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

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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  • Nope (Score:4, Insightful)

    by heptapod ( 243146 ) <> on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:16PM (#35777358) Journal

    I doubt they'd be able to pass a modern test either. These people grew up with a different curriculum than those at the latter half of the 20th century / new millennium.

  • re Maybe (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jelizondo ( 183861 ) <jerry.elizondo@gm a i l . c om> on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:24PM (#35777410)

    I would if instead of Greek and Latin the languages were English and Spanish...

    I must note that English is not my maternal tongue...

    Maybe English and Mandarin? Different times, different places, different requirements...

    What use is Latin and Greek today?

    Could a Harvard graduate from the era be able to send an email from a laptop? Would he know how to even turn-on the laptop?

    What is this? Slow-news Sunday?

  • by zill ( 1690130 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:28PM (#35777426)
    To be fair, there weren't exactly a whole lot of science back then. Plus much of the scientific knowledge in 1869 were available exclusively in Latin, hence the emphasis on the "dead language".
  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:28PM (#35777430)

    Could any of us pass the exam today?

    Well, the theory of relativity, evolution, anything about computers, most modern medicine, etc., would be straight out because they didn't exist then. And I doubt many people here would disagree that knowing how to use a computer and a basic understanding of physics something every college would want in its students. It's no use trying to test ourselves according to the standards of over a hundred years ago... we know so much more about the world it's not even fair. The smartest person of that era would look like a total idiot today just trying to get by with what we take for granted -- driving a car, using a cell phone, browsing the internet, etc.

  • by Wintermancer ( 134128 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:35PM (#35777482)

    With the exception of the arithmetic, logarithms and trigonometry, algebra and plane geometry, not a chance in Hell.

    Now, how well would a prospective applicant fare with some of today's knowledge? Introductory quantum mechanics can be taught at the high-school level. Now someone out Victorian era and give them the mathematical equations and they would fail due to not having the conceptual foundation to understand it.

    Hold onto your seat for the big reveal: Knowledge advances over time, but correspondingly, some knowledge is made obsolescent. How well would any of do at knapping flint knives and spears? You might make a passable one, but not one that would qualify as a quality tool in the Paleolithic era.

    Progress, folks. It's a good thing.

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:36PM (#35777488)

    What use is Latin and Greek today?

    Latin is very important today, especially with respect to the web. Have you tried to come up with a short decent sounding company name that is both trademark-able and has an available .com domain? I found it easier to accomplish with Latin than English, Perpenso [].

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PFI_Optix ( 936301 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:38PM (#35777508) Journal

    I think the whole thing speaks volumes to the disconnect between academia and reality. While an education in the high points of historical philosophy might be of limited use, much of that is pure nonsense intended to filter out undesirable applicants who, while quite capable of learning and performing, lack the "breeding" to be accepted. It was a great way to ensure that only like-minded people got degrees and continued the cycle.

    Colleges have gotten a lot better in the past century, but they still spend a lot of time making sure you think how they want you to think, or at least can pretend to.

    Disclaimer: I'm a college opt-out who was accepted to Harvard but didn't go (I applied just because I could). I decided there was a better way into the real world that the bullshit you have to endure at university. Take that how you want.

  • Re:different time (Score:5, Insightful)

    by daniel_mcl ( 77919 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:39PM (#35777516) Homepage

    Please tell me you're kidding. Latin != Italian.

    And for that matter, heaven forbid that college should be about getting an education instead of necessary vocational training. Clearly knowledge is worthless except as a bullet on a résumé.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Garble Snarky ( 715674 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:47PM (#35777568)
    Just curious - how did you acquire enough experience to decide not to go to school based on that reasoning, if you never wen in the first place?
  • by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:05PM (#35777708)

    OK, here's a revision. With a week's training, I'll bet the 1869 man could drive a car, use a cell phone, or browse the internet. Could you, with a week's training, learn algebra, geometry, trig, history (in depth), geography, Latin and Greek? The two sets of tests aren't equivalent. (Sorry, I'm being a bit unfair. You did mention relativity, evolution, computers, medicine. But relativity isn't taught in high school. Evolution is a simple and obvious concept. Medicine, beyond the germ theory of disease and other easy bits, isn't taught in high school. That leaves computers.

    The obvious lack in the old test is science, there should have been something on agriculture or animal husbandry, or medicine or astronomy.

    The obvious "We don't care" for modern times is Greek and Latin.

    The sad lack in modern education is history. One reason our modern politics is so thoroughly screwed up is that a high quality understanding of history has been lost to the general population for a century.

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:12PM (#35777768) Journal

    They learn that Heather has two mommies, that Islam is a religion of peace, hurt feelings run the world, and how to throw all of that into a inspirational powerpoint presentation.

    Modern School is nothing more than a giant social engineering program that is failing our kids.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by metlin ( 258108 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:28PM (#35777848) Journal

    The idea behind a liberal arts education is to become a well-rounded person, with a (hopefully) better understanding and appreciation of the world around you.

    This is something that is sorely missing in the vast majority of the population today, thanks to the transactional view of education. The idea of applicability to real life is something that was perpetuated by the likes of corporations, who needed skilled people but did not want to train. In fact, until fairly recently, companies offered training programs outside of your acceptance, and it was a given that you would learn those skills when you joined a company. These days, that is passe.

    Colleges have become trade schools, and are expected to teach trades that are applicable to a job, with little else. Except for a handful of top notch schools, the vast majority lack depth in what they teach. This lack of appreciation and understanding stretches to both the sciences and engineering as well as the arts and humanities. No one wants to learn computer science, they want to learn programming. No one wants to learn the philosophy of morality, they want to get a law degree. No one wants to learn how to paint or understand the fundamentals of the visual arts; they would much rather learn "animation" and "game design" join a design studio.

    The unfortunate side effect is that this is a shift in perception, one from when people wanted to be well rounded and enlightened, to one where people merely want to learn a skill and make money.

    And if you think that historical philosophy is not enlightening, or even applicable to the real world, you are missing out on some of the greatest thinkers that this world has ever produced.

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Insightful)

    by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:37PM (#35777900) Homepage Journal
    Have to learn how to read those church inscriptions somewhere, right? I've not learned any Romance languages using my Latin as a base, so that's pretty much all I can do with it. You're totally right about the beauty of the language - being able to stand in St. Peter's and read TU ES PETRUS, ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM... that was pretty cool.
  • Re:Nope (Score:2, Insightful)

    by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:41PM (#35777936) Homepage Journal

    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)?

    for some students if you want them to turn to page 100, the will flip page by page until they get there

    This, on the other hand, I believe. But it has nothing to do with maths, but a lack of common sense. Or plain stupidity, if you like. Of the kind that cannot be cured by knowledge, because it's innate.

    Now, with education, that can be changed, but it's hardly innate.

    I beg to differ - I don't think education can do anything for someone being stupid. Not knowing things, yes, but the ability to apply knowledge to what you encounter in your life is what separates smart people from sheep.
    A frighteningly large part of the population lack that ability, and it's a small miracle that they manage to go through their daily lives without killing themselves.

  • by Doctorer ( 1017662 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:52PM (#35778018)
    The thing omitted in that observation however is that until only this very generation, being able to recall with precision what one has learned was a crucial skill in any kind of study. Moderns don't bother remembering anything (even their own phone number) because they can just "look it up". High school students unceasingly complain about having to learn the first principles of mathematics "because I can just do it with my calculator" - how much more in any other discipline (which is not so clearly procedural as mathematics) would students need a "specific education" if there is to be any hope of them learning further?

    I do think that universities are mostly to blame here, having flocked to the fashion of generating money-spinning faculties (like "commerce" and "journalism") while abandoning the faculties that gave the university its identity for centuries (philosophy, history, theology).

    There are some overlapping faculties (such as engineering) which both teach a mostly technical discipline while also requiring a more advanced theoretical foundation, and these probably do still belong at the university... but perhaps the time is coming when we will have to look more closely at the "BS/BA only candidates" and the "graduate studies material". Actually that's already happened, with a sharp divide between the undergrads who happily toddle off to their careers in industry and never darken the doors of the academy again, and the lifelong academics who seem never to leave at all.

    Perhaps the thing I find most objectionable is the indignantly anachronistic egalitarianism on display in the comments here, for the most part by people who know nothing of education (or scholarship in general) beyond their own experiences as a one-time student. Latin and Greek are not "stupid shit" put up as a wall to keep the unwashed masses out, they were (and remain) an exceedingly useful foundation for any advanced study in any discipline with a European vocabulary. At the turn of the (last) century, French may well have taken a dominant role in European correspondence but it only worked because everyone worth writing to had a working knowledge of Latin and Greek.
  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:15AM (#35778124)

    Also, Biology including evolution, Astronomy, Chemistry; Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus; Computer programming; Print shop, metal shop, and actual knowledge about health. If you want to see more of that and less "social engineering", then more money should be put into them.

    The US spending per student is already comparable to the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, Israel, etc. Perhaps the problem is not the current spending level but how/where it is being spent? []

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:18AM (#35778138) Homepage

    There's a substantial difference between teaching you to reason and teaching you reason in the same way as other academics, inevitably reaching mostly the same conclusions. It is not without reason that academics have been accused of living disconnected from the real world, having convinced themselves that their highly theoretical model of how the world works actually reflects reality. Or perhaps ideological models is the right word, most working men have a more pragmatic approach.

    Then again, I'm not so worried about academic people out of touch. Far worse are the career politicians that have never had a "normal" job in their life, all they've done is to work for political organizations. They have some very funny ideas about how the world runs plus an overinflated ego about their own importance. They only decide how to split the cake, they're not the ones baking it.

  • Re:Nope (Score:4, Insightful)

    by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:34AM (#35778214) Homepage Journal
    Meh, I'm not Catholic, so it didn't really bother me. The Church is a human institution, no doubt, but it spent a long time as the only civilizing influence in a lot of Europe. I know why people condemn it, but (like any other institution) its bad sides aren't the entirety of it.
  • by mgbastard ( 612419 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @02:18AM (#35778664)

    The sad lack in modern education is history. One reason our modern politics is so thoroughly screwed up is that a high quality understanding of history has been lost to the general population for a century.

    I was looking hard to see if anyone had a glimpse of why greek and latin are important to education. You almost nailed it.

    We've lost the art of teaching of how to think. The gentlemanly Greek and Latin were taught towards skills in reading texts, not in conversing to Joe Greek on the street about how he feels today; the pupil is then empowered to read many great and early works documenting the foundation and thought, and its progression, that form the fundamentals of our knowledge in philosophy, government, sciences and mathematics. Reading the literature of the time in the original source language conveys the subtext much more fluidly, thus enabling full comprehension. Individual languages are colored by the culture speaking it: Much is lost in translation. If you are to understand how to think, and achieve parity with where we have already tread in thought, then you need to understand first-hand how we arrived at the present knowledge, complete with the traps and tangents, not just the right answer. You learn how temporary some right answers are, giving you the humility and perspective to grow beyond the works of mankind thus far.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @02:46AM (#35778740)

    "The unfortunate side effect is that this is a shift in perception, one from when people wanted to be well rounded and enlightened, to one where people merely want to learn a skill and make money."

    The problem is there is too much people want to experience today and too much work. Over the centuries education as we know it was not a requirement for existence. Over the last few hundred years public schools were invented to deal with the demands of the industrial revolution. You have to understand the very origin of schooling for the masses. What you're talking about is schooling for the elite, the people who could afford to be learned. People who had enough money/sheer interest to enjoy education for it's own sake.

    The educational requirements today just to exist keep going up and hence this is why universities are flooded with applicants who want skills for money. It's the natural outgrowth of needing more and more just to earn a living, or at least it is from societies perspective whether it is true or not.

  • Re:Agreed (Score:3, Insightful)

    by azaris ( 699901 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @03:07AM (#35778842) Journal

    I admit, I struggled a bit with the polynomials as I don't work much with them anymore, I still don't see any direct application for them even after years of working in scientific computing. Therefore, I see them as a graduation test only, meaning "If we can force you to learn this, then we can force you to learn anything.".

    Just for that you fail the exam.

  • you're all liars (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hazel Bergeron ( 2015538 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @03:50AM (#35779006) Journal

    Predictably, half the comments here reply, "Oh, wow, this test is easy except the Latin/Greek because that's not important!"

    Well, bullshit on all counts.

    (1) The purpose of learning Latin and ancient Greek is not to enable you to speak Latin and ancient Greek. They've already been dead languages for millennia and they were arguably even more dead then (Greece being even less relevant). It's an exercise in the study of language and of foundations of European culture and literature. You don't get the same experience by learning "Japanese for anime fans".

    Anyway, I "aced" Latin at school - that sort of thing was something I enjoyed and came reasonably naturally. Many years later, I have forgotten enough of it that I could not do a good job of these questions. The translations into Latin would today leave me hopeless without a dictionary. What is more, these aren't trivial Latin beginner questions.

    (2) History/geography - at least some people are admitting that they don't know some of these, though I see a lot of "oh about half". Really? Did you actually sit down with that sheet and no references and write detailed geographical and historical answers? Did you then go one by one checking at the end that they were all correct? Or did you just think "oh yeah I've heard of that before" and sneak in a "check" to Wikipedia, confirming knowledge you didn't really have to mind?

    The subject of my masters thesis was the history of an area of mathematics; background reading required me to be familiar with specific areas of classical Greek and Roman history. I enjoyed History at high school, though none of it was classical. Latin class included a certain amount of Roman history surrounding Pliny the Younger and Virgil, with an earlier school covering the historical context of the Odyssey and the Iliad. And yet I don't think I could do justice to any of the essay-type questions. "Pericles - the Man and his Policy" - really? Are even a significant minority claiming they even know more than a sentence or two about Pericles?

    (3) The maths section. Oh, what a surprise, everyone is claiming that the maths section is trivial. Well, bullshit again. I have a postgrad mathematical education and, yes, I can probably answer these questions. But I would have to think about the plane geometry proofs (which, it is likely, the candidate would be expected to have simply memorised for this test) - I can't recite all of them off the top of my head and I bet I'd stumble on some details for some of them if I were to actually write the answers all out rather than just wave my hand over the paper dismissively and say "this is easy".

    What is more, you annoying geeks, there were no electronic calculators in the mid-19th century. You know what this means? It means that half the challenge is doing the arithmetic quickly and without mistakes. And, whether by reading original Leibniz or the speling errors on /., there is one reassuring thing I have come to know (I am reassured because I do it myself and thought I was the only one): numerate geeky types make lots of trivial mistakes. A good mathematician - perhaps the sort who is intuitively familiar with geometry - might make a bad doctor or accountant, i.e. may fail in a profession where speed and accuracy with numbers is important.

    Whenever I visit Slashdot and there's a topic where people have the chance to put their knowledge to the test, I always see a huge number of people claiming that they did wonderfully at the test. And yet, in real life, hardly anyone ever performs at such superheroic levels, whether dumb, average or intelligent. This isn't because /. isn't full of super-geniuses - even though it isn't - it's because the sheer amount of information accessible in the world today means that everyone necessarily specialises a great deal. No particular random test which has not been prepared for is likely to fit the knowledge of a random sample of even fairly bright individuals.

    I guess it's just a predictabl

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ecuador ( 740021 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @05:05AM (#35779262) Homepage

    and still basically a nothing state on the world stage (not that it's much of anything today).

    Us Greeks appreciate your insight...

    Anyway, I don't hold grudges, so I will still answer your "question".
    Looking at the exam, the "Greek" it refers to is, of course, ancient Greek (the easiest form though, similar to what was used in the Hellenistic period). (At least written) Greek of that period (katharevousa) was actually pretty close. But in any case, ancient Greek is still a mandatory part of Greek high-school (Latin is optional) - I can read Hellenistic period works with no University level training in the subject.
    The difference is that in 1869, the classical languages were a big part of university education, since the ancient body of knowledge was comparable in volume to the -at the time- modern one. So if you wanted to go to the University, you had better learn your Greek/Latin well. So, even if ancient Greek is currently taught to all in high-school, students who want to study engineering or math in college, usually do the minimum and end up not learning much in those courses. But high school students who want to go into classics, literature, philology etc, will know the Latin and ancient Greek for this exam. They would find the particular test quite awkward though, as nowadays the focus is translating FROM Latin/ancient Greek, while this test is the reverse, although it tries to make it easy by translating most words for you.

Thus spake the master programmer: "When a program is being tested, it is too late to make design changes." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"