Why Today’s Students Can’t Pass This 1922 College Entrance Exam

For generations, each autumn has bestowed the unofficial arrival of adulthood on young people as they head off to college for the first time.

But while the entrance into the Ivy Halls has occurred for years, one part of that ritual seems to have disappeared, namely, the entrance examination.

Oh sure, we have SATs and ACTs which are taken with religious fervor by any student who wants to advance to higher education, but there seems to be quite a different flavor between those and the examinations of the past.

Take, for instance, the 1922 English entrance examination for the University of Illinois. The first section contains five elements with multiple questions. Students were asked to choose two in each group and answer them in written form. This requirement – written, not multiple choice like a majority of today’s SAT-like exams – is the first difference between the two.

But the second difference is even more striking. Where modern SAT exams provide students with a passage of reading material on the spot, and then ask various questions on that passage, the 1922 entrance exam seems to expect students to have read and be on familiar speaking terms with any number of works. These include Old Testament stories, a range of Shakespearian plays, English literature, and poetry, as demonstrated in the sample questions below:

1. “Describe the conditions causing Achilles to stop fighting.”

2. “What was Franklin’s plan for the union of the colonies? Discuss his arguments in favor of it.”

3. “What characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are more than mere types? Defend your answer.”

4. “Summarize the chief ideas you gained from reading one of Thackeray’s essays in the English Humorist.”

5. “Point out four distinctly Poesque characteristics marking The Raven.”

One might argue that just because today’s entrance exams don’t ask such thorough and probing questions doesn’t mean that high school students are not familiar with a wide range of classic and historical works. Unfortunately, the experience of university professors such as Allan Bloom suggest otherwise.

In 1987, Bloom wrote that the decline of student reading habits first became evident in the 1960s. He notes that while there may be a few who “grazed” on classics in high school, “The notion of books as companions is foreign to them.” Lacking in this knowledge, students also have a much narrower lens through which to view and interpret the world:

“In a less grandiose vein, students today have nothing like the Dickens who gave so many of us the unforgettable Pecksniffs, Micawbers, Pips, with which we sharpened our vision, allowing us some subtlety in our distinction of human types. It is a complex set of experiences that enables one to say so simply, ‘He is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison is lost. The psychological obtuseness of our students is appalling, because they have only pop psychology to tell them what people are like, and the range of their motives. As the awareness that we owed almost exclusively to literary genius falters, people become more alike, for want of knowing they can be otherwise. What poor substitutes for real diversity are the wild rainbows of dyed hair and other external differences that tell the observer nothing about what is inside.”

Bloom goes on to hint that this scenario has devastating consequences not only for students, but also for the country which they will one day govern:

“Lack of education simply results in students’ seeking for enlightenment wherever it is readily available, without being able to distinguish between the sublime and trash, insight and propaganda.”

If we want to prevent the next generation from becoming victims to propaganda, do we need to ensure that our schools are giving students a more well-rounded training in the books and ideas which have come down to us through history?

Written by Annie Holmquist and published by Intellectual Takeout ~ July 21, 2017.

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One thought on “Why Today’s Students Can’t Pass This 1922 College Entrance Exam

  1. Jackie Juntti

    HAH! today’s teachers couldn’t pass this test from 1895 for 8th graders in Kansas:

    So you think this class is hard.
    This is the eighth grade final exam from 1895 from Salina, KS. It was taken from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

    8th Grade Final Exam: Salina, KS 1895

    Grammar (Time, one hour)
    1. Give nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
    2. Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no modifications.
    3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.
    4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of do, lie, lay and run.
    5. Define Case, Illustrate each Case.
    6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation.
    7. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

    Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)
    1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
    2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
    3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts. Per bu., deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?
    4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven
    months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
    5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
    6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
    7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per >>m?
    8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
    9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance around
    which is 640 rods?
    10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

    U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
    1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided.
    2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
    3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
    4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
    5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
    6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
    7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?
    8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865?

    Orthography (Time, one hour)
    1. What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic orthography, etymology, syllabication?
    2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
    3. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
    4. Give four substitutes for caret ‘u’.
    5. Give two rules for spelling words with final ‘e’. Name two exceptions under each rule.
    6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
    7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: Bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, super.
    8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: Card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
    9. Use the following correctly in sentences: Cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein,
    raze, raise, rays
    10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

    Geography (Time, one hour)
    1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
    2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas?
    3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
    4. Describe the mountains of N.A.
    5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
    6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
    7. Name all the republics of Europe and give capital of each.
    8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
    9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
    10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give inclination of the earth.


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