Friday Fun: Could you get into Harvard in 1869?

April 1, 2011

Not an April Fool’s post, but a light-hearted one, on this day when, in addition to watching out for jokesters, many high-school seniors and their parents learn their fates for the coming 4 years.  The NYTimes today has an article about the admissions process for elite colleges in the later part of the 19th century, calling the period a “buyer’s market” where 7/8ths of the students who took the Harvard entrance exam got in.  But what an entrance exam (.pdf file) – do you know any modern 17 year olds who could “give synopses (through all of the Moods) of the Aor. Mid, and Aor. Pass. of βουλεύω, and inflect the Imperatives”?

I happen to have a relative who probably sat the exam linked above, or one very like it, since he got a BA from Harvard in 1871; a family memoir notes, however, that he was learning his latin declensions, taught by his (exceptionally well-educated – she attended Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the early 1840s) mother, at age 7.  My own 7 year old is already behind, I must confess.

(My relative, John Henry Wheeler, studied with Gildersleeve at Johns Hopkins and got a PhD in Classics from Bonn in 1879 and fetched up as Professor of Greek at UVA, before dying young of a heart condition. He is mentioned in Ward W. Briggs, “Gildersleeve and M. Carey Thomas,” American Journal of Philology, v. 121, n. 4 (2000), p. 629-635.)


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