How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 1- Testing

Preface: The following are my personal reflections on how white bias becomes institutionalized in high school literature classes.  I teach group literature classes to homeschool students, but have never taught in a conventional public or private school, so my perspective reflects that.  Also, I earned a Masters degree in Education in Education and National Development, which was kind of a “Macro-Education” program that looked at the big picture of education.  Some of my perspective is based on those studies, which extend beyond my personal experience.

So how does bias towards white authors become institutionalized?  One major way, I believe, is due to testing.  Particularly in literature, I think much of the curriculum is driven by the Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature test.

Full Disclosure:  I took AP English in high school and loved it.  I took the AP English Literature exam and got the top score (5), which gave me 3 hours of credit when I went to college and allowed me to opt out of the required Freshman English class.  So I have personally benefitted from this program.  However, I’m looking at the big picture around this test.

The AP program is a wonderful way for high schools to challenge and engage advanced students and for students to get a jump start on college classes, which is a good thing.  I am one of many who were well served by this educational opportunity.  However, I also believe that it is one of the major factors to build white bias into our country’s literature education.  Still, I want to state this is based on my experience and my cursory look into the data.  I don’t claim that my interpretation of the information I know is definite proof of my position.

The AP program was born 60 years ago during the “Space Race” of the 1960’s, when we were concerned that the Russians would dominate outer space by sending rockets to the moon before we did.  As part of that discussion, Ivy League schools, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale claimed that Freshman students from elite prep schools such as Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville reported that their first year classes repeated what they had learned in high school.  Thus came the idea to develop “Advanced Placement” tests to allow students who have covered college-level material in high school to place out of introductory classes in colleges by demonstrating their knowledge via a standardized test.

That’s a great idea—why waste time and money repeating what you have already learned?  The issue is that the roots of the program came from elite—which basically means “white,” especially in the 1960s—institutions.  And basically, 1960s elite/white institutions mostly taught white authors and white perspectives.

Most of us in the US haven’t gone to elite prep schools.  However, imagine them as being similar to the school depicted in the 1989 movie, Dead Poet’s Society.  In the film, set in an imaginary New England prep school in 1959, the wonderful Robin Williams is a charismatic English teacher who ignites a love of poetry in his all-male students.  I love the movie, especially as a teacher.  What English teacher wouldn’t like to inspire such a passion for literature in our students (at least without the tragic bits of the movie)?

However, according to my research on the movie (Full Disclosure:  I haven’t watched it again while writing this post to count them myself), Robin Williams introduces his students to 12 poems.  Seven of them were written by English/Irish white men; five of them were written by US white men.

This is not exactly a great demonstration of diversity…although I still like the movie.

That was the tendency of literature instruction in those days, at least among elite institutions (for which AP exams were developed).  The thrust of literary studies was mastering the so-called “Western canon” (also known as “Classical education), which was, basically, books by white US and European males.

Things have changed dramatically with the AP exam in the past 60 years.  It has spread to most US academic high schools, expanding the program to many more “ordinary” students like me (I went to a public high school in Northern Virginia outside Washington DC that was not designated as a magnet or gifted school).  It is still a wonderful way for high school students to start their college education early.

However, in my opinion, it hasn’t moved that much from its Western canon roots—or, at least, not enough. They DEFINITELY suggest many more books from women and/or people of color than they did in the early days and encourage having a diverse reading list. But still, the overwhelming number of “go to” books are by white authors.

It is important to explain that the AP English Literature exam organization (the College Board) does not tell schools that students need to read specific books.  However, academic high schools that offer a lot of AP classes tend to review past AP English exams to see what books are referred to in their questions, and gravitate to including those books, or ones similar to them, in their courses.  The problem is that this isn’t just restricted to the official AP classes.  At least the more competitive academic high schools try to include what they think of as appropriate AP exam books throughout all their literature classes, not just in the AP class, in order to maximize their students’ ability to get a high score.  So when the AP exams predominantly refer to white authors, it encourages competitive academic high schools to fills all of their literature classes with predominantly white authors.  And where the highly-rated academic high schools go, those who aspire to higher academic achievement tend to follow.

This may seem a little abstract, so let me give you a specific example from the 2019 AP English Literature exam.

The current AP English Literature exam spends one hour on multiple choice questions, which are worth 45% of the score.  Then students have two hours to answer three essay questions, which are worth 55% of the score.  The College Board makes the questions and a sample response from previous years available online for students to prepare for the current year’s test, which I think is terrific.

I looked at the Free Response questions from the 2019 test.  The first one relates to analyzing a poem by a white Canadian female poet.  The second one is based on analyzing a passage from a white American male author.  The third one opens with a quote from a Caribbean-British author of Asian Indian descent.  It then asks:

Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which a character holds an “ideal view of the world.” Then write an essay in which you analyze the character’s idealism and its positive or negative consequences. Explain how the author’s portrayal of this idealism illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

I think that is a FANTASTIC question!  Today I could write a solid extemporaneous essay on that topic about any number of books.  But looking back, I know my 17-year-old self who took the exam all these many years ago could have done that as well.

You may choose a work from the list below or one of comparable literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.

The Alchemist
Antigone
The Awakening
The Bluest Eye
Brave New World
Brideshead Revisited
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 
Candide
The Catcher in the Rye 
Death of a Salesman 
Don Quixote
A Gesture Life
Great Expectations 
The Great Gatsby 
The Handmaid’s Tale 
The House of Mirth
The Importance of Being Earnest 
Invisible Man
King Lear
Lolita
The Mill on the Floss 
My Ántonia
Native Son
Odyssey
The Portrait of a Lady
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 
The Sound and the Fury
The Sun Also Rises
The Tempest
To Kill a Mockingbird
When the Emperor Was Divine

OK, suddenly, from a world of possibilities, there is a list of “suggested” books.  Here is the breakdown of the 31 suggested books:

White authors—24 (77%) Most recent work was published in 1985
Black authors—3 (10%)   Most recent work was published in 1970
Asian authors—2 (6.5%)  Most recent work was published in 2002
Hispanic/Latinx authors—2 (6.5%) Most recent work was published in 2007
Native American authors—0

Male authors—23 (74%)
Female authors—8 (26%)

Seventeen-year-old me would not have known those figures (which probably would have been even more white and more male-oriented).  Back then, I would probably have written about Don Quixote, or perhaps about The Great Gatsby, in which I could have examined either Nick Carraway or Jay Gatsby.  But I think I would have written a good essay in response to that question.

I look at that list as a literature teacher and note that I’ve included 11 of those books in my classes over the past 7 years.  So if a student has been with me for several years, they should be able to pull out one of those books about which to write an essay.

There is an opening; it does say “or one of comparable value.”  So in the case of my classes, I don’t teach King Lear; I think that play is better left to college studies.  I do teach Julius Caesar,  and Brutus is a wonderful character to write about for that essay.  I think my students would feel comfortable in substituting one Shakespeare book for another.

But what if you wanted to write about a more contemporary and popular book?  For example, Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games series could be an interesting character to consider for that question.  But are those books considered “comparable value”?  Would I risk it?  As my past student, I know I wouldn’t have.

Or if I imagine myself as a current black student, especially during these times, I might be drawn to writing about Starr, the African American female protagonist from the 2017 YA novel The Hate U Give who witnesses a police shooting of her friend, a young unarmed black man.  She is not a stereotypical idealist, since she comes from a poor black neighborhood and experiences many of the difficulties of the black community (although she attends an elite school with mostly white students).  However, in my opinion, she operates from what Samuel Butler described as “the triumph of hope over experience.”  That could make a fantastic essay.

However, is that worth the risk?  Is writing about a character whose experience is more similar to your own worth the chance that your essay would be rated lower because the reviewer considered that book not to be of rigorous enough?  

Part of this issue is that the bulk of the AP exam is based on essay writing, as I think it should be.  But that means it is being read and rated by a person who must evaluate your essay upon a rubric, but also upon their own experience of literature.  It is almost certain that they have read The Great Gatsby.  However, you can’t count on them having read The Hate U Give.  How might their unfamiliarity with that book affect your score? 

(Full disclosure:  I really like The Hate U Give, AND I don’t think it is of “comparable value” in  terms of literary quality to, say,  The Great Gatsby.  However, I personally think it is certainly worthy of being a book analyzed in response to that question on an AP exam.  But I am not an AP exam scorer.  I don’t know what they would think.)  

I write this NOT to dump on AP courses or AP tests or AP reviewers.  I just mean this is a complicated issue. I think it demonstrates that this is one way that white bias is institutionalized into literature studies, from the origin of AP English to its impact on English curriculum to the reality of how the AP exam provides credit…or not.

Come back tomorrow for another factor that complicates having a more racially-diverse English literature curriculum.

(To see my Introduction to this series, see How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: An Introduction.)


3 thoughts on “How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 1- Testing

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