Education In The Good Old (1869) Days

I did a series on this in 2010-2011. This post was also part of my series on whether William Sidis was actually one the smartest people who ever lived. (He wasn’t. Very smart, but not quite top shelf.) There was originally an argument in the comments about what, exactly, a test like this proved about a student’s intelligence, which I link to here. You can indulge that curiosity or not. The argument got testy. You will recognise some of the players. It isn’t central to what comes after.

I don’t think we argue quite enough around here. Perhaps there have been good arguments in the posts I don’t read the comments of, but it seems too much of “Yeah, and let me tell you another thing about that!” lately. So I will go after a conservative favorite, of how much better education was in the Good Old Days, which I think is bosh. I don’t defend much of what I read about education today, but neither do I think it was any better then. Since 2011, I have increasngly concluded that schools don’t matter quite as much anyway. The worst 20%, where it is dangerous to even go and hard to concentrate – that’s bad. The rest, it doesn’t make much difference. Never did. It’s all right to disagree with me about that, it won’t hurt me. I have seen lots of schools, old days and new; I know lots of teachers, old and new. I have read some of the real research, not the media-driven crap where they still can’t tell causation from correlation, and I have discussed this widely for decades. I know what the disagreements are (though I do get an occasional surprise). Have fun with it.

I am leading with this as a teaser, for its entertainment value, and because it introduces some concepts I’ll be bringing in later. I have edited it only a little from 2011. With the recent elite school admission scandals, parts of this are wryly humorous now.


An anonymous commenter linked to the 1869 Harvard entrance exam that was dug up by a NYTimes writer and made the rounds last year.  It looks pretty intimidating at first glance, and the commenter used it as evidence that Billy Sidis’s entrance into Harvard in 1909 was a pretty solid accomplishment in itself.  Interestingly, the boy’s getting in was probably even better than the exam would indicate.  Harvard was no great shakes in 1869, but had improved considerably by 1909, and was one of the world’s best by then.  I will note that it was still not what we think of today.  Competitive university admission is mostly a post WWII, or even post 1960 phenomenon.  Many of the brightest did indeed go to the Ivies, the Little Ivies, or the Seven Sisters,* but you simply couldn’t count on it.  The rich and the alums got their kids in, and nationally, people stayed closer to home and many of the brightest went to other schools, far more than, say, in 1990.

The gap exactly covers the period of Charles William Eliot’s presidency of Harvard, if you want more background than I will give here.

Read the headings over each section. See how few questions were required.

Also – it doesn’t say what a passing score was, does it?

185 out of 215 applicants got into Harvard that year.

But the test.  That Latin and Greek look awfully impressive right out of the gate. If you are older, and/or a reader of history, and/or a traditionalist, you may still have Latin Envy, believing that a “proper” education must include it, and Greek!  Why, that just seals it.  A different alphabet and everything.  Weren’t they smart, then?

No, not especially. They had had six years of Latin and four of Greek by then, whether by tutor or at academy.  If you took any languages at all in late 20th C, and make the mental comparison of what, exactly, they were being asked to do after six years, it looks much less impressive.  Note also, there was a standard set of works studied in those languages, which these questions are drawn from. There was frequent drill in grammar. Even if you had Latin yourself, you should note that the primary authors studied now are not quite the same as studied then, nor in quite the same way. These exam questions are essentially “Did you have proper teachers, are you reasonably bright, and did you make a moderate effort these last few years?” Nothing more.

Before I get into the math, let me note a major difference, then and now, in the test as a whole.  Look at what is missing in this exam.  There is no biology, no chemistry, no physics, and certainly no other sciences such as geology or economics.  There are no questions on English Literature – no Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton – and certainly no American literature (Horrors!  To even imagine such a thing!).  No modern languages, no history other than ancient, no world events, no weather, no basic medicine, technology, electricity, computers.  Even deeper, no methods of research, and no use of reference materials.  Because these were not taught to young men.  They were taught English Composition and Grammar, Latin and Greek, Ancient History, and the mathematics you see here.  That’s it.

Thus, their facility with L&G is dropping even farther down the list of impressiveness.  Most of what 7th-12th graders have to learn today they did not have to even pretend to know.  They were being trained to be gentlemen.  The push for more useful arts was just beginning in this country.

The mathematics would look worrisome at first, but on closer examination, not so.  The arithmetic is mostly just big numbers, and irritating, tedious working by hand.  We forget mathematics that we don’t use very quickly, but these students were still immersed.

Two stories:  I was a math wizard, but I had to relearn a lot of it each time a son got beyond the first few weeks of algebra in HS.  The terms and symbols were familiar, but I couldn’t remember where they went.  I could get it back, but I had to sit and stare, consult the index, and trial-and-error a bit.  All year, for both algebra and geometry. (And as the first two seldom needed help, I was even less prepared for the others.) Story 2: There was a math magazine when I was in school, which posed problems each month.  It printed the names of those who solved them the next month. I did a few months of that in 12th grade.  Because of going to St Paul’s for summer studies, I recognised the names of many of the other NH students who got problems right.  One month, there was a problem where I was the only kid in the country to submit a right answer – something about rotating one parabola along another and describing where the focus went.  Very cool.  I pretended, in my conceit , that I was the only one able to get it, which was insane.  How many students, even the nerdy math ones, read magazines and submitted problems?  Fast forward one year.  I was in a different type of math at college, but for some reason wanted to review my accomplishment from the year before.  Narcissism, likely.  I could not follow the solution I had myself written, only one year later.

We lose new abstract thoughts quickly, unless they are used.  Look at the logarithms, trig, and plane geometry in the exam.  Even if you can’t even remember how to begin to solve it now, do you recognise the words and ideas? Do you have some recollection of solving problems sort of like that?  Then in all likelihood, you could have done those problems when you were in 11th-12th grade.  And especially, if you didn’t have to study any Biochem, Shakespeare, or Intro to Psychology as well.  If you had the same five subjects pretty much year after year, you’d know ’em quite well.

Also – there was some different emphasis in what maths were taught then.  Trig was the top shelf, and you got two years of drill, drill, drill in it.  No sets, symbolic logic, calculus, or statistics for you.

*Fun trivia test for you:  name ’em.  I got five on my first try, then a sixth popped into my head a year or so later (this was before internet).  I never did get the seventh until I looked it up.

17 thoughts on “Education In The Good Old (1869) Days”

  1. No disagreement, just another “and another thing” comment ;) because I saw this issued rasied in another comment on a recent but now dimly remembered post somewhere.

    Your argument on the value of schooling and the exam is, I think, also a good argument against the very common supposition that IQ tests are just testing your level of education, often stated as the idea that we can raise the IQ of the general population if we just provided enough good schools. As you point out, they can’t, because school doesn’t change your IQ, nor do you really remember enough or with enough detail to know the answers on the IQ test. You might get some bonus for being familiar with the concept of taking a test and not being intimidated by the questions (assuming your schooling included taking tests similar to an IQ test) but any reasonable bright person is going to get comfortable with the questions and be able to understand what’s expected of them.

  2. Anyone who doubts that education was not better 50 years ago has only to look at education in the big cities up until forced busing destroyed parental oversight of neighborhood schools and, with it, accountability to the parents by teachers and principals. Busing took away the day to day involvement of parents with their childrens’ teachers giving it to anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats.

    50 years ago, if you wanted the BEST public school education you went to the cities. No doubt. Despite being flooded over the years with tens of thousands of kids with often illiterate, non English speaking immigrant parents, NYC & Philadelphia schools turned out Nobel prize winners in science and math, inventors, writers, business leaders and, at the very least, solid middle class workers with skills to raise a family.

    Compare that to today. Half the kids think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. 90% of them have no idea that the only way the government has one dime is by taking from the person who earned it. 90% of them think the 1st and 2nd amendments are suggestions that can be disregarded if they don’t agree. 100% of them are taught that the US should atone for lifting more people in the world out of poverty than any other nation in history and that ending the 2,000+ year institution of slavery by white, non-slave owners giving life and limb is evil.

    Don’t get me started on spelling, punctuation, grammar, writing, logic or basic math.

  3. Well, Lord knows I love a good argument over the superiority of the Koine Greek, but unfortunately we know for a fact that knowledge of Greek or Latin or the Classics does NOT indicate higher intelligence.

    Exhibit A is Donna Zuckerburg, Mark’s sister, who has become famous in her own right for claiming… brace yourselves… that the ancients were men, sometimes violent and aggressive, who nonetheless still appeal to modern men. Shocker, I know.

    Exhibit B is Mary Beard, who wants us to believe that Roman Britain was a multi-cultural socialist paradise ruled by blissful, borderless diversity.

    I don’t know if education was better back in the day or not, but today’s supposed academic elites twisting the past for weird political agendas are not very impressive.

  4. So I will go after a conservative favorite, of how much better education was in the Good Old Days, which I think is bosh. I don’t defend much of what I read about education today, but neither do I think it was any better then..

    Ed Schools have been bad for decades. Certainly Ed Schools today are bad, with their politically correct narratives and their incessant touting of the unproven education fad of the year. Five to ten years later, research debunks the unproven education fad of the year. No problem, there will arise a new unproven education fad to tout.

    I taught several years, in an unsuccessful attempt at a second career. To get certified, I took some Ed School course. One time I was complaining about Ed School nonsense to my aunt, who began her 35 years of teaching in the 30s. Her reaction: “So what else is new?”

    I would venture to say that student behavior is worse today than it was when I was a child. I will not discuss any supposed reasons for that.

  5. Fast forward one year. I was in a different type of math at college, but for some reason wanted to review my accomplishment from the year before. Narcissism, likely. I could not follow the solution I had myself written, only one year later.

    That depends. From the beginning of 9th grade, the New Math (UICSM) I took in high school was heavy on proofs. My recollection of 10th grade geometry was proofs every day. Three decades later, as a substitute teacher at a magnet high school, I was able to work out on the spot geometry proofs for students. Around that time I took a college course on Linear Algebra that involved a lot of proofs. Half the class couldn’t handle the proofs, and got a D or an F. As I had plenty of practice with proofs three decades before in high school, I aced the course.

  6. Most of what 7th-12th graders have to learn today they did not have to even pretend to know. They were being trained to be gentlemen

    This is the classical notion of the Paideia, noble training in the “the chivalrous ideal of the complete human personality, harmonious in mind and body, foursquare in battle and speech, song and action”.

    OK, maybe not too practical by today’s standards, I will grant you that.

    But if we want to measure worth where the rubber hits the road, what are today’s kids ultimately gaining from higher education? Un/underemployment and belief that having a family is a danger to the mother earth? How useful is that? From here it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump away from human sacrifice to the volcano gods.

  7. “…how much better education was in the Good Old Days”
    There were no “Good Old Days” because the education system changes every generation or so. What schools were trying to do has not held constant, so you can’t really compare across eras. Certainly the “every student should graduate from high school” is an extremely recent phenomenon–schools were never trying to do that. Until pretty recently, the top students were the target, since they were the ones who were going to go to college, most others would leave pretty early, so they were just there to get very very basics. I think one massive step back has been the removal of the ability for top students to go at their own pace. As we’ve industrialized the system to that everyone goes at the same pace, that has naturally hurt the top end quite a bit, and that’s something lots of us in conversations like this are especially sensitive to.

  8. By a few weeks into 11th grade (when I took trig) I (or many of my friends) would have aced (= no mistakes) all but the L&G sections of that entrance exam. Well, excepting also the manual calc of a cube root, tho, given a bit of time, I could do a numerical approximation of it to the specified number of decimal places…

    On the other hand, I’ll bet few of those 1909 Harvard applicants could pass the first semester exams of my high school German class. And none of them would have a clue about even the first week of quiz questions in my hi school chemistry or physics or electronics shop class (and many of today’s scholars would not know what to do with the next year’s questions about transistors ;^D), nor how to use a slide rule (meanwhile, I’ve met grad students today who had no idea what that does, not even what it looks like, much less how to use it). They’d have stumbled, for that matter, over my jr hi metal shop tests.

    Moreover, still on the other hand, I’d further bet that not one of those Harvard applicants would pass an ACT or SAT test. For that matter, they’d not even recognize much less get more than part of the math sections.

    However, having raised those quibbles/caveats, I’m comfortable with believing their schooling far better equipped them to venture into their world as responsible adults than does that of the typical college freshman of today.

  9. “I’d further bet that not one of those Harvard applicants would pass an ACT or SAT test.”
    Why not? The SAT isn’t exactly difficult. I’m pretty sure they’d ace it.

  10. “Half the kids think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.”

    I don’t take seriously the sort of surveys that show extreme ignorance among Kids These Days, or the Deplorable Masses, or whoever.

    Many people will refuse to answer such surveys and, of those who do answer, many will lie for their own entertainment. So you get these results showing that some shocking large percentage of people believe that Winston Churchill was a fictional character, and that the US Civil War was fought in the 1930s as a result of the election of President Ben Franklin.

  11. I’m comfortable with believing their schooling far better equipped them to venture into their world as responsible adults than does that of the typical college freshman of today.

    Read the Lincoln Douglas debates sometime and think about the education of the men who stayed and listened.

  12. @ Deep Lurker – yes, I recall when I was in high school the local paper would run stories about how people couldn’t name more than two of the Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution, could not even pick them out of a line-up. Or could not name the three branches of government, or more than three countries in Europe on average, and the like. None of this is new.

  13. AVI: “I don’t think we argue quite enough around here.”

    I disagree! Forcefully !! My honor as an argumentative little bugger has been impugned. Pistols at dawn, my man

  14. Mike, oratory was entertainment then, and we can’t conclude people understood it more than superficially. Even the well-educated for their time. Most newspapers were geared to a low reading level.

  15. or how to use a slide rule (meanwhile, I’ve met grad students today who had no idea what that does, not even what it looks like, much less how to use it)

    Slide rules were before my time, but when my late father (an engineer by education and occupation) had a collection of various well worn circular and linear slide rules and gauges. The most interesting one he had was this hybrid thing called a spirule. Used for determining the angles and sums of vectors or something. Honestly, I was always confused by it and still am. From what I can gather, control engineering is probably the closest engineering comes to mysticism. These guys start to believe they can gauge anything under the sun if they only they fix certain poles, measure certain frequencies, and calculate certain variables. The Buckminster Fuller complex. Fortunately, my dad wasn’t trying to square the circle or converge the syntropy or anything, but just reduce wear and tear on drivetrains.

  16. AVI: “Most newspapers [at the time of Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858] were geared to a low reading level.”

    What makes you think that? The Federalist Papers were originally published in newspapers in 1787/88 — and they are not easy reading today! Not just because of complex sentence structures and wide vocabulary, but also because of the assumed reader’s knowledge of history of earlier republics and states.

    It has been said that the last man & woman on Earth will still be arguing about how to educate the child they never had, so we should expect (and respect) differences of opinion on this topic. Maybe the real test of an education system is not years spent in classrooms but the performance in the real world of the products of that education. From the 18th to the early 20th Century, the products of American schools did great things in the real world in science, engineering, medicine, commerce, literature, arts; in the last few decades — not so much. We do seem to be far past the point of diminishing returns on our ever-growing investment of time & money in Big School.

  17. I used to console myself that: As bad as schools seemed when I was exposed to them or their recent products, exceptional students would still be able to find a few teachers that were looking for rewarding students.

    This may still be possible, but I have concluded that the educational-industrial complex is actively suppressing exceptional students in order to forestall having to explain their failure to benefit the rest. It is no longer possible to simply point out obvious behavior, discipline and intellectual differences or do anything effective to correct them. Much easier and safer from the mob to drag the exceptional down to the median.

Comments are closed.