11 Apr 2011

Harvard’s 1899 Entrance Exam

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Harvard’s 1899 football team passed that kind of exam.

Eve Binder, Managing Editor at Ivygate and Yale ’11, reports on earlier admissions examinations at Harvard and Columbia with altogether excessive frivolity and dismisses the Classics with proud Philistinism. (Reverend Davenport would not be pleased.)

The New York Times recently unearthed a Harvard entrance exam from 1899, and man, is it ugly. The text spans three major disciplines–classical languages, history and math–and requires its victims to jump through flaming hoops in topics like Greek Composition, Random-Ass Geography, and Hard Numbers. Take, for instance:

    [in Logarithms and Trigonometry] 9. Find by logarithms, using arithmetical complements, the value of the following:

    [(0.02183)2 x (7)2/5]/[√(0.0046) x 23.309]

Remember, folks, there were no calculators in 1899. Nor, apparently, was there mercy.

    [In History and Geography] VI. Leonidas, Pausanias, Lysander.

Evidently this is a question, not just a list of people you’ve never heard of. Oh, wait, we’ve heard of Leonidas–but that’s only because we’ve seen 300, which someone living in the 1800s would most likely not have seen. Wonder if you’d get partial credit for identifying Lysander as “that dude in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.“

    [In Greek Composition] [Insert ancient cryptic mumbo-jumbo here]

Hey, it’s all ελληνικά to us. Can you imagine if this were on the SAT?

Speaking of the SAT, it’s hard to tell whether the replacement of questions like “bound the basin of the Po” with ones like “find the noun in this sentence” has been a good or bad thing. A good thing for us, certainly, because if we’d been forced to draw the route of the Ten Thousand on a map in order to get into college, we’d have been working at the 1899 equivalent of a Chick-Fil-A faster than you can say “Gay Nineties.” But perhaps not such a good thing for the overall intelligence quotient of our nation’s youth, which would unquestionably have been strengthened by the knowledge of “Pharsalia, Philippi and Actium.” All of which, by the way, sound like sleep medications.

In an interesting final coup, Columbia Spectrum columnist Thomas Rhiel has noted that the 1899 Harvard entrance exam pales in comparison to that of Columbia, which apparently required knowledge of French, German, and the following works:

    Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books I and II; Pope’s Iliad, Books I and XXII; the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers in The Spectator; Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Southey’s Life of Nelson, Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, Lowell’s Vision of Sir Launfal, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, […] Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America, De Quincey’s The Flight of a Tartar Tribe, [and] Tennyson’s The Princess.

Times sure have changed, haven’t they? Back then you actually had to read all these books in order to get anywhere in life. Now all you have to do is Google the ending and lie. Yeah, sorry we’re not sorry.

It’s understandable that the educated classes, force-fed for generations on the Classics, finally rebelled against the older system in favor of the more utilitarian, more flexible, and more modern. But the older I get, the more strongly I tend to believe that higher education made a gravely wrong turn when it made the decision to discard Classics as its foundation.

Serious and extended study of Latin and Greek reliably conferred a sort of grace and skill in written expression which has largely vanished from more contemporary prose. I routinely find the memoirs of colonial administrators and retired colonels produced before WWI far better written than the essays of the most admired current writers in today’s Spectator and New York Review of Books.

Reading the ancient authors also characteristically broadened the perspective of members of the educated elite of that earlier time. Rivalries between great powers, the outrages and brutalities performed by barbarian tribes, the forms of perfidy committed by foreign adversaries were all far more familiar and comprehensible to minds steeped in Xenophon and Thucydides.

Ivy League education today more commonly narrows the outlook of members of the contemporary elite, turning them into provincial conformists and uncritical followers of the fashionable consensus, lacking in sympathy for, or identification with, not our civilization’s past, but any past. Today’s commentariat is characteristically unable to consult the examples set by nations and leaders in conducting war during WWII when discussing current military operations, let alone reflect on what Alcibiades or Caesar might have done.

One Feedback on "Harvard’s 1899 Entrance Exam"

Steve Bodio

O tempora!

We are about the same age, and I did not go to Yale, but:

By grade 8 in my private school, I had 8 years of French, 2 of Latin, plus such things as art history, drawing, and how to read and sing music. High school added two more years each of Latin and French, plus more biology, physics, chemistry.

And that was less than an Ivy League freshman needed back when. As Flannery O’Connor said in the Fifties when I was in school, I am well- educated by the standards of my day, but I am not fooled.


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