An old Harvard entrance exam is circulating around the interwebs lately, and curious as I always am to peek into the schoolroom of the past, I thought I’d take a look. After reading through it, I found I had learned something, or at least come to alter my way of thinking about a topic that is well trod and well accepted – the idea that each generation is slightly less intelligent than the one preceding it.
Even though the exam is much harder than any test I have ever had to take, I found that it was not a sign that our current generations had a diminished academic/intellectual capacity, but that past generations had an extremely limited and focused education. You’ll note that in the exam there are pretty much only two topics – classics (language and literature) and mathematics. The section “History and Geography” was a bit of a misnomer, because most of the history mentioned was classical Greek or Roman history, with three questions about rivers thrown in for good measure. There was nothing of physics, biology, chemistry, English literature, American history (or even any history around the world beyond pre-Byzantium). Let us also not forget the absence of social science, non-classical languages, comparative religion, music, economics, psychology, civics, political science, or art.
The thing I note from this exam is that a) students of today would fail this exam in the most spectacular fashion, and that b) the knowledge base of a modern student is so very broad that the students of yesteryear, who might have done well on an exam like this, would have seemed of limited education, parochial even, in comparison.