Old Wives' Tales
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Toxin du jour
Claim: An 1895 graduation examination for public school students demonstrates a shocking decline in educational standards.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1999]
Origins: This item, a final examination for graduating eighth grade students (or graduating high school students, depending upon which version you have) is similar to other exams from that time and purpose, and it's of interest because it's supposed to be documentary evidence of how shockingly our educations have declined over the last century or so. Why, most adults couldn't muster a passing score on this test today, people think; that mere schoolkids were expected to pass it is proof that the typical school curriculum has been steeply "dumbed down" over the years, pundits claim:
[Thomasson, 2001]What nearly all these pundits fail to grasp is "I can't answer these questions" is not the same thing as "These questions demonstrate that students in earlier days were better educated than today's students." Just about any test looks difficult to those who haven't recently been steeped in the material it covers. If a
The object of this exercise was only to reveal what many of us have known for some time. The dumbing down of American public education over the past 100 years has been substantial, particularly in the last 50 years. When Great-grandma says she only had an eighth-grade education, don't smirk.
Ah, but this is high school (or even eighth grade) stuff, people say — it's basic knowledge that everyone should remember and use. Nonsense. The questions on this exam don't reflect only items of "basic knowledge" — many of the questions require the test-taker to have absorbed some very specialized information, and if today's students can't regurgitate all the same facts as their 1895 counterparts, it's because the types of knowledge we consider to be important have changed a great deal in the last century, not necessarily because today's students have sub-standard educations.
Consider: To pass this test, no knowledge of the arts is necessary (not even a nodding familiarity with a few of the greatest works of English literature), no demonstration of mathematical learning other than plain arithmetic is required (forget algebra, geometry, or trigonometry), nothing beyond a familiarity with the highlights of American history is needed (never mind the fundamentals of world history, as this exam scarcely acknowledges that any country other than the USA even exists), no questions about the history, structure, or function of the United States government are asked (not even the standard "Name the three branches of our federal government"), science is given a pass except for a few questions about geography and the rudiments of human anatomy, and no competence in any foreign language (living or dead) is necessary. An exam for today's high school graduates that omitted even one of these subjects would be loudly condemned by parents and educators alike, subjects about which the Salina, Kansas, students of 1895 needed know nothing at all. Would it be fair to say that the average Salina student was woefully undereducated because he failed to learn many of the things that we consider important today, but which were of little importance in his time and place? If not, then why do people keep asserting that the reverse is true? Why do journalists continue to base their gleeful articles about how much more was expected of the students of yesteryear on flawed assumptions? Perhaps some people are too intent upon making a point to bother considering the proper questions.
Consider the following, a certification examination for prospective teachers, prepared by the Examiners of Teachers for the Public Schools in Zanesville, Ohio, in the late 1870s:
English GrammarPlenty of critics maintain that most of today's teaching candidates couldn't pass this test. Well, even if that were true, it wouldn't make today's candidates all that different than their
4. Define and give the etymology of verb, prounoun, conjunction and adverb. Give example of a defective, an auxillary, an impersonal and a redudant verb. How many kinds of prounous are there? Give examples of each.
7. Compare chief, much, former, far, forth, next, round, up, ill, full.
8. Give the feminines of abbot, earl, duke, lad, marquis, hero, tiger, nephew, testator, bachelor, wizard, and ox.
9. Write the past tense and past participle of these verbs:
10. Define metonymy, catachresis, and hyberbole; and state the difference between a metaphor and a simile.
He that fears that dog thinks that he is mad.
Also parse the word "but" in each of the following:
There was no one but saw him;
We ran, but he stopped;
All ran but Peter;
If you did but know it.
13. Correct the following:
(a) Although I persuaded the old man, he refused to yield, and I expect he divided his estate between his 3 daughters. His example, though he meant well, is calculated to have a bad effect.
(b) As I laid down I seen the smoke rising over the way.
(c) Whom do you say that I am? or who do you take me to be?
(d) John and James were both there, though neither were invited.
(e) As water is froze easier than alcohol, so riches are easier acquired than a good name.
(f) Between you and I, there is some mystery about that fire last night. Did you hear where it was at? I am glad none of my friends were in the house. I should be sorry if either James or William were inculpated in setting it on fire.
1. Give etymology of orthography. What are mutes, labials, and liquids, and why so called?
2. Give meaning of the prefixes, ante, anti, circum, quad, proto, oct, trans, sym, and con.
3. Form derivatives of prefer, begin, stop, run, defy, abridge, tie, and die, with the suffix ing or ed.
4. Write a word containing a diphthong, one containing a digraph, and one containing a trigraph.
5. Define accent, and mark the accent on the words: inverse, diverse, adverse, reverse, obverse, calcine, piquant, orthoepy, abdomen, acclimated, area, salutatory, accessary, gondola, illustrate, prolix, portent, inquiry, contemplated, expert, extant.
6. Spell the words (given orally)
1. Define integer, fraction, interest, discount, power, and root.
2. What effect has multiplying both terms of a fraction by the same number, and why; and why in dividing one fraction by another do you invert the divisor and multiply the terms together?
3. If A's age were increased by its 3/7 its 4/5 and 19, the sum would equal
4. Multiply 7/8 by .000018 and divide the product by 27 millionths.
5. 32 men agree to construct 28 miles 4 furlongs and
6. A man drives 97 pegs on a straight line and spaces them
7. A man receives $65 interest for the use of $600 for 3 years,
8. What is due on the following note?
$1200 Zanesville, O., December 10, 1871.
One year after date I promise to pay to the order of Richard Roe twelve hundred dollars, value received.
9. Give the rule for obtaining the difference of time, having the difference of longitude, and vice versa, and give the reasons for the rule.
10. A square lot containing 54,756 square feet is surrounded by a close board fence
1. Where does the earth have the greatest diameter?
2. Why do we reckon 180 degrees of longitude and only 90 of latitude?
3. What is meant by the equinoxes?
4. Locate the Crimea, Bombay, Bay of Fundy, and the Capital of Mississippi.
5. Into what three functions is the government of the United States divided?
6. Describe and locate the Indus and Niger rivers.
7. Through what waters would a ship pass in going from Duluth to Odessa?
8. Bound France and give five of its chief cities.
9. Name the New England states and locate their capitals.
10. Define equator, zone, latitude, and longitude.
11. Into what bodies of water do the following rivers flow: The Danube, Rhone, Volga, Tiber, Rio Grande, Jordan, and Mahoning.
I gave them a pretty severe test in Grammar, and some of them did make terrible work of it. One young lady said the singular of "Swine" was "pigs", another "a hog". One being asked to give me the past tense of "I lie down" said "I lied", which she certainly did. Out of some 30 orAnd after all, do we really care these days whether our educators know the "feminines of the words hero, bachelor, and ox"?
Although this exam may indicate, as Velz wrote, that "[o]ur notion of nineteenth-century education as primitive and backward may need modification," perhaps what it demonstrates most is the truth of the aphorism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last updated: 9 July 2007
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