I Don’t Usually Do This Kind of Post, But; or, Problems in IvyGate’s Knowledge of Late-Victorian Intellectual History

There’s been a bit of buzz on the internet (or, well, okay, fine, the Ivy League internet; yes, I know I’m an elitist bastard) recently about an 1899 Harvard admissions exam that the NY Times posted on its website, seemingly largely consisting of dismay at how difficult it must have been to get into Harvard or a school like it in 1899. Here’s IvyGate, whose post caused me to become very irritable:

If you thought getting accepted to an Ivy League school was tough today, you should count your blessings that you weren’t born in the 1880s. In addition to having diphtheria and bad teeth and a pompadour like a mangy cat, you’d also be forced to take a comically rigid entrance exam and speak ancient Greek.

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

In their usual pained attempts to be sarcastic, IvyGate seem to have forgotten the first rule of history, which I hope they learned before taking their AP U.S. History test to get into their own fancy schools: change over time. No, of course secondary-school students aren’t taught the same things now that they were in 1899. Classical studies are (sadly, some might argue) out of fashion in favor of modern subjects; since we all have TI-83s now, it’s no longer as much a mark of mathematical competency to do complicated arithmetic as it is to differentiate and integrate single-variable equations. And, in reference to the Columbia entrance exam the post also references, obviously before 20th-century literature came along, people read different things—and yet I’ll wager most of us who go to Ivy League schools read at least some of those works of literature in high school, such as Macbeth, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and House of the Seven Gables, and have covered more of them (such as Milton) since entering college.

As to the Latin and Greek—well, it’s a question of fads, not so much a question of competency. Most people applying to university in America take a modern language; if you go to a fancy school in America today, you might still do Latin, and possibly even Greek (though it’s not particularly likely). I did Latin on my own for three years, and while I couldn’t do well on the Harvard exam if I sat it today, I would certainly have been able to answer all those questions after three years with the language. This is very similar to the sort of stuff I was asked to do as a Latin student, particularly the English-to-Latin translations where they give you a lot of clues as to which words they’d like you to use. I’m sure if those questions were in French or Spanish, most people would be able to conjugate some verbs and do a little translation and composition in the language. It’s not clear to me that this is any more difficult than taking an AP language test—and in fact, it was probably easier. Why, you ask? Well, because the boys who applied to Harvard in 1899 were probably groomed to it in a way few students are today. They attended a much smaller array of elite east-coast schools, which knew what to teach in order to get their students into the universities. Anyone with their sights on Harvard in the late 19th century would probably have been heavily coached to be good at their Greek verse and to know fun facts like the dates of the battles of Philippi and Actium, just as a lot of people applying to university today do SAT prep classes. University students in 19th-century Britain and America were rewarded for pretty foreign-sounding things by our standards (on the other side of the Atlantic, both Symonds and Wilde won prizes at Oxford for their Latin verse stylings!) but hey, we now award prizes for community service and school spirit. Go figure.

Bottom line, it was probably much easier to get into Harvard in 1899, because the number of people who could even enter the admissions pool was so limited. You obviously had to be a white man, and more than that to even have a shot you had to go to a fancy high school, probably in the northeast and even more probably in Massachusetts, where you would be taught ancient subjects ad nauseam. If you even had the opportunity to sit this exam in the first place, you’d probably do well.

As for us, in our age of uber-competitive, 6-8% admission rates for these schools, the insane regimes of prep classes and extracurricular activities to which prospective applicants feel pressured to subject themselves, and the widespread disappointment that spreads across the New York Times readership every year at this time as people realize that 21st-century college admissions isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a madhouse? Yeah, I’d take declining a few Greek nouns, describing the differences between Athens and Sparta, and using a slide rule any day.

But oh wait: it’s a moot point—I’m a woman. No Harvard Greek for me in 1899—and there’s the rub, really.

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