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Could You Pass Harvard's Entrance Exam From 1869? 741

Posted by samzenpus
from the learning-for-learning's-sake dept.
erfnet writes "The New York Times remembers back to when 'college was a buyer's bazaar' and digs up 19th-century classified ads from Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and others. In competitive efforts to attract students from the limited pool of qualified candidates, applications were taken as late as September for an October freshman class. Vassar offered lush room accommodations. The expectations were high: Latin, Greek, Virgil, Caesar's Commentaries; Harvard's entrance exam from 1869 is posted (PDF). Could any of us pass the exam today?"
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Could You Pass Harvard's Entrance Exam From 1869?

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  • Re:Nope (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:29PM (#35777438)

    Well, I'm a Harvard grad, and I can't answer any of the questions involving Greek and Latin translation on this test. I'm about 50% on the History and Geography section off the top of my head (i.e. without looking anything up), and the math sections look pretty trivial. All this proves is that we don't learn as much History and Geography these days, even at Harvard, and Greek and Latin simply aren't important parts of the average high school (or college) curriculum and are no longer considered mandatory knowledge for an educated gentleman as they were in the 19th century.

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

    by perpenso (1613749) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:39PM (#35777518)

    Yet it's interesting to note that they were expected to know Greek and Latin from high school (or equivalent.)

    There was also a much greater emphasis on Geography back then. Nowadays that's an optional course.

    Math is an optional course today. Last I heard my former HS is only requiring one year to graduate, pathetic.

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PFI_Optix (936301) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:01PM (#35777680) Journal

    I did go to school, just not Harvard. A year in university before dropping out and going to work, then three more semesters at other schools before deciding I was right to stay away.

  • by parmadil (811515) <parmadil&gmail,com> on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:02PM (#35777686)

    I'm two weeks away from a master's degree in Ancient Greek. I'm not sure I'd pass the Greek portion of the exam. Why? Because it focuses on extremely rigorous memorization of obscure details (and I'm talking obscure details of an arcane dead language, mind you). I can read even difficult Greek pretty well, but that doesn't mean I can decline 'trirs' (a noun in a highly unusual declension), or form the correctly-accented participles of 'histmi', or decline much of anything in the unusual dual number, off the top of my head and without consulting a grammar. Nor, I think, could most of my colleagues. The translation *into* Greek, however, is quite easy. It's a hard test for college freshmen, to be sure, but it's also testing based on a very different sort of educational objective. Passing the Greek section requires more memorization than actual competence in the language.

  • Re:You got it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mini me (132455) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:27PM (#35777836)

    The world is no longer a place where most people are labourers and an elementary education is all that is needed (if that). It is a complex, information based, place where people need to know more. That means more schooling for all.

    If anything, higher formal education is less important now than it was in years gone by. Today, the complex, information based, place we live in allows one to learn about anything on demand, in seconds. Unless your interests are purely academic, you don't need the full background of a given study crammed into a short time period to solve problems in the real world. Like someone commented earlier, knowledge is just trivia; being able to think is all that matters.

    What really happened is that the universities found the appeal in money. More students equals more income. The lure of higher incomes advertised on false premises attracted people in droves. One of the best marketing campaigns to date, in my opinion.

    University is a fantastic place for one to pursue their passions in the study of a given topic, but to say more schooling is needed to survive outside of academia seems a little misguided. I do agree that you can never stop learning; if university is the only place you can learn, more power to you.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gadzook33 (740455) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:32PM (#35777876)
    Ok, could you pass the math part? I have several degrees in engineering and I don't think I could. But then, upon reaching grad school I always felt I was woefully under-prepared compared to the 98% of my class that wasn't from the US. Looking at this exam just reminds me of that. And it doesn't look like the inclusion of general relativity would have slowed these guys down much.
  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jdpars (1480913) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:40PM (#35777918)
    Learning Latin and Greek open up an entire world and culture to a student. When they are taught outside of the terrible rigor and memorization we always hear about or see from Hollywood, they are terrible. But when instead they are shown to be gateways to the rise and fall of whole civilizations, well, it gives a student perspective. Another way to think about it is like this: few subjects have what my teacher-education classes call "enduring understandings." These are supposed to be more than facts, but knowledge that stays with a student throughout their life. There are so many of these with subjects like classical languages that they permanently affect a student's life. Yes, many of the elite would educate their children in Latin and Greek, and the knowledge or lack of knowledge on these subjects was probably used unfairly to judge applicants. But the languages were studied because there was value in them, and to this day there still is.
  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sir_Sri (199544) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:04AM (#35778078)

    the question becomes: is it the same greek as being asked here. In 1869 Greece was 20 years independent from ottoman rule and still basically a nothing state on the world stage (not that it's much of anything today). Greek as taught in modern greece (or in this case 1860's greece) is not necessarily the same as the various versions of greek that would pre-date the modern world. There are classical language courses you can take at some schools, including universities, but the version of greek harvard is asking about in 1869 probably has relatively little bearing on contemporary greek of that period let alone modern greek.

    Today you can find greek in a smattering of countries, italy, turkey and greece being the big ones, but armenia, ukraine, cyprus and a few others as well, but no more than a person today could do well with old english (which is nearly unintelligible), or middle english (shakespeare and KJV bible era, which is somewhat comprehensible).

    I think probably if you could pass that exam today you could probably still do well in most liberal arts programmes at least. It shows an ability to grasp foreign languages (always handy), and a relatively diverse reading set. Not that there wouldn't be better measures of success today though. I think a modern scientist faced with an exam from 140 years ago might have a lot of trouble. There's language, terminology and style advances, skills that have largely been obsoleted (by for example the calculator), and then well, we know more now than they did then of course. Even if the math is the same, the way the math is written has changed quite a lot (hello matrices!). Any test carries with it the context of its time, and there's probably a ripple effect. What is today a challenging entrance exam at harvard or a PhD level topic in programming will 20 or 30 years from now be pushed into the highschool curriculum, and then 20 or 30 years later it will likely be long forgotten as it is supplanted by new problems and techniques.

  • by demonlapin (527802) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:26AM (#35778168) Homepage Journal

    And I have to wonder just how prestigious the Ivy League schools were in 1869.

    It is worth noting, in this context, that Harvard once offered the chair of astronomy to Galileo. They've been around for longer than most think. At the time, of course, admission was much more predicated on pedigree than intelligence, but then again a good pedigree is actually a reasonable first estimate of intelligence.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JanneM (7445) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:32AM (#35778200) Homepage

    there isn't an innate sense that 10 is smaller than 12

    I have a hard time believing this. Got any references (except mentally retarded and seriously underage ones)?

    I think the OP may refer to the fact that above some small number (5-6 or thereabouts) we no longer have a preconscious sense or relative magnitude. If you put one set of five objects and one set with six objects, you can immediately, unthinkingly point out which set is the larger one. And so can anybody, including children with not a day of education, and even some other animals (their limit may differ of course).

    With 10 and 12 objects, you need to count. More to the point, you need to learn how to do so. You can longer rely on any kind of automatic perceptual or cognitive ability to do so.

  • Re:re Maybe (Score:5, Interesting)

    by antifoidulus (807088) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:35AM (#35778216) Homepage Journal
    Better nutrition, especially during early childhood, is probably a bigger factor. Studies have shown that kids who go hungry in the first 5 or so years of life tend to score markedly below those that do not.
  • Re:Nope (Score:3, Interesting)

    by definate (876684) on Monday April 11, 2011 @01:02AM (#35778340)

    Who needs to suffer through academia when there's plenty of blue-collar jobs that pay a lot out there?

    EXCELLENT!

    I've been looking for a good quote to show people in the "jobs going over seas" threads. This way when blue collar workers are complaining about their salaries/jobs going over seas, I can reference this which shows either the mentality of their compatriots, or even themselves.

    Blue collar workers who passed up the opportunity for higher learning, and still continue to pass it up (eg, refuse to go back), despite the fact that the price of their labour is decreasing, to amounts they can't afford, resulting in their jobs being moved over seas. Who then cry foul, and want us to bare the cost of their lack of skills through regulation, subsidies, or similar.

    This is perfect. Thanks!

  • by catchblue22 (1004569) on Monday April 11, 2011 @01:35AM (#35778482) Homepage

    I think the whole thing speaks volumes to the disconnect between academia and reality.

    Your post, and the fact that you are rated as "insightful" speaks volumes to the shift that has occurred. Your statement, and the rest of your post, where you claim that "...an education in the high points of historical philosophy might be of limited use..." speak volumes of a profound poverty of mind, where education and the search for truth is predicated in material gain. This intellectual poverty forms us into individual intellectual islands floating through time, neither looking backwards nor forwards. We are separated from the origins of our society, our culture, our values. We forget that our society was modelled after ancient Greece. Ideas such as private property, money, justice, freedom of speech, constitutional government all come from ancient Greece, and were refined and developed by the Romans (at least during certain periods of Roman history).

    Before you write off classical education, read Plato's "The Apology", where you start to see the beginnings of the ethical underpinnings of our modern world. Read Plato's Gorgias, where Socrates carries on a debate about many issues that still rings true today. See if you can see in this quote a great summation of the modern field of advertising and public relations in his statement about "oratory":

    Socrates: The same is true about the orator and oratory relative to the other crafts, too, then. Oratory doesn't need to have any knowledge of the state of their subject matters; it only needs to have discovered some device to produce persuasion in order to make itself appear to those who don't have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually do have it. Plato - Gorgias - 459c

    Reading the first volume of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" has given me a great appreciation for how civilizations develop and change, and about how valuable our current stable democratic systems are. When you look at long succession of Roman emperors who were all removed by various methods of murder, you start to realize the value of electing leaders.

    When you speak of the "disconnect between academia and reality", I think you minimize the work of centuries of great thinkers. When you look at the world logically, you begin to realize that it is very strange. You start to realize your own limitations. It gives you a sense of humility, both for yourself and for the poor sods who think they have figured it all out. You start to realize what pathetic creatures we are, how we weave illusion upon illusion. It is the way we are, and the best we can do is to try to understand the world. However, we should never believe that we have "figured it all out", because when we do that, we effectively stop thinking. Socrates said that "as for me, all I know is that I know nothing". He spent his life questioning and seeking knowledge, but he always remembered his limitations.

    Education cannot simply be about utility. It has to also be about making us more complete as human beings. It should help us in our search for wisdom and truth in the world. Socrates said that "the unconsidered life is not worth living." When you do not consider the purpose and meaning of your own life, you become a football, being kicked around in someone else's game.

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dingen (958134) on Monday April 11, 2011 @04:03AM (#35779068)
    Seriously? Wow. Here in the Netherlands, both Latin and Greek are still very common on the highest level of high schools (gymnasium). You don't have to pick both of them to graduate though, but one is usually mandatory.
  • by epine (68316) on Monday April 11, 2011 @05:43AM (#35779402)

    You haven't heard from *all* the drop-outs, have you? And many of the people who didn't drop out, but stayed in the system a little too long, are guilty of the converse Kool-Aid.

    There have been an increasingly dire series of reports that many (expensive) post-graduate degree mills are steering their studious lemmings over a career cliff.

    This as it becomes increasingly unclear why a person needs to pay big money for higher education in a world where it's hard to think up anything you can't find out about in 30 seconds or half an hour.

    If I had stuck it out in math class and learned how to do the Laplace transform and other manipulations of the s-domain, it would have saved me a phone call or two to other people who stuck it out in math class. And even without the training, I can fill in the blanks cook-book style, and I have a pretty good idea what the s operator is all about. I'd be hard pressed to improvise, but how many people out there would you trust to improvise on the subject of analog filter design?

    I'd also like to figure out the structure of the electromagnetic field in our measurement product, but none of the people I know who stuck it out in math/physics class can do it any better than I can. If we're determined to know the answer, we're going to have to use an electromagnetic field simulator.

    Here's an example of the knuckle cracking involved just to warm up to the problem:
    The Velocity Factor of an Insulated Two-Wire Transmission Line [princeton.edu]

    But I'm sure Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse could scribble out the answer free hand on the back of his entrance exam, because it occurred to him while proving that "circles are to each other as the squares of their radii" that he had never constructed a Sierpinski curve that carpets the unit circle, and that lead to other things.

    In my initial survey of computational options, I discovered MEEP, under the GPL, from MIT. Scheme/C++/Python front ends. I can do all that. Correctly setting up temperature and frequency dependent complex permitivities in several different bulk materials, and not missing out a crucial factor of 1/2 pi somewhere, I'd really want to have someone "educated" to check my work. On that little DIY proposition, I think just opening the box is a three day exercise. With another six years of formal math education, I could maybe even contribute some patches.

    Kenneth Arrow [wikipedia.org]

    I quote this all the time. And this is old school, already. I'm amazed at the resilience of mass pyramid schemes in the modern workforce. It works this way in pro sports. For every four kids with the talent to "make it big", three drop out due to injury, bad timing, or circumstance with little to show for it, while the kid who makes tenure with the big club reaps huge rewards; not even counting the untold hours invested by kids who dropped out far earlier in the process. The same evolution is taking place in academia these days: $30,000/year as a post-doc shifting test-tubes in some dank over-lit basement. Sign me up.

    In the post-Arrow world, the relationship of education to knowledge or common sense is becoming ever more tenuous. I think Temple Grandin has been underemployed in modern curriculum design. On a bad day it feels like the fundamental economic output of the modern labour force is income disparity.

    Gone are the days, it seems, that one could get by having the skills and personality to make a positive contribution to the world around us. Yet the opportunity to contribute, as gated by the availability of the core knowledge, has never been greater.

    What the world needs is a way for bright kids to drop out of the overpriced educational treadmill without being suspected of having a chip on their shoulder. Or educated voters who give a damn, but the second item seems out of reach. (Is it just myth that back when education was rare, presidents spoke inte

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tom (822) on Monday April 11, 2011 @08:20AM (#35780050) Homepage Journal

    *wave* - over here.

    I want to a public school that taught latin starting 5th year (i.e. when I was 11) and greek starting 10th year (pupils aged 16-17).

    Ok, this is good old Europe, we're not being bred to become burger flippers. Maybe that's a point. And yes, it's not your average school, but it's neither an expensive place (free, in fact, just a regular public school) nor very special.

    Education can be had if you want it (for your kids). But you do have to look around and make a good choice. It's not everywhere. And - and that's probably the main point - you have to have some yourself in order to understand how to make that choice.

Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself. -- A.H. Weiler

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