Bryan Caplan  

A Teen Tries the Ideological Turing Test

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A practice test essay question from Cracking the A.P. U.S. History Exam:

Evaluate the extent to which farmers and factory workers did not easily adapt to changes stemming from industrialization in the years 1865-1900.

Standard textbooks lament the plights of farmers and factory workers alike, barely mentioning the era's skyrocketing living standards.  Since my thirteen-year-old sons took my labor econ class, they know better.  But my son Aidan saw an opportunity to piggyback an Ideological Turing Test onto his A.P. practice test.  Could he simulate a well-prepared but economically illiterate history student?  In his allotted 35 minutes, he produced the following essay:


Farmers and factory workers did not adapt very well to industrialization in the latter portion of the 19th century, though it was more difficult for farmers. We see this effect chiefly in the South's difficulty to adapt to a Northern-style economy after the Civil War. We also this effect in the failure of Northern workers to coordinate, leading to their being taken advantage of by Scrooge-like employers. Finally, monopolies and other unscrupulous organizations led to difficulty for both farmers and factory workers to cope.

Firstly, it was very difficult for the post-war South to cope with the changes industrialization caused. Most farmers simply found it difficult to work in a monotonous factory for 12 hours a day, often with little or no respite, when they were so used to a day which was often flexible and involved more varying forms of labor. Others simply did not have the education required to operate the machines, or were baffled by their operation. While many Southern politicians of the era called for a New South-for the South to become industrialized like the North-, the dream did not become reality. The South also had very few farmers per square mile to do factory labor. In short, the South, where more and more of the nation's farmers resided, was ill-suited for industrialization, making it difficult for its many farmers to make a living in factories.

Secondly, Northern workers did not adapt well because they were not very effective at unionizing and otherwise banding together to form a coalition which would protect them from the miserly employer. While it is true that many workers experienced a rising standard of living, accidents induced by machines were all to frequent. As if this was not enough, income disparity went up tremendously during this era, signifying an upper class which profited at the expense of the workers. Many a time, unions were broken by a few strikebreakers, or were not coordinated enough to become important. Thus, the urban worker failed to adapt to industrialization mainly because of a lack of coordination.

Finally, the rise of the monopoly, generally through trusts and corporations, led to many workers suffering. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, and the American Steel Corporation, often charged high prices for their products, which in turn reduced the average worker's wages. Railroad companies would often charge exorbitant rates, prompting the formation of Farmer's Alliances and the Populist Party. As with unions, however, these early progressive movements failed to give workers a better lifestyle due largely to a lack of coordination. Consequently, the rise of monopolies, although they eventually inspired Progressive Era movements, caused much misery in the 19th century for the regular worker. 

In conclusion, it was difficult for both factory workers and farmers to adjust to the New Industrial Order mainly because of a lack of coordination and necessary skills respectively. Monopolies also ruined things for workers by indirectly or directly cheating them out of their money. While movements such as the Populist Party, which called for an end to such monopolies, did eventually arise, they were often ineffectual, due, once again, to a lack of coordination. In the 20th century, a new hope would arise for workers on the farm and in the factory with the rise of the Progressive Era.



Correcting for paternal bias, I think Aidan passed the Ideological Turing Test with aplomb.  If there were a ten-essay line-up on this topic - nine sincere plus my son's - I doubt even 20% of history teachers could single him out.  In fact, I doubt the graders would do better than chance.  What say you?

P.S. Vigorous criticism is welcome as always, but comments that insult my kids will be deleted.




COMMENTS (17 to date)

"...leading to their being taken advantage of by Scrooge-like employers."

Do real high school students use similies that ham-fisted? Alas, they probably do.

Everything else felt pitch-perfect.

Rebecca Menes writes:

Close -- but he is a little too coherent and does not include enough nervous padding.

Elias writes:

I could never write an essay like this without injecting some suggestive traces of free market bias.

Dangerman writes:

"leading to their being taken advantage of by Scrooge-like employers."

I laughed. Get this kid a gig at Slate.com or Salon.com.

Johnson85 writes:

I think your son did a good job aping a writer from a place like Slate. I think it was a little too on the nose for most AP test takers, or at least those likely to score a 4 or 5. Because they are smarter, I think their indoctrination would result in a little less cartoonish viewpoint than say a typical slate writer, even if they did become completely brainwashed. But pretty close none the less

E. Harding writes:

"Standard textbooks lament the plights of farmers and factory workers alike, barely mentioning the era's skyrocketing living standards."

-The data I've seen on FRED show real wages roughly flat during that era. True skyrocketing living standards were achieved in 1917-1973.

Avraham Rosenblum writes:

Would it be better to have him write an essay defending his own position?

Joe Torben writes:

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David R. Henderson writes:

I think Aidan did quite a good job content-wise. I do wonder, though, whether his grammar and style are a little too good. But maybe I’m being unjust to high schoolers.
The one content issue I wonder about is whether he would look too informed by using the term “Scrooge-like.” But again, maybe I’m underestimating the cultural knowledge of high-schoolers.

mico writes:

Very nicely written for a 13 year old. I also thought a few things (e.g. Scrooge) sounded a bit too knowing, but that is probably only because I was primed. I doubt I would guess this was not in earnest, if handed it blind.

(To be fair, my history textbooks did explicitly state that living standards rose dramatically throughout the 19th century for the poor, then bizarrely just ignored their own statements and gave the folk socialist account anyway. I grew up in the UK.)

Seth Green writes:

This is great. Kudos to Aidan. I think that many high schoolers do use similes as ham-fisted as "Scrooge-like employers," as another commenter pointed -- but it might be a "tell" that the author does not sincerely hold this position because the rest of the essay is written at such a higher level. Like, if you *knew* you were reading 10 essays and one of them was written by a knowing opponent, the differential in sophistication might give him away.

On my AP English exam in 2005, we were given a prompt by Peter Singer to agree/disagree with: We should earn enough to meet basic needs and give the rest away. That would be a great one to have people try to fake the exact opposite position they really take.

Steve S writes:
"While it is true that many workers experienced a rising standard of living, accidents induced by machines were all to frequent."

This was the only part I thought a "true believer" would present more evidence for. There were many other negative features of working in a factory other than just accidents. Among them long term pollution exposure, repetitive motion injuries, long hours with little/no breaks...I felt that leaving it at just the accidents was a little sparse.

Great job otherwise, really enjoyed the [purposeful?] silent nod to the power of coordination though presented through the lens of unionizing and not more free-market approaches.

ThomasH writes:

I guess learning how to make facile arguments that you do not believe shows some skill if it combined with a keen sense of just which arguments will appeal to the person to whom the argument is addressed. It also requires a high degree of cynicism and willingness not to argue in good faith. I believe this is called Sophism and has been recognized as a philosophical sin since at least the time of Plato.

This is probably not a big deal in a young person as a kind of mental gymnastics, but you should hope this does not become a character trait.

David Anthony writes:

"Most farmers simply found it difficult to work in a monotonous factory for 12 hours a day, often with little or no respite"

This made me laugh. Good job!

Steve Z writes:

This is a great home-schooling practice--studying aping the biases of normals--that reflects laudable effort by the teacher. Kudos, Bryan.

You will find loads of references to "Scrooge-like employers" if you search Google News.

Here is one example in *The Hill* from the last two weeks:

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/264018-what-would-ebenezer-scrooge-do

"Does Cratchit get paid a livable wage? How about paid family sick leave and healthcare benefits? Does he get a retirement plan?

Who knows for sure? Nevertheless, if today’s Scrooge-like CEOs offer any indication, then the answer is no."

I don't think the Scrooge reference gives away anything. ;-)

steve writes:

Very nice writing for a 13yo in any case.

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