The Wondrously Exacting Educational Standards of Yesteryear

by Ralph Heller

n official teachers’ licensing examination from a century ago surfaced recently and is generating considerable commentary—although not among teacher union officials, understandably. Among NEA officials the less said about yesterday’s high educational standards the better, of course, but a look at the old test is illuminating. Let’s begin with a fairly typical question from the exam:

"The capacity of a tank is 12,000 gallons; its length is twice its breadth or depth. What will it cost to line its sides, ends and bottom with zinc at four cents per square foot?"

Would you like to put that question to, say, a hundred Nevada grade school teachers selected at random? The examination was given in November, 1897 in Downieville, California to applicants for teaching positions in the lower grades and was recently reprinted in the November issue of The Mountain Messenger, Downieville’s independent minded, high-spirited newspaper. And by now most readers of this article have surely calculated the answer to that first question, so let’s move on to another one:

"Define cuticle, duodenum, corpuscle, villi, synovia, processes, scapula, phalanges, catarrh and contractility."

The first question above comes from the Arithmetic portion of the old exam, and the second question is found in the exam’s section on "Physiology." Questions on the exam are divided into 13 categories: Arithmetic, Grammar, Geography, History, Oral History, Physiology, Book-keeping, Defining, Methods, Botany, Algebra, Philosophy and Civil government.

Having already conquered one of the Arithmetic questions, let’s try one of the Algebra questions next:

"A number is expressed by three digits. If the digits are reversed, the new number exceeds the given number by 99. If the number is divided by 9 times the sum of the digits, the quotient is 3. The sum of the hundreds’ and units’ digits exceeds the tens’ digit by 1. Find the number."

While you’re working on that one, let me tell you about a downright refreshing question found in the group of questions in the Methods category, a question which today would surely draw fire from every weeping liberal and devout secularist in sight:

"Why should manners and morals be made subjects of school instruction?"

Today, manners and morals are relative, of course, and when it comes to morals there simply are no absolutes. Sexual abstinence is suggested, but since no one expects students to take seriously the business of refraining from sex, schools also stress "safe sex." But what might happen if students were taught not to steal in the same manner in which they are taught not to engage in sex? A middle school classroom discussion about stealing might begin with the following comments from the teacher:

"All of us know that stealing is wrong, don’t we? But school authorities recognize that occasionally the temptation to steal will be so strong you won’t be able to resists, so this morning we are going to learn how to steal safely. Let’s say that some night a few years from now you’re out with your friends, driving by a 7-11 very late and you simply can’t resist the temptation to hold the place up. Today you’ll learn how to disconnect a burglar alarm system and how to avoid leaving fingerprints."

Sensible people recognize that schools should not be instructing children in the use of condoms for the same reason schools don’t provide each student with a set of burglar’s tools. To provide the tools would establish the expectation that sooner or later students will give in to the temptation to steal, just as instruction in the use of condoms establishes the expectation that condoms will soon be used.

Passing grade for the old test was 85 percent—not 85 percent of all questions in the exam answered correctly, but 85 percent of all questions in each of the 13 categories of questions answered correctly. Perhaps especially noteworthy for what it shows us about declining educational standards in the United States is the following list of words to be defined by all applicants:

"Define alternative, predicament, renegade, querulous, feasible, hieroglyphics, miscellaneous, malleable, environ, dubious, definite, credible, fallible, onerous, ferriferous, expiage, expatriation, desultory, holocaust, collateral, erosion, petrous, oscillation, synchronous, chyle, trend, syntax, pseudonym, maximum, loquacious, ligneous, ratiocination, vicissitude, irascible, taciturn, codicil, asphyxia, fallacious, assuage, voluble, volatile, acquiesce, ecstasy, ubiquitous, instrinisic, and auriferous."

Several of those words tend to capture the reader’s attention because although they are only rarely used these days, they tended to show up in novels, speeches, and even presidential letters in earlier times.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, didn’t hesitate to use the word "assuage" in a letter of November 21, 1864 to a certain Mrs. Bixby in Massachusetts. He had been told—erroneously as it was later learned—that she had lost five sons in the Civil War and one evening, alone with his thoughts, wrote her the following letter, one of the most literate of all presidential letters. Lincoln begins his letter "Dear Madam" in the formal manner of his day, but what follows is a veritable model of felicitous phraseology in which one finds the word "assuage" and much more:

"Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom. –Abraham Lincoln."

Note the artfully selected words and gracious phrases—not only "assuage" but also "fruitless," "beguile," "tendering," "consolation," "anguish of your bereavement" and more—felicitous phraseology and sentence structure rarely seen in the White House in more recent times. Indeed, today’s White house has a "Communications Office" budgeted at $122 million a year with about 100 employees, yet it’s doubtful that all those 100 employees working day and night for a month could write a letter as gracious and literate as President Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby.

In a sad way, today’s somewhat less gracious and less literate U.S. society is a reflection of today’s public schools and our education establishment’s priorities. And what sort of letter might a modern day alumnus of the public schools in Arkansas send to someone like Mrs. Bixby? Let me guess:

"Dear Madam: Hillary and I feel your pain."

That long ago licensing examination for teachers is disturbingly revealing, telling us as much about today’s public education as about yesterday’s schools. Here are a few more questions from the old exam:

"Give the dates of the five greatest epochs in United States history, from 1492 to 1897";

"Describe the shortest water route from Quebec to Peking";

"Suppose a corpuscle in the lungs loaded with oxygen: Describe its voyage through the body’s circulation until it returns";

"At Downieville the barometer stands at 26 inches; from what depth will a common lifting pump raise water?";

"Compose a paragraph illustrating three rules for the comma, two for the apostrophe; one each for the hyphen, quotation marks and dash; and two for the period";

"Define language, letter, sentence, syllabification, pronominal, case, defective, correlative, infinitive and indirect quotation";

"Define zones, neap-tide, isothermal lines, absolute monarchy and prime meridian";

"If a certain drug is bought at $38 a kilogram and sold at 10 cents a gram, what is the percentage gained?";

"Name the opposite gender of witch, marquis, beaux and administrators."

The old exam included well over 100 questions in all, and a grade of 85 in each and every one of its 13 categories earned an applicant his or her "Grammar Grade Certificate," and the privilege of undertaking the task of educating another generation of American children. u

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor of Nevada Journal.


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