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Are Advanced Placement Courses Diminishing Liberal Arts Education?

By Paul Von Blum — August 29, 2008 7 min read
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At this time of year, thousands of academically accomplished students enter selective higher education institutions like mine, beginning their arduous journey toward bachelor’s degrees and beyond. They have stellar grade point averages, high SAT scores, and impressive records of community service. The vast majority also have completed Advanced Placement courses in high school, providing them with college credit and ostensibly preparing them for the rigorous academic work they will face as undergraduates.

Yet, my 40 years of undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences, currently at the University of California, Los Angeles, persuade me that Advanced Placement preparation is overrated and may, ironically, diminish rather than advance the deeper objectives of a liberal arts education.

This may be a minority, even heretical, view among my faculty colleagues. Most assume that students’ AP experiences provide a modest advantage in their courses, through superior subject-matter knowledge and higher personal motivation. My experiences contradict these assumptions, however.

AP participation, for many, is primarily an exercise in memorization and exam passing — the antithesis of genuine liberal learning."

Most of my UCLA courses make use of art, film, literature, and other forms of cultural expression and explore their linkages to major features of history, politics, and society. They cover content that high school students presumably would encounter in such AP courses as art history, U.S. government and politics, English literature, European history, world history, U.S. history, and others. Over the years, though, I have found a disconcerting lack of historical knowledge among my undergraduate students, an observation I hear regularly in conversations with colleagues.

Routinely, I pause in my classes when I discern that a majority of students have never heard of the major historical events, movements, or persons I offer for analysis. Then I must quickly supply them with the relevant information, so that we can move on to deeper educational objectives. This is not especially troubling; my job as a teacher is to provide basic material, including the facts I think my students should already know. But recently during these classroom exchanges, I have started asking how many of the students took AP courses and examinations in high school. Their numbers are staggering.

In conversations with students, moreover, I have found that most approached their AP courses as merely another tedious hurdle to be overcome in gaining admission to selective colleges and universities. Students’ candid remarks over many years have only reinforced my conclusion that AP participation, for many, is primarily an exercise in memorization and exam passing—the antithesis of genuine liberal learning.

Many students sheepishly admit that they forgot the AP material soon after the exam, a process they often repeat as undergraduates. Such comments suggest that their AP efforts were a response primarily to pressure from parents, peers, and institutions seeking high college-admission statistics.

The ironic result is to reduce or even eliminate the quest for authentic learning. By focusing almost exclusively on test-taking skills and examination results, too many students lose sight of what they are supposed to be doing in the first place. A subtle and insidious mind-set develops in which “results” trump the actual educational process. Such a perspective can, of course, lead to major, though limited, postsecondary “success.” But while students graduate with high honors, they come away with little feel for authentic learning and few critical-thinking skills. Résumé padding substitutes for durable knowledge and lifelong intellectual curiosity.

Intrigued by this phenomenon, I have sought further discussions with UCLA students who had substantial AP experience in high school. What I’ve found has amplified my misgivings. At least in the humanities and social sciences, students report that their AP work consisted primarily of factual information. Often neglected were the subtleties and ambiguities of historical and artistic inquiry.

Yet there are more serious historical and cultural deficiencies among my students with extensive AP credit. For example, in my courses examining historical events from the perspective of people who challenge the existing social order, I see particular evidence of a vast lack of knowledge about the events and people associated with labor, civil rights, feminist, anti-war, gay and lesbian, environmental, and other resistance movements. Similarly, in art-related courses in which I highlight work by members of marginalized communities such as African-Americans, Latinos, women, and others, there is also little evidence of background knowledge.

In short, almost every person or movement I present seems to be entirely new to my students, a large percentage of whom have had substantial AP coursework in the humanities and social studies. I can only conclude that, like most high school courses in history, art, and social studies, AP efforts reflect a conventional bias that neglects large populations and discourages more-comprehensive treatment of dissenting political and cultural forces.

And then there is the matter of swapping high school credits for college experiences. Those who have substantial unit credit from Advanced Placement courses and examinations also run the risk of shortchanging themselves in opportunities for liberal education at the postsecondary level. Typically, undergraduates need approximately 120 semester units, or 180 quarter units, for graduation. If they begin college with 25 or 30 units gained through AP coursework, they reduce their opportunities for wider intellectual exploration. The effect is to substitute high school classes for college-level classes, even though the latter often provide greater intellectual breadth and depth.

With less time on college campuses, fewer students will select courses on global warming, African-American art, women’s literature, biomedical ethics, and hundreds of other subjects that might encourage them to explore new knowledge in intellectually exciting directions.

Perhaps the most provocative argument against AP courses, though, is that, with rare exceptions, the teachers teaching them are not qualified or knowledgeable enough to offer college-level instruction. The inescapable reality is that high school teachers are not at the forefront of research and intellectual discovery. Indeed, their very workloads often preclude them from even keeping up with major developments in most academic fields. The best among them do perform exceptional work in transmitting knowledge, however. Improvement at that level should therefore be the primary high school objective, rather than entering domains beyond the genuine competence of existing teaching personnel.

Finally, critics of Advanced Placement have observed that affluent school districts hold major advantages in offering such opportunities. This is a compelling view. Schools in lower-income communities, especially those with substantial ethnic- and racial-minority populations, clearly deserve higher funding and superior opportunities for their students. But simply adding more AP courses to their curricula scarcely addresses the structural inequalities and injustices. Replicating a dubious system of AP credit arrangements fundamentally misses the point.

It is unrealistic to advocate the abolition of Advanced Placement courses in high schools. AP opportunities will flourish as long as powerful institutional forces combine with the increasingly frantic efforts of privileged parents to secure high-status college and university slots for their children. Students themselves, caught up in the admissions frenzy, also demand mechanisms to set themselves apart from their peers. Accordingly, college and university admissions officials should exert more critical leadership, perhaps even declining to grant college credit or even preferential treatment to applicants with AP courses on their high school transcripts.

Above all, college and university faculty members concerned with serious liberal learning should reassert their authority as educators. They should avoid complicity in institutional schemes that process undergraduates as rapidly as possible, neglecting the basic principles of active and sustained higher education.

The challenges of the 21st century demand an educated populace with intellectual breadth and depth and the ability for critical thought and active public citizenship. Transitory mastery of Advanced Placement examinations falls tragically short of these compelling public needs.

A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Are Advanced Placement Courses Diminishing Liberal Arts Education?

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