Amo Amas Amat
April 9, 2011 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Harvard's 1869 Entrance Exam (PDF - NYT)
posted by The Whelk (85 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Vulgar fractions sound sort of racy.
posted by shothotbot at 9:49 AM on April 9, 2011


Typical New England liberal elites. (Harvard still requires the Greek SAT II, right?)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 9:50 AM on April 9, 2011


[fixed both typos - if people would like to discuss why there is not a "new post" button on the mobile app they can go to metatalk.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:50 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Let's hope the "tiger mothers" don't get their hands on this!
posted by Bromius at 9:52 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am hereby greatly humbled.
SMRT I am not.
posted by jillithd at 9:55 AM on April 9, 2011


Let's hope the "tiger mothers" don't get their hands on this!
Why? The stuff at the beginning is esoteric to contemporary students, but I don't think it's that difficult. The Latin grammar stuff didn't look any tougher than what I remember being on the Latin AP. It's just not what's being taught in school anymore, for the most part: the fact that I took the Latin AP makes me a weirdo. And I suspect that the average 2011 Harvard admit could have aced the math portion when he or she was in eighth grade.
posted by craichead at 9:57 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


I love the math section. I'm going to give it to my calculus students on Monday to make them sad.
posted by King Bee at 9:59 AM on April 9, 2011 [15 favorites]


I don't know. Some of those arithmetic questions are pretty difficult without a calculator - they definitely don't teach cube-rooting-by-hand in any AP math class that I'm aware of.
posted by ofthestrait at 10:00 AM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks, reddit!
posted by nasreddin at 10:00 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


People don't learn Latin and Greek anymore, it's no longer necessary to be very very good at manual computation to be a good mathematician, and OK I suck at Geography and haven't been to a 19th century Ivy Leage prep school apparently.
posted by floam at 10:01 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I couldn't get into Harvard back then, either.
posted by birdherder at 10:04 AM on April 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


Amamus Amatis Amant?

Am I right? It's been a while ...
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 10:05 AM on April 9, 2011


Harvard even played down the difficulty of its entrance exam in ads, reprinted above, that it placed in The New York Times in September 1870, noting that of the 210 candidates who took its test the June before, “185 were admitted.”

In other words, nearly seven out of eight candidates who sat for the exam made the cut, a statistic that few selective colleges these days would pay money to broadcast.


----From the NYtimes article this was grabbed from.
posted by vacapinta at 10:05 AM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I successfully completed one of the math questions, which is one more than I expected to be able to answer.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:06 AM on April 9, 2011


They forgot "Did your father attend Harvard?"
posted by pracowity at 10:06 AM on April 9, 2011 [56 favorites]


Re-reading the Little House books to my kids, I'm astonished at the level of not just manual, but in-their-heads, computation they could do. I think there's value to it beyond "oh, now we have calculators," in the way it trains concentration and memory and maybe even spatial perception (holding all the numbers in their heads, if they're sort of imagining the problem being written on a chalkboard).

Anyway, I'm surprised to see anyone say this is easy; it's just different from what kids are taught now. The algebraic word problem is easy, the cube-rooting is not.
posted by palliser at 10:08 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, and I'm sure "legacy" students did just as poorly on this test as they do on their "personal essays" on the application of today, but their wealth and status got them in then, and it gets them in now.

And with good reason. Somebody has to be content with pulling Cs, and it's not going to be the kids that have sweated and scraped and killed themselves studying just to be there.
posted by pts at 10:09 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


For revenge, I am imagining subjecting these jerks to exams on Chemistry and Physics and Biology I can understand and pass with ease 140 years later. I don't care that it's unreasonable and meaningless, I'm still a marvel of the future and I get to lay around on my couch and put off coursework.
posted by floam at 10:10 AM on April 9, 2011 [13 favorites]


Pts: Do you really think that anyone at Harvard gets Cs anymore?

from Wikipedia: "However, rising grades did not become a major issue in American education until the 1960s. For example, in 1890 Harvard's average GPA was 2.27. In 1950, its average GPA was 2.55. By 2004, its GPA, as a result of dramatic rises in the 1960s and gradual rises since, had risen to 3.48."
posted by leotrotsky at 10:13 AM on April 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Harvard even played down the difficulty of its entrance exam in ads, reprinted above, that it placed in The New York Times in September 1870, noting that of the 210 candidates who took its test the June before, “185 were admitted.”

In other words, nearly seven out of eight candidates who sat for the exam made the cut, a statistic that few selective colleges these days would pay money to broadcast.
Right, but the whole point of focusing on obscure points of Latin and Greek grammar is that it ensured that most smart young men couldn't even take the test. You had to receive the right sort of education even to get in the door, and then they could set the bar really low in terms of what test scores were necessary to get in. The point of Harvard wasn't to be selective. It was to be exclusive. And of course, the instant that upwardly-mobile Jews started acing the exams and getting into Harvard in disproportionate numbers, they instituted the quota system and rigged the admissions criteria to ensure that they accomplished what Greek and Latin exams could no longer pull off: making sure that a Harvard education was reserved for the right sort of student, not for the brightest or most accomplished ones.

Things may be fucked up today, but there wasn't ever a golden age when everyone was so much smarter and better educated.
posted by craichead at 10:13 AM on April 9, 2011 [41 favorites]


I've been asking for someone to explain question #3 on the Algebra exam since like 9th grade. Exponents and I don't get along well.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:14 AM on April 9, 2011


Anyone know how they would have reproduced handwritten text in 1869 for an exam booklet? I thought maybe these are instructor's notes but then the explicit instructions at the beginning of each section don't make sense.
posted by Mitheral at 10:14 AM on April 9, 2011


The math is actually ridiculously easy. I suppose the Latin and Greek looks difficult but it probably wasn't all that difficult if you were trained in it. The thing that's striking to me is how many assumptions of prior knowledge this exam made -- it really was extremely rigged to admit the sons of families that could afford to give them the rigorous rote training required to ace this. And many questions don't have much context at all -- just Leonidas, Pausanias, Lysander. You need to know what to do with these kinds of questions beforehand. I'm glad college admissions don't work like this any more (not that the kids of rich families don't game the system anyway).
posted by peacheater at 10:15 AM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


People don't learn Latin and Greek anymore

On behalf of everyone in my grad school cohort---bite your tongue!

It's not that the Latin and Greek composition here is extraordinarily difficult (especially since they supply the majority of the vocabulary), it's just that it's rarely taught even on the graduate level anymore. I do feel rather pleased, however, that their conception of "history" appears to be limited nearly exclusively to "classical history."
posted by Bromius at 10:16 AM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


Gyges! (/ˈdʒaɪdʒiz/)
posted by gubo at 10:17 AM on April 9, 2011


Yeah, coming out of high school I would have had some trouble with the Latin section but I probably could have wrestled through it. The math section would have been fine, though I haven't the slightest idea how to find a cube root by hand (ok, so, I'm sure its not terribly dissimilar to finding a square root by hand). Greek and history would have had me completely lost.

I've been asking for someone to explain question #3 on the Algebra exam since like 9th grade. Exponents and I don't get along well.

3^3 = 3*3*3
3^4 = 3*3*3*3
(3^3) * (3^4) = (3*3*3)*(3*3*3*3) = 3*3*3*3*3*3*3 = 3^7 = 3^(3+4)
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 10:19 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


leotrotsky: Wow, that's fascinating. I tacitly assumed the ivies were exempt from grade inflation. Guess not.
posted by pts at 10:20 AM on April 9, 2011


The math is actually ridiculously easy.

The math section would have been fine...


Wow, my math is really rusty I guess.
posted by Defenestrator at 10:22 AM on April 9, 2011


I've been asking for someone to explain question #3 on the Algebra exam since like 9th grade. Exponents and I don't get along well.

Eyebrows McGee, here's why when you multiply different powers of the same quantity their exponents are added. Let's call this quantity x. Now x^n (i.e. x raised to n) represents x multiplied by itself n times. Thus x^n = x*x*x... n times. Similarly x^m represents x multiplied by itself m times. Thus x^m = x*x*x... m times. Now suppose we multiply these two together. That is we want to figure out an expression for x^n*x^m. From the above x^n*x^m = x*x*x... m times * x*x*x... n times. Now surely it's clear that the right hand side of that expression represents x multiplied by itself a total of m+n times (since we have m multiplications from x^m and n multiplications from x^n). Thus x^m*x^n = x*x*x... (m+n) times, which by the definition of exponents is just x^(m+n). Thus x^m*x^n = x^(m+n). Since we haven't assumed anything special about x this is true for values of x.
posted by peacheater at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2011


I've been asking for someone to explain question #3 on the Algebra exam since like 9th grade. Exponents and I don't get along well.
What is the reason that when different powers of the same quantity are multiplied together their exponents are added?
Exponents are simply multiplication repeated n times.

2^3 = 2*2*2, (repeated 3 times.)
2^4 = 2*2*2*2, (repeated 4 times)

If you multiply (2*2*2) and (2*2*2*2), you're just getting (2*2*2)*(2*2*2*2), count them up, you're now just repeating the multiplication 3+4, 7 times.
posted by floam at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2011


I learned how to do cube roots by hand in high school but considering I haven't used the skill since it would probably take my all day to work that single question to the end.

peacheater writes " I'm glad college admissions don't work like this any more (not that the kids of rich families don't game the system anyway)."

Cultural biases still exist even on heavily worked exams like the SAT. And a good portion of SAT prep is learning how to take the test rather than study on the tested subjects.
posted by Mitheral at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2011


Are slide rules allowed on the math part? I might be a few legs up if we're allowed to use slide rules.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:26 AM on April 9, 2011


Are slide rules allowed on the math part? I might be a few legs up if we're allowed to use slide rules.
They were probably allowed to use logarithmic tables. In India, you're still not allowed to use calculators in high school, so I have a far more intimate knowledge of how exactly these kinds of pen and paper calculations are done in the absence of calculators than I would prefer (answer: painstakingly!).
posted by peacheater at 10:30 AM on April 9, 2011


Cultural biases still exist even on heavily worked exams like the SAT.
Oh yes, I know. Just feel that things are still a hundred times better than in those days, when people weren't even trying to be unbiased.
posted by peacheater at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2011


The math section is pretty easy, except for the question about 7^(2/3). I only wish my calculus II students possessed any of the skills required to take that section.

I've been asking for someone to explain question #3 on the Algebra exam since like 9th grade. Exponents and I don't get along well.

The explanations given above are pretty good, but they don't really convince you that the exponents are added if the exponents are anything other than integers. Why should

2^(1/2)*2^(1/3) = 2^(5/6)?

Well, think of what those things mean. 2^(1/2) is a number whose square is 2. 2^(1/3) is a number whose cube is 2. 2^(5/6) is a number whose sixth power is the fifth power of 2 (the fifth power of 2 is 32).

If you took the product of a number whose square is 2 and a number whose cube is 2 and raised to the sixth power (that is, square it first, then cube the result), you'd get 32. This is why we're justified writing in the equality above.
posted by King Bee at 10:32 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was a Classics major turned Classics minor (thanks to a prof who hated me and anything I translated despite spending 6 hours a turn on Pliny). If you'd handed me the Greek and Latin at 20 I would have come close to passing it. But hand me the geography section (which was most of my major) I would have struggled.

All the more ironic in that I tested out of the University of Colorado geography requirement and missed only one question out of 75 on the exam. But I'm comforted that no 1869 Harvard applicant would pass the 1990 University of Colorado geography exam, not with questions about plate tectonics, the Rocky Mountains, and the construction of sod houses in Oklahoma.
posted by dw at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


(not that the kids of rich families don't game the system anyway

I don't see why any of the current advantages rich applicants enjoy would count as "gaming the system." Sure, the kinds of qualities the admissions process rewards are a lot easier to cultivate if you have the resources, but that doesn't mean the process is unfair--it means society is. I don't even think legacy admissions are unfair, any more so than affirmative action admissions are. No one is entitled to a spot.
posted by nasreddin at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Great Big Mulp: "Greek and history would have had me completely lost."

How do you expect to get into seminary then? For shame.

peacheater: " I'm glad college admissions don't work like this any more (not that the kids of rich families don't game the system anyway)."

Oh, I don't know. It might be nice to have something in adult ed. (Admissions process: "Do you have a HS Diploma? GED? Good, good. Do you have $50? Great.")
posted by boo_radley at 10:43 AM on April 9, 2011


This reminded me of a scene in Proust where teenage girls at the turn of the century are instructed to write an essay on the topic:

"Sophocles writes to Racine from the underworld to console him for the failure of Athalie"
posted by Omon Ra at 11:03 AM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Latin stuff (esp. since they do give you almost all the words they're looking for-- you just have to figure out the proper grammar) is pretty straightforward. Here's question three in Robert Fowler Leighton's First Steps in Latin, for example.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2011


Man, I hate that history and geography question. Only the last two require any sort of thought or analysis, the rest are basically just really no better than something asked on pub trivia night, obscure and massively irrelevant.
posted by absalom at 11:14 AM on April 9, 2011


The things they wasted time learning back then! As if classical languages and geography could possibly be relevant to the real world.

It's so wonderful Harvard teaches real subjects now that aren't just a closed loop from 1 generation of the elite to the next with no real point or substance. Like its famous MBAs.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 11:28 AM on April 9, 2011


Getting into Harvard is highly desirable and competitive for the best students these days because of legacy admissions.

The legacy admits are the guys (used advisedly) who are going to work in family financial empires and hire the smart guys at $500K base with stock options.

If I wanted to attack legacy admissions, I'd do it by looking at how many women are included in that category; my intuition says damn few.
posted by jamjam at 11:32 AM on April 9, 2011


If I wanted to attack legacy admissions, I'd do it by looking at how many women are included in that category; my intuition says damn few.
Weird. I went to an Ivy, and that's not my impression at all. I have lots of issues with legacy admissions, but I think both young women and young men benefit.
posted by craichead at 11:39 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Leonidas, Pausanias, Lysander.

Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


I tacitly assumed the ivies were exempt from grade inflation. Guess not.

Grade inflation is worse at the Ivies than at lowly state schools.
posted by kenko at 12:10 PM on April 9, 2011


If I wanted to attack legacy admissions, I'd do it by looking at how many women are included in that category; my intuition says damn few.

Actually the only legacies I know at Harvard are female: my aunt (via grandmother at whatever that women's school was called) and the sister of a high school friend (via her dad; my male friend didn't get in). /anecdotal evidence
posted by Buckt at 12:14 PM on April 9, 2011


So do you see geometry on this list and say "Thank goodness they are still teaching kids something pure to teach them how to think well!" Or, like me, think "when are they going to replace stupid co-sines with a year of statistics?"

A pipe dream of course, as the admissions test companies are in thrall to Big Geometry.
posted by shothotbot at 12:23 PM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Looks pretty reasonable.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2011


I'm out. PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST!!
posted by Senator at 12:45 PM on April 9, 2011


Legacy Admissions and the "Z List" at Harvard College.

Top Colleges Mum on Legacy Admissions.
posted by ericb at 12:53 PM on April 9, 2011


The thing that made the biggest impression on me is how much of the math portion is trivial if you have a calculator.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:58 PM on April 9, 2011


Re-reading the Little House books to my kids, I'm astonished at the level of not just manual, but in-their-heads, computation they could do.

I also remember Laura only touching composition (essay writing) when she was very near the end of her education. She recounts turning out something that looks like what I would have written in middle school. Education has changed a great deal.

I'm also remembering Jane Eyre, whose education included a great deal of fancy knitting and fluent bilingualism- which while a fictional character, was probably based on the real Brontes' experience with school.
posted by Phalene at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2011


Yeah, what craichead said. In a nutshell, this test mostly screens you for having gone to the right sort of schools. I mean "Compare Athens and Sparta" is almost a password for class distinction at that level. If you went to the right school it's almost a joke question; if you didn't it's mystifying.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:11 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Exponent fans, just for fun consider this little paradox:

2 = X^X^X^X^X^X^X...

without limit. Since the ^Xs go on without limit, we can replace everything to the right of the first X^ by 2, reducing the original equation to:

2 = X^2

Therefore, X = √2.
posted by jamjam at 1:27 PM on April 9, 2011


Compare Athens with Sparta

That's one crazy question. Without prior knowledge of what they are actually asking, this question is ridiculous. It's purely a test of having the right connections and knowing what to write down here.

But yeah.. assuming that you had those connections, this would probably have been fairly doable.

Hence, reasonably smart students with the right connections could get into Harvard. Which is nice.
posted by Harry at 1:32 PM on April 9, 2011


That's one crazy question.

Was I dumb/naive in thinking that was an easy one? Blah blah warrior culture, blah blah oligarchy, blah blah voting, blah blah early academia and arts, blah blah trade?
posted by floam at 1:37 PM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]



Was I dumb/naive in thinking that was an easy one? Blah blah warrior culture, blah blah oligarchy, blah blah voting, blah blah early academia and arts, blah blah trade?


No, I actually could have answered it, too, based on having taken European History in high school.
posted by liketitanic at 1:42 PM on April 9, 2011


Long ago I studied physics at Trinity in Dublin (est. 1592), which quaintly still runs its own matriculation exam with a syllabus now weirdly reduced to only Biblical Studies and Geography. These topics alone are insufficient for undergrad entrance, which relies on selections from various EU exam systems, and which still gives relative priority to Latin (counting it as basically equivalent to English + Maths). But the TCD library used keeps printed copies of its annual "Calendar" going back a couple of centuries and for kicks I used to look through the older ones to see what the mathematics is the matric was like. Up until the middle of the 19th century it was like this Harvard one, then it got quite hardcore around the 1870s-1880s with applicants expected to play around a lot with some really quite difficult conic sections, transformations and limit series. Then it started adding more calculus and the amount of algebraic geometry declined. I guess these things go in fads, but to my modern self, all that conic stuff seemed way harder than the calculus.

One thing that struck me about coming to study in the US was that so much of it seems to be tested through these little multiple choice bubble screens, with scores often normalised against a class distribution, and good students expected to score Bs or As (ie, >80% or so) by answering all of the relatively simpler and less complex questions and using triage strategies to select the best responses within limited time. This is in contrast to the essay-type questions I was more familiar with, where students pick a smaller set of relatively more complex questions they wish to answer from a wider selection, and a "pass" is usually 40-50%, with good scores 60-70% and a gating above that. It seems like this old Harvard exam was using essay/proofs scoring, even for the maths, so I wonder when did the US colleges apparently abandon this and go to the bubble system? And what was the rationale? Was it just cheaper to administer and score?
posted by meehawl at 1:49 PM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


so I wonder when did the US colleges apparently abandon this and go to the bubble system? And what was the rationale? Was it just cheaper to administer and score?

Well this year 35,000 people applied to Harvard and the acceptance rate is somewhere below 7%. I think anything other than a standard form would lead to wide variation in acceptance. This is truly a shame, as it means that these schools get more and more homogeneous, even as they become more racially and economically diverse student body.

The problem is that while our population has exploded, the number of top universities hasn't. There's still only one Harvard. Don't know if there's a way to solve it, I'd like to see perhaps applications restricted based on region. Obviously the top schools have nothing to gain from this, but if there were 4-5 regional Ivy systems, it would really help topple a lot of problems with higher ed.
posted by geoff. at 2:09 PM on April 9, 2011


Well this year 35,000 people applied to Harvard and the acceptance rate is somewhere below 7%.

Last year it was 6.9%. This year, 6.2%.

Harvard Accepts Record Low 6.2 Percent of Applicants to the Class of 2015.

Related: College Admissions Rates Drop For The Class Of 2015.
posted by ericb at 2:19 PM on April 9, 2011


Yeah, I also went to a crappy high school where I skipped half the classes and I could easily have compared Athens and Sparta, which I think speaks to the point others have been making: This isn't inherently hard, it's just content that's different from what some people stud[y/ied].
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:28 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing that struck me about coming to study in the US was that so much of it seems to be tested through these little multiple choice bubble screens, with scores often normalised against a class distribution, and good students expected to score Bs or As (ie, >80% or so) by answering all of the relatively simpler and less complex questions and using triage strategies to select the best responses within limited time.
Were you at a big state school? I doubt that's a very common method of assessment at Harvard. You have to remember that there's a lot of diversity in the American educational system, and State U isn't really equivalent to TCD.
posted by craichead at 2:55 PM on April 9, 2011


Were you at a big state school? I doubt that's a very common method of assessment at Harvard

I'm pretty sure he's referring to entrance exams, which would SAT+SATII+Personal bullshit essays.
posted by geoff. at 3:01 PM on April 9, 2011


The problem is that while our population has exploded, the number of top universities hasn't. There's still only one Harvard. Don't know if there's a way to solve it, I'd like to see perhaps applications restricted based on region. Obviously the top schools have nothing to gain from this, but if there were 4-5 regional Ivy systems, it would really help topple a lot of problems with higher ed.

AFAIK that's what they do in France, so for instance the Sorbonne is just another geographically-restricted school. Then again, when higher education is both public and free, this gets a lot easier.
posted by nasreddin at 3:02 PM on April 9, 2011


Compare Athens with Sparta

This is Athens.

This. IS. SPARTA!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:05 PM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm pretty sure he's referring to entrance exams, which would SAT+SATII+Personal bullshit essays.
I don't think so, because if so, then this stuff doesn't make sense:
with scores often normalised against a class distribution, and good students expected to score Bs or As (ie, >80% or so)
At any rate, Harvard admissions pays a lot less attention to SATs than many less-selective schools do. They may use SATs to weed people out, but merely having excellent SAT scores isn't going to get you into Harvard. As they are fond of saying, they could fill their class several times over with people with perfect grades and perfect SAT scores. Harvard relies on "holistic review," which means that the bullshit essays (and bullshit recommendations and your bullshit extracurricular activities, not to mention whether you're a legacy) count for a whole lot, too.
posted by craichead at 3:15 PM on April 9, 2011


The thing that's striking to me is how many assumptions of prior knowledge this exam made -- it really was extremely rigged to admit the sons of families that could afford to give them the rigorous rote training required to ace this.

The assumption that really struck me was question #7 in arithmetic, which asks applicant to calculate interest in pre-decimal pounds sterling. Harvard is in the US of A, which has the regular old $1 = 100¢, but in 1860's England they've got £1= 12s. = 240d. It could just be in there to make the math harder, but they're also assuming that you know 20 pence to a shilling and 12 shilling to a pound.

But, I don't know if I really agree that this is just a trick to weed out the poor (or anyone poor enough to have never visited the UK). I think it's just the assumption that anyone with enough education to attend Harvard should have, at some point during their prior education, have run across this fact.
posted by Hoenikker at 3:37 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Considering what the 8th graders of that era had to know, perhaps this particular exam isn't very difficult at all.
posted by woodblock100 at 3:43 PM on April 9, 2011


Compare Athens with Sparta

In 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War (which killed around 10% of the examinee's age group in the North and 30% in the South) and eight years before the end of Reconstruction, you might expect some discussion of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, with an emphasis on the aftermath and similarities and differences between the two sides in the two wars.

I wonder if any southerners took (or could take) the exam.
posted by jamjam at 3:51 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Google Books to the rescue! The Harvard Class of 1874 secretary's report has a list of where each of the 163 students in the class were born and resided. By far, the largest number were from Massachusetts (35 born in Boston and 59 elsewhere in Massachusetts), followed by New York (15 students born there.) There was one student each who was born in Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama. However, one of them, John Sidney Patton from North Carolina, appears to have been a Confederate veteran. So no, not a whole lot of Southerners, and in fact there weren't very many students from anywhere but New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

It'd be interesting to see how this had changed by the turn of the century.
posted by craichead at 4:02 PM on April 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well this year 35,000 people applied to Harvard and the acceptance rate is somewhere below 7%.

I could have entered Harvard back in 1869.
posted by ersatz at 4:24 PM on April 9, 2011


Fuck the Ivy League.

(I spent some time working at a convenience store near Yale)
posted by jonmc at 4:45 PM on April 9, 2011


woodblock100 you have things backward: it's 20 shillings to the pound, 12 pennies to the shilling. Luckily I never got as far as having to calculate compound interest in LSD (remember no calculators to make converting everything into pennies first easy).

All tests presume that you have studied the domain or required knowledge first, and are biased against those who are not a familiar with the subjects and are not practiced at answering the questions in the expected way. There was recently an SAT II question related to reality TV; even if all the required information is in the question it's obviously easier to write a good answer if you have watched such programs.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:06 PM on April 9, 2011


Is this test is elitist and biased against the poor? I would say absolutely not. I bet you that a public school educated child in the Midwest could do as well on this test in 1869 as any of us could now. This seems like a pretty good summation of the state of education then. (And as someone else pointed out, on the Latin they're practically handing them the vocabulary.)

The test wasn't the problem. Harvard was. Most of the students taking this test were coming out of the elite academies of that time. Most of them probably had never seen a poor person in their life other than their family servants and academy teachers. As Harvard became more elite, it became more elitist; as it became more elitist... it became more elite, especially as states started settling up Land Grant schools and the Midwest was saturated by small liberal arts colleges.

But that's the other thing -- in the second half of the 19th century, the value of an education was so great in the minds of Americans that states fell over themselves to set up public schools, compulsory education, and then Land Grant universities. Education drove the rise of American industrialism, which in turn drove the American Century. The explosion of education led to an egalitarian spirit in the US, even if the reality of social strata contradicted it.

And now, you have a generation that treats higher education as some sort of socialist indoctrination machine and slashes state and federal funding at every turn. The US is flushing its educational heritage down the toilet of lower taxes and Glenn Beck screeds.

Welcome to the Chinese Century. Or maybe the Indian Century. Either way, the bloom is off the American rose.
posted by dw at 5:52 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Considering what the 8th graders of that era had to know, perhaps this particular exam isn't very difficult at all.

Like the Harvard entrance exam, this only tests rote learning, and what we learn by rote changes over the generations.

I would probably have done well on that in eighth grade with the education I received. Enough to pass, even if the test weren't modernized. I was a bookish kid, which helps, but the hardest challenges on the math section were probably easier than the math education I had received through eighth grade - hectares were addressed in passing, at best, in my education, but a kid in Kansas a century ago might not have even heard of the metric system. But me and my counterpart could have traded places with a little rote memorization; the mechanics of unit conversion are rote once you get a handle on them, so the rest comes down to knowing the units.

Similarly, the questions in the Orthography section would be by turns a breeze and baffling; We haven't used "orthography" as a standard term in public education for decades. It merged with Grammar and became English class, which would have prepared my eighth-grade self to define words, parts of speech, principles of spelling, etc. Question 5, for example ("Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two exceptions under each rule.") could, with rephrasing, be answered by many public school kids currently in third grade, thanks to Sesame Street and Tom Lehrer's song "Silent E".
posted by ardgedee at 5:53 PM on April 9, 2011


craichead: "Were you at a big state school? I doubt that's a very common method of assessment at Harvard. You have to remember that there's a lot of diversity in the American educational system, and State U isn't really equivalent to TCD"

Well, that's mostly true. My first-hand experience of the US system is limited to Berkeley, Wash U, NYU and UCSD. Most of those are State schools. I guess I'd gathered that most large US universities scored as a point average composed of a sum of regular and periodic intra-study term exams with normalized scores. Is that not the experience of the vast bulk of US college students, that is to say, the normative experience?

Regarding the figures of 30K applicants and single-digit acceptances for these big universities, I think that's probably a factor in choosing simpler-to-devise and simpler-to-score admission exams, particularly from a cost and time perspective, but there are large universities throughout the world, some with comparable rates, that do not rely on normalised exams (using essay, etc) for entry. And others that rely exclusively on norm scores (often using a blind ranking or elimination algorithm to generate successful applicants), with no room for the essay/interview/extracurricular factors that so many US universities factor in to their selection process and assess for diversity and sport and alumni priority streaming. In fact, I'd love to know what Harvard's alumni acceptance rate is instead of its general acceptance rate. I know that some of the private US East Coast schools can have a 3-5x greater acceptance rate for alumni over non-alumni. I don't think Harvard willingly breaks out those figures.

My limited sampling of Harvard graduates throughout my postgrad career has been that they are usually very smart and quite distinguished in their extracurriculars and volunteerism to a degree that often exceed pools of graduates from schools usually ranked lower than Harvard. However, considered as a population, the ability to devote a year or two to ECs and volunteering is often a function of a relatively affluent, stable background and an facilitative social network, and this is probably a big influence on Harvard's selection pool. If your family needs you as a baby sitter, or to work for a couple of summers, you're much less likely to have a low-paid/no-paid research gig or a TFA or HfH year on your CV when you apply. So for these schools that can afford to be more selective, the exam is a relatively small component of your probability of entry compared to your alumni status or your ability to take off a year or two effectively unpaid.
posted by meehawl at 6:48 PM on April 9, 2011



I think my great-great-great grandfather aced the exam when he actually translated the first heading, "Translate Into Latin," into Latin.
posted by bengalsfan1 at 7:33 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


from Wikipedia: "However, rising grades did not become a major issue in American education until the 1960s. For example, in 1890 Harvard's average GPA was 2.27. In 1950, its average GPA was 2.55. By 2004, its GPA, as a result of dramatic rises in the 1960s and gradual rises since, had risen to 3.48."

Not necessarily just grade inflation. The 1960s was when Harvard and other Ivies started concerted efforts to democratize admissions and make it a meritocracy. One thing fueling George W. Bush's resentment against liberals is that he was at the very end of the entitlement era, at Yale in the late 1960s, and his cocoon was crumbling.

My point is, starting in the 1960s, a lot of less affluent, less entitled people got into the Ivies through hard work, affirmative action, etc. People who were not content with "Gentleman's Cs" after getting in. And if the school doesn't grade on a curve, a rise in scores is exactly what I would expect.
posted by msalt at 9:06 PM on April 9, 2011


Forget the test--I couldn't even keep up with this thread.
posted by thebrokedown at 11:34 PM on April 9, 2011


Click here for the Secretary's report of the class of 1873 twenty five years later.

What you will find are a lot of lawyers, a lot of teachers of classics, vicars and doctors, a few writers, and a few oddballs. That is to say - professional men of the upper middle class. Up and coming plutocrats and masters of the universe - not so much.

Higher education was a higher calling back in the day.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Buckt: "via grandmother at whatever that women's school was called"

Radcliffe.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:35 AM on April 11, 2011


Exponent fans, just for fun consider this little paradox:

2 = X^X^X^X^X^X^X...

without limit. Since the ^Xs go on without limit, we can replace everything to the right of the first X^ by 2, reducing the original equation to:

2 = X^2

Therefore, X = √2.
posted by jamjam at 3:27 PM on April 9 [+] [!]


Neat paradox. X = √2 is obviously false, but I can't help but wonder what the real solution (if it exists) is.
posted by ozomatli at 9:50 AM on April 11, 2011


Just another stunning reminder of how little math I actually know. Can't answer any of these questions. Can anyone recommend books (or better yet websites!) that might teach math just beyond the basics (totally serious)? They would need to assume very little prior knowledge...I'm math inept.

Also...what's with giving the applicant the verbs to use in the Latin / Greek section? If the individual is being tasked to translate...why give so many words away?
posted by jnnla at 11:34 AM on April 11, 2011


Also...what's with giving the applicant the verbs to use in the Latin / Greek section? If the individual is being tasked to translate...why give so many words away?

Because there are multiple verbs one can choose from to translate some of these phrases. For example, in #2 "he had been driven into exile" could be translated using the verb agere instead of expellere. It would be dead wrong, but you could make the case. Giving them the vocabulary limits their choices. It also proves they can conjugate expellere, which is a Third Conjugation verb, instead of agere, which is an irregular verb.

As well, it falls in line with Harvard wanting their entrance exam to be "easier" than other schools in the area.
posted by dw at 9:07 AM on April 12, 2011


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