Monday, September 20, 2010

Educational Propaganda

Recently, students across the country took the Advanced Placement English Literature exam. This three hour test, which grants college credit to qualifying students, is the culmination of a year of intense study and preparation in a high level class. On this year’s exam, students were asked to write an essay in response to the following quote: "Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted."

While exile as a theme is a good launching point for an essay, the College Board used the topic to launch an apparent political agenda by identifying the author of the quote as “Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic Edward Said.”

Quoting Edward Said, a man who has infamously been photographed throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, isn’t the issue. It isn’t even quoting a Palestinian, per se. What is problematic is the linking of a Palestinian with a quote about “exile.” It creates a sympathetic image of exiled Palestinians without any qualifications. It assumes one side in a longstanding conflict. After spending a year studying the nuances in language and writing, most of my students did not miss this inference.

Many of them had a fundamental problem with the question. As a teacher, I had a serious problem with it.

Political propaganda is something my students will certainly get used to, particularly as they head off to college campuses in the fall. But it has no place on a high-stakes exam that is supposed to be standardized. Not when they’ve worked hard all year studying literature and language.

They were blindsided and left with a choice: agree with the quote about Palestinian exile and write an essay, or disagree with the supposition that the Palestinians were torn from their “true home” and possibly throw their chances at a high score.

There isn’t anything “standardized” about that.

The College Board is particularly sensitive to language. This prompt could not have come out of nowhere. Politically motivated and particularly disturbing hn its inclusion on the exam, it is a manipulation of facts and as such, it is a manipulation of education. In essence, this educational measure was a forced indoctrination of the College Board’s political beliefs.

I voiced my concern to the College Board and was told that they had not received any complaints. I called two more times and received the same reply. A Facebook group of close to 700 members has voiced its concerns. An article was written about this issue in a Jewish newspaper, The Forward, but still the College Board claims that they know nothing about the “problem.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. They are simply following the higher academia pied pipers down the path of bias and partiality. Literature and Composition: Reading, Writing, and Thinking, the Bedford St. Martin Press anthology just completed for the AP Literature course, contains two poems by Palestinians. Not one Israeli poet or author is quoted. Not even as an alternate view to Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card”.

The College Board is notoriously politically correct. In fact, their dedication to being PC has gotten them in trouble over the years. But this time, they have chosen sides in a controversy that has offended a large portion of their testing audience. They have drawn lines, not in the sands of higher academia, but in the sandboxes of impressionable high school students.

Many in the academic world have pooh-poohed the controversy and called the protesting students overly sensitive or even racist. Interestingly, the same day as the exam, students in Brandies University were dismayed to learn that Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was asked to give the commencement address. The student newspaper came out against the choice on the grounds that Oren is “a divisive and inappropriate choice” because “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a hotly contested political issue, one that inspires students with serious positions on the topic to fervently defend and promote their views.

I find it remarkable that University students cannot handle political controversy, but high school students are expected to “get over it.” Moreover, they are forced to actually agree with a statement they dispute, from a man who is so controversial that even his status as a Palestinian is questionable.

As an AP teacher, I have respectfully told my school that I am not comfortable teaching a course that has a clear political agenda. My students would be better served taking a literature course at their local university and graduating with actual college credit rather than relying on a politically biased exam to test their skills.

And while they will get their fair share of propaganda on campuses, at least the manipulationwill be blatant. There will be opportunity to debate.

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