard or MIT because their elite private school offers advanced Latin and computer science, while their less fortunate counterparts can’t find such things at gritty PS 95, the solution is not to eliminate a national program in those subjects. The solution is to attract African-American and Hispanic students not just to the Advanced Placement program, but also to subjects in which they historically have been underrepresented. Those subjects need Hispanic and African-American intelligence, energy, and diverse points of view as much as these students need French or Italian or Latin or computer science.
The solution is for the College Board to subsidize those AP programs, if necessary, and to offer incentives for all kinds of schools to offer AP courses in them. Latin literature isn’t just for white folks, but the College Board seems content to accept that it is.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Advanced Placement for Whom?