Review of Robert L. Hampel’s Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education

By Rebecca Powell, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast

Hampel, R. L. (2017). Fast and curious: A history of shortcuts in American education. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Robert L. Hampel’s (2017) Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education traces the rise and fall of correspondence schools; book series; spelling, reading, and handwriting systems; and accelerated paths to university degrees as shortcuts. Readers may see parallels between these shortcuts and for-profit universities, online education, and time-to-degree initiatives. Hampel, however, seldom makes such connections (the exception: Trump University), preferring to identify the themes and beliefs that made these shortcuts seem like viable alternatives to traditional education.

Meticulously footnoted, Hampel’s text romps through America’s attempts to shortcut education in an engaging style with a wry sense of humor, making this a quick and necessary read, particularly for assessment scholars. It reminds readers that much of what is called innovation in higher education has antecedents, and that market forces and philanthropists have long tried to “fix” higher education through assessment.

Focused on market- and university-led shortcuts in the 19th and 20th centuries, the text is divided into two parts: faster-easier shortcuts and faster-harder shortcuts. In Part I, Hampel explores the initially popular and lucrative faster-easier shortcuts. Promising success and fulfillment and endorsed by the famous, such as Norman Rockwell, and the respected, such as late Harvard president Charles Eliot, faster-easier shortcuts relied on advertising and aggressive marketing to lure customers and boost profits (p. 46).

Chapter 1 charts the growth and decline of correspondence schools in the 20th century. Hampel illustrates how the reputation of these schools, staked on the names of famous artists and writers, fell as a result of bad press surrounding debt collections and an exposé of low graduation rates and uninvolved faculty, similar to recent ProPublica exposés on for-profit universities. This chapter offers insight into how a shortcut’s failure affects the lives and beliefs of its participants and serves as a reminder of the need to assess more than profitability.

The shortcuts explored in Chapter 2 sought to democratize elite culture by making its consumption more enjoyable. In his history of CliffsNotes, the popular plot summary booklets, Hampel notes these shortcuts do more than make the content of culture accessible; they also introduce users to the language associated with the cultural artifact (p. 61). The enduring popularity of shortcuts to culture and the critics of that popularity display the dissonance at the heart of Americans’ pursuit of education: the push and pull between enjoyment and effort.  

Unlike the faster-easier shortcuts, the faster-harder shortcuts of Part II promised to be cheaper and more efficient; however, they had few takers. Frequently backed by foundations, faster-harder shortcuts tried to shorten the time-to-degree and simplify the writing and reading of the English language.  

Time-to-degree shortcuts explored in Chapter 3 used writing assessment to grant credit for exams and life experience through early admittance, dual credit, exam credit, competency, accelerated school years, and abbreviated requirements. Parent expectations, the ubiquity of high school diplomas, and the demands of professional and graduate schools kept the traditional four-year degree mostly intact. Most endeavors to shorten college and university requirements resulted in more pathways and choices to education, but few led to shortening college for any significant number of students (p. 153). The enduring legacy of time-to-degree shortcuts can best be seen in the emphasis on exams meant to measure student readiness, aptitude, and competency, such as the ACT, SAT, AP, and CLEP.

Although the time-to-degree shortcuts detailed by Hampel found few volunteers, the shortcuts endured. Currently, they are enshrined in education policy by state legislatures who require dual credit offerings and are encouraged by corporate foundations, such as Complete College America, that suggest abbreviating credit requirements and granting credit for competency.

Hampel highlights the durability of the status quo in higher education and the continued quest for shortcuts to the promises of education. Both are maintained and created through assessment, including writing assessment. This text reminds writing assessment scholars and practitioners of the fraught role assessment plays in ensuring education fulfills its promise to students and society.