On Rubrics and Broken Windows

Bruce Brasington

Bruce Brasington has been professor of history at West Texas A&M University since 1990 and earned a PhD in Medieval History at UCLA in 1990.


Although it has been more than a decade since I last graded Advanced Placement European History tests, all sorts of memories remain from the four summers I went to the University of Nebraska. I remember well the trek from the dormitory to the agricultural exhibition hall, where we graded, crowded on tables, surrounded by photographs of state fairs past. Going and coming, we crossed the railroad tracks, and woe to the grader who got stuck on the wrong side.

The staff were friendly and food was plentiful. Most of the graders were pleasant and genial. Their mood, and mine, was helped by the abundant piles of candy that appeared on the tables every day to fortify us as we ploughed through the exams. I do not recall any overt bias, political or otherwise, in any official communication from the leaders of the grading, though there were often plenty of political jokes told around the tables at which it was assumed you would laugh in agreement. Those four visits to Lincoln brought me into contact with high school and university teachers from around the country whose values were utterly unlike my own, but they were almost without exception respectful of mine. Only one colleague, a teacher from a private school in Manhattan (New York, not Kansas), once remarked to me in exasperation: “I wish you people [conservatives] would just shut up.” One moment like this every four years I can take.

I also remember the money, which, I confess, was the main reason I spent those four weeks in Lincoln. I admit this as full disclosure, because I cannot help but feel somewhat hypocritical for biting, or at least nibbling at, the hand that fed me. The roughly $1,100 was generally enough to help me get me a flight to Europe. I am a medievalist, as well as a mercenary, and the manuscripts do not come to Canyon, Texas. So, yes, I did it for the money.

Looking back on those summers in Nebraska, I am now uneasy. In hindsight, I see all too clearly the destructive effect of the enterprise. The AP European test did not harm by commission, but rather by omission. While I realize this is an argument from silence, it still seems worth considering. We medievalists, who seemed inordinately present those four years—likely due to financial circumstances—frequently complained about the College Board’s refusal to include the Middle Ages in the exam. Our lament often was how this undermined the quality of many essays which would have been benefitted from some knowledge of the world prior to 1400. Students could have written with greater depth and nuance about subjects such as the political effects of the Reformation; others might have learned to question the assumption that modern thought apparently sprang fully-formed, like Venus from the foam, out of the Renaissance.

But there was an even more destructive omission at work, one part and parcel to the AP system itself, and this is where my title comes into play. It recalls a story told by one of the nineteenth-century’s fiercest opponents of statism and socialism: the French economist Frédéric Bastiat. A shopkeeper’s son hurls a rock. The rock breaks a window. His father is compelled to hire a glazier to fix the mess. Onlookers approve, for this act of destruction has apparently created trade, by forcing shopkeer to part with his francs to pay for the repairs. To Bastiat, however, what they see misses the actual effect, the unseen, the lost opportunity of the shopkeeper to spend his money elsewhere if his son had not taken rock in hand. Destruction of any sort, which Bastiat then links to governmental interference in the economy, never helps the economy. For individual freedom and opportunity are lost.

I do not think it is stretching Bastiat’s parable too far to compare the AP tests, European or otherwise, to the rock that breaks the window. For the rubric, the method that lies at the heart of AP preparation, limits creativity and opportunity. It is destructive. Students are trained in a fixed method how to answer “document based questions;” graders are then instructed as to how to evaluate those essays. The students lose the opportunity to answer the questions in their own way; graders do not have the flexibility to evaluate essays that fall outside the rubric.

What is seen in the AP exam appears wonderful indeed: students gain college credit cheaply while in high school. It seems a perfectly satisfactory arrangement. They take the test; some pass and thus do not have to pay far more money in college. The College Board and graders get paid, though on vastly different scales. It is efficient, or at least reasonably so. It rewards the best and the brightest. It is hard to come up with a more modern way of education. (This comes as no surprise, given the origins of standardized testing a century ago in the Progressive movement.) He might not have passed the test, but I am pretty certain Babbitt would have approved of why all those tests had come to Lincoln:[1]

I’ll tell you why you have to study Shakespeare and those. It’s because they’re required for college entrance, and that’s all there is to it! Personally, I don’t see myself why they stuck ’em into an up-to-date high-school system like we have in this state. Be a good deal better if you took Business English, and learned how to write an ad, or letters that would pull. But there it is … Trouble with you, Ted, is you always want to do something different! If you’re going to law-school—and you are!—I never had a chance to, but I’ll see that you do—why, you’ll want to lay in all the English and Latin you can get.

The AP test helps high school students “lay in” as much as they can in order to get on faster and cheaper to what is important at the university. What is not seen is the loss of time and the intellectual, indeed spiritual, opportunity further study of history would provide. The students in the AP classes were bound to a method, and limited in their exposure to history. (See my comments above about the Middle Ages.) If they passed the test, they also lost the future opportunity to listen in college to different professors, to discuss history with students unlike those with whom they had grown up, to read books instead of textbooks. None of this is intended as a criticism of the dedicated teachers, or hardworking graders, who have labored in AP. However, it is still, to my mind, a loss.

The AP European test resembles a “textual community” as understood by the medievalist Brian Stock.[2] Stock argued that that the growing literacy of Europe after 1100 had profound implications for social and cultural organization. Social groups, for example heretics, increasingly organized themselves around specific texts. Fidelity to these writings, a canon of sorts, created boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. The AP test does much the same thing. Like the crowd gathered on the street before the shattered window, modern student, parent, and administrator only see an apparent benefit. Those who pass are included; those who did not, do not number among the elect. What is not seen is the lost moment in the future to hear more history, perhaps even about the Middle Ages, learn something about the history of Christianity, even encounter a conservative professor like me, whom at least one person wanted to shut up. They might even meet Ernst Robert Curtius, a medievalist who “will never be on the test:”

We live in an age of disorder and despondency. Some thinkers will tell us that we ought to feel despondent. But if anything is flatly contradicted by the medieval mind, it is certainly this. Remember the seventh canto of Dante’s “Inferno.” He meets there a particular class of sinners—the people suffering from depression. “We have been sad,” they confess, “in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun.” Today these people would be treated in hospitals. But Dante considered them sinners. If I were to sum up in two words what I believe is the central message of medieval thought, I would say: It is the spirit in which it restated tradition; and this spirit is Faith and Joy.[3]

By nature standardized, commodified, efficient, the AP test is quintessentially American. For a society obsessed with short cuts and credentials, it provides an ideal, economical way to Babbitt’s dream of success. However, at least to me, there is one problem it cannot answer. It cannot measure the value of history. For no rubric can contain faith and joy.

[1] Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1922), 76.

[2] Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

[3] Ernst Robert Curtius, “The Medieval Bases of Western Thought,” in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard R. Trask (Bollingen Series 36, Princeton 1990), 598.


Image Credit: Mikus.

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