are you smarter than a 1869 harvard candidate?

Thanks to GOOD, I now know I could not have passed the 1869 Harvard entrance exam — dutifully covering your basic Greek, Latin, Algebra, Plane Geometry, Arithmetic, History, and Geography.  But according to an article written by Allison Cowan for The New York Times Education Section, at least 7 out of 8 did pass the exam and gain entrance into the Ivy League.  Check out a .pdf of the test here.

109 comments

  1. We haven’t been much better 90 years later. I ran across a copy of a 1955 high school final exam that today’s high school and college students would flunk.

  2. I’m trying to form a coherent thought but I think my brain just exploded. Fascinating stuff. And thanks for posting the link to the Times article as well.

    The top comment on that story broke my heart- how times have changed! I applied to four top notch colleges and was accepted to all four- this test, though, would have stopped me in my tracks.

  3. This is a hard test! :0

    I kind of wish though that Ivy League universities today did have entrance tests that were this hard. At least then you know that the students being admitted in the school are “top notch”. Nowadays it sems like Ivy League is more about how much money you can pay to get in, or how much status you have..vs. how much smarts you possess. The differentiation between Ivy League and other universities seems questionable. (There was another blog earlier this week on Freshly Pressed that talked about what Ivy League really signifies today–if I can find it, I will post the link).

  4. Danube – Africa, right?
    Volga – a slovak country?
    Ganges – India.
    Amazon – south america.

    as for the algebra —- to think, they didn’t even have computers, calculators, or nothing. all done by hand.

  5. That was… The Latin and Greek had me rattled. I might have got a couple of the rivers. I didn’t even understand what some of them were asking. Am I smarter than a 1869 Harvard candidate? I’m not as smart as an 1869 Harvard candidate’s chair…

  6. And they keep telling us that kids in every generation are smarter than their parents. Looking at this exam paper I find it very hard to believe. I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

  7. Thanks to our “advanced” public education system in America today, I couldn’t pass this. And I’m pissed about that. Thanks a lot America for funding every war you wanted, but defunding my school education.

      1. In case you hadn’t noticed, the more money we spend on education, the worse it gets. We spend more on education than most other developed countries and our kids do worse by any measure. Most of the money doesn’t go to the classroom — it goes to administrators and assorted bureaucrats who waste it.

        And this test has nothing to do with smarts, but everything to do with what your school offers.

  8. Ok, so I have three degrees. A BA in History, a BA in English Literature, and an MA in American History. I owe many tens of thousands of dollars for this education…..and now I feel really really dumb. The Greek and Latin I don’t feel too bad about, I’ve never studied either language, so I can neatly justify my ignorance by blaming the educational culture of America. Now, the math section….hmmm, I’m finding it very hard to spin this in a way favorable to myself, considering especially the fact that I’ve taken mathematics through first level calc. I’m just going to rationalize this by assuming that all 19th century college aspirants were geniuses as the result of some kind of cultural filter or something like that….yeah.

  9. And this is just the walking-around knowledge people were expected to have. No Sylvan or Kaplan test prep then!
    Not to mention the critical thinking and writing skills required, which aren’t demonstrated here. These were people who didn’t use “loose” when they mean “lose”.

    Looking at this, I can only come to the conclusion that civilization as we know it is screwed. Our Peeps R dum.

    1. I kept thinking the same thing — everyone just knew this? I suppose if you were someone who was privileged enough to go (and stay) in school, then sure. I was quite surprised at the 7 out of 8 passing stat in the NYT article.

    2. I had a great laugh with your loose/lose joke! That’s a big thing that makes me so angry nowdays, and nobody even does anything to try to fix this!
      I understand some of the Latin that they were asking for (my teacher in high school actually graduated from Harvard), but I haven’t used it in a long time. Most high schools don’t even offer it, when back then it was a major part of their curriculum!
      I think it’s too bad that colleges don’t all test us like this. True, a lot of people wouldn’t get in, but maybe a lot more people would be inspired to try a little bit harder and stop being so damn lazy.

  10. Very interesting to see that exam; thanks for the link. I could probably still do reasonably well on the Mathematics and on the classical elements of the history paper. Funnily enough, I found the geography a lot harder than I expected I would. As for Latin and Greek, it’s been a very long time since I’ve done either. I’d probably be lucky to scrap 5% on those now, despite having studied them at a basic level when I was younger.

    More generally, I think there’s something to be said for a broad exam focusing on elements of a classical education. Of course it minimises many other important areas of knowledge, so isn’t a complete education these days in the way it could be considered to have been in earlier times. But elements of it are useful, as it can illustrate wider principles both in the world and in techniques of learning.

  11. MILESTONE MAN would easily pass this test.

    Studies have shown that MILESTONE MAN is statistically more intelligent than everyone else on planet earth, and that he knows approximately everything there is to know about anything!

  12. This exam demonstrates a simple fact: there was less accumulated knowledge in the world in 1869. Far less. This exam covers mostly knowledge that, if not about the Greeks or Romans, was acquired by the Greeks and Romans. I think it is an incredibly positive thing that knowledge has become so much more diverse and wide-ranging than it used to be.

    For example, this exam would be uselessly impossible for an incoming Harvard student looking to major in CS, but who is to say that that student’s fluency in Python cannot rival his predecessor’s grasp of the pluperfect? Remember, students in that day and age were all learning the same canon, and studying for a test that they knew would focus entirely on classical languages and Euclidean mathematics, and that just can’t and shouldn’t happen today.

    Great view into the past with this document, but the ‘smarter than’ comparison is apples to oranges.

  13. Wow! I would fail. Hardly know any Latin, but was familiar with the Greek. Certainly would have flunked the test though. It kind of inspires me to learn more. Take up Latin or something.

  14. I doubt knowledge of the Classics is relevant in the 21st century. That is why we don’t have these tests anymore. They’ve been down-graded to obsolescence. It’s that whole aristocratic European non-sense where education centred around Greek and Latin. It hardly serves any purpose today. Education systems today are much better and focused, even if they need reforms- but not reforms to make us go centuries back.

  15. Omg…I can’t. I never studied latin in my life but I think my brain did a double take and then shriveled into a sad little insect husk…..:-(((

  16. LOL ! am officially quitting 😛
    Damn! That’s one hard entrance exam!
    Thank God I wasn’t born back then. Haha!

  17. It would be so nice if we thought that exam was easy, and that nowadays things are actually harder than they were back in 1869… But no, we’re making things easier everyday.

    I’m a freshman at college this year. I got into a college with decent grades, among a whole crowd that almost had the minimum grade allowed (9,5, the first positive grade in a 0-20 scale). If this actually continues to be like it is now, well, we all know it will only get worse, our brain will be smaller, and we’ll be dumber…

    So, let’s have some hope: I wish we all could pass that ancient Harvard exam, someday 😉

  18. Ummm… Am I smarter than a 1869 harvard candidate? Apparently not! I probably got 2 or 3 questions right… wow. Great post… amazing! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  19. don’t need compare. How about Japanese and Chinese?
    Computer language? Cars,cell phones?
    We can not learn everything because of our brain’s limitation.

  20. whoa. Well the Greek couldn’t be expected but the sad part is that along with much of the math, I didn’t know that Latin AT ALL, which I should’ve at least known a bit of, considering I took up to Latin IV.
    Well, I still don’t think things have gotten so much easier or anything like that. Sure, in terms of that test. But there’s just so much more going on in the world today. If you don’t know large things, then you know lots of small things that add up. And even if you don’t know a set of specific things, you know something else entirely.
    And it’s not like any one person could have stopped this travesty from happening. It was, perhaps, inevitable.

  21. Well, Latin and Greek are fairly irrelevant these days for most people unless they want to major in classics. But the rest of the questions were a bit tough – at least for me, the algebra section. I can’t do any math without the aid of a calculator now.

  22. I passed the Maths section alright, History&Geography-One step above a pass and failed the Greek and Latin section. Wow. amazing. Whoever passed this then with flying colours must’ve been ridiculously intelligent. I would’ve loved to have met them!

  23. I didn’t need to read the whole thing to know that I wouldn’t be a great candidate for Harvard in 1869. Plus, I think they weren’t keen on minorities yet.

  24. Wow – the declining investment in education in America and its simultaneous decline in the IQ of the average American is shown here. Well, at least everyone doesnt have the opportunity to go to a place as prestigious as this. Thank the man-woman upstairs for public colleges and universities!

  25. Thanks, Greek, it’s not like they let women in anyways.
    Too bad they combined History with Geography! Evil it may be, I used my “ancient” Google skillz and only had 2 minor mistakes. The Latin part was, except a few points in Grammar (subjunctive? nuuuu) and about a dozen words I can’t remember for my life, somewhat difficult. I did get the Maths part right, which always makes me happy.
    It strikes me as odd that they focused so much on actual calculus as opposed to the process itself, but I guess things *do* change after all. I would have thought that they would have included some English grammar or at least something that starts along the lines of “write a 2 500 word argumentative essay about…”

  26. “Smart” has nothing to do with it. Those students were just taught something different than what college-age students are taught now. What if these Harvard brainiacs were confronted with calculus, or even trigonometry? Their math knowledge is equal to a high school sophomore’s. And if you think about it, learning ancient Greek at that age is at best a ridiculous waste of time, and at worst highly elitist. Who are you going to “talk Greek” to? Not Lincoln.

  27. When I was still in high school or had just left, I think I might have passed the Latin, History and Geography parts, but the rest – no way. Well, maybe a bit of the maths stuff, but not all and sadly not the Greek. I would have had to move to another town to take Greek and I wasn’t willing to do that.

  28. Not sure where you found this, but I enjoyed it immensely! Kind of makes me wish I took Latin instead of German. At least I got to dust off my old algebra skills!

  29. I doubt knowledge of the Classics is relevant in the 21st century. That is why we don’t have these tests anymore. They’ve been down-graded to obsolescence. It’s that whole aristocratic European non-sense where education centred around Greek and Latin. It hardly serves any purpose today. Education systems today are much better and focused, even if they need reforms- but not reforms to make us go centuries back.

  30. It would be so nice if we thought that exam was easy, and that nowadays things are actually harder than they were back in 1869… But no, we’re making things easier everyday.

    I’m a freshman at college this year. I got into a college with decent grades, among a whole crowd that almost had the minimum grade allowed (9,5, the first positive grade in a 0-20 scale). If this actually continues to be like it is now, well, we all know it will only get worse, our brain will be smaller, and we’ll be dumber…

    So, let’s have some hope: I wish we all could pass that ancient Harvard exam, someday

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