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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Testing, testing

In spring 2022, the right-wing British press ginned up a storm of outrage over the claim that a Scottish university had dropped Jane Austen’s work from its English literature syllabus in a bid to decolonize the curriculum. Virtually every element of the story was distorted or downright false, but it provided an entertaining diversion for those of us who enjoy our Austen controversies with a dollop of disingenuousness.

Now it looks like we Americans may be getting our own politicized Austen-in-the-curriculum moment: Florida is about to authorize its public universities to accept scores on a standardized college entrance exam called the Classic Learning Test (CLT) alongside scores on the better-known SAT and ACT.

The CLT is an eight-year-old testing instrument whose reading comprehension section relies on passages drawn from the work of scores of famous writers, stretching from the ancient world to the relatively recent past. Although the list is heavy on Dead White Western Males, it includes a smattering of non-Western thinkers (Confucius, Avicenna) and a larger helping of the non-white (Olaudah Equiano, James Baldwin) and non-male (Julian of Norwich, Mary Wollstonecraft).

Jane Austen makes the cut, too--no big surprise, as her stories of proper courtship and moral development have long been a favorite among the Christian homeschooling families who form a key part of the CLT's constituency.

The CLT is a test, not a curriculum, but its creator, former teacher and college counselor Jeremy Tate, argues (with some justice) that the content of standardized college admissions tests influences high school curricula across the country. For now, however, the CLT is a testing minnow, accepted mostly by small, faith-based colleges, and whatever Florida does, a CLT breakout seems unlikely. It’s hard for me to imagine the U.S.’s depressingly low literacy levels ever reaching a point where your average teenager could easily make her way through an excerpt from Plato in the time it takes to answer a test question.

Still, it’s not a bad goal to shoot for: I spent a good chunk of my college education reading many of the writers on the CLT list, and I can attest that they are challenging, inspiring, maddening, enlightening—everything you want in, you know, an education. I can’t imagine anyone objecting on ideological grounds to the inclusion of these authors on a syllabus—though it’s easy to imagine the objections to a syllabus that included no one else.

But because nothing in the United States these days--least of all education, and least least of all education in the great state of Florida--is unpolarized, adopting the CLT as a criterion of college admissions is not just about standardized testing; it’s a which-side-are-you-on statement about contemporary politics, with the pro-CLT camp representing Christianity, conservatism, and traditional values.

To an extent, Tate’s project assumes as much from the get-go: the CLT is “designed to . . . intentionally favor Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, and Jane Austen over twentieth-century progressive authors,” as one news report paraphrases his position. But CLT’s author list spans the ideological spectrum—Karl Marx as well as Friederich Hayek, Albert Camus as well as St. Augustine—and many of the writers on the list are complicated, multivalent thinkers whose views can’t easily be pigeonholed as liberal or conservative.

Exhibit A for this multivalence: Jane Austen. Although her presence on the CLT's list suggests that she's been recruited to the right-wing side of the culture wars, plenty of literary critics argue that she’s pretty progressive herself. Look hard enough, and you can find passages and plot developments that suggest Austen is conservative, or liberal, or both, or neither. When you read actual books, the politics resist simplistic summary, even in Florida.

With luck, though, one aspect of this debate may soon be moot: The pandemic-driven turn toward test-optional college admissions could make standardized entrance exams, whatever their ideological stripe, a thing of the past. Here’s hoping. . .


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