What would Abraham Lincoln have done on a digital SAT?
On changing college-entrance exams, James Madison's college-related white whale, and a backwoods kid like Abe Lincoln
The College Board has announced that the SAT is going digital throughout the US in 2024. The exam "will still be scored on a 1600 scale" but it will change in content as well as format, turning into a shorter test: "about two hours instead of three for the current SAT, with more time per question". Whatever the changes, the exam will likely still remain one of the most influential tools for sorting talent among students of high school age.
■ That sorting process isn't always about college admissions per se, but that of course has been the main point historically. The United States has a funny relationship with college, of course: Harvard traces its history to 1636 (three cheers for the inaugural graduating Class of 1642!), but over time, the country has used land-grant colleges to democratize the knowledge of agriculture, the GI Bill to reintegrate the veterans of World War II into a changed economy, and the National Defense Education Act to try to help win the Cold War.
■ Yet one thing we've never really undertaken is a mission promoted by some of the Founders. In 1796, George Washington told Congress, "I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress, the expediency of establishing a National University; and also a Military Academy. The desirableness of both these Institutions, has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject". James Madison, serving in Congress at the time, was a leading proponent of the idea.
■ Madison was still pressing for the idea 20 years later as President himself: "The importance which I have attached to the establishment of a university within this District on a scale and for objects worthy of the American nation induces me to renew my recommendation of it to the favorable consideration of Congress." In the end, we ended up with a law school that later merged into George Washington University.
■ Other than the service academies (which served a separate purpose, even in Washington's original conception of the idea), we've never really had such a national university. Lots of other countries have them, but the United States has remained unmoved by the idea.
■ Considering the other ways in which our system of higher education has evolved, perhaps America took a better course. States tend to take pride in their own flagship universities (and not just on the football field or the basketball court), and the emergence of collegiate conferences has had at least some positive effect in stimulating competition to be seen as cadres of elite academic institutions.
■ Yet it's hard not to look at the emphasis that an intellectual heavyweight like Madison placed on the idea -- one researcher estimated Madison's IQ at a white-hot 160 -- and wonder how things might have looked if we had taken such a path. Would it have turned us more like Britain or France, where the "Oxbridge" duopoly and the National School of Administration have had vastly oversized effects on their respective governments -- for better or worse? Or might it have been a tool by which high-priority national policies or missions could have been enacted by concentrating resources (and cachet) on particular goals?
■ Or would perhaps the most democratic of all outcomes have emerged from instituting a national university not for the most elite performers, but for the maximum affordability and accessibility of any American with the interest? We rightly place Abraham Lincoln on a pedestal, and yet his background forced him to be mostly self-educated. Suppose Lincoln had lacked even a little of the internal motivation that drove him to overcome the limitations of his meager resources and humble beginnings -- would the Union itself have survived?
■ The evolution of the SATs might well be one of those instances that cause us to put some overdue thought into what might serve the national interest better than what we have today. And it may well be that, in a time of accelerating technological and economic change, our best bet is to ask what Washington and Madison might have done if they'd known the raw skills of a Lincoln were to come and that the then-unimaginable resources of the 21st Century would someday become real.