An Archive adventure: Examining the old exams

Midterms seem eternal in these few days before Spring Break. That’s why we at The Record set out to the College archives to investigate old midterm and final exams, hoping to inspire a weary student body with the tales of fellow Ephs from yesteryear who made it out alive and well. The majority of what we found in the dusty tomes recording these crucial pieces of the College’s educational legacy from 1867 to 1921 made us laugh, while some even made us pity the students who worked even harder than we do now. However, by and large, the exploration made us remarkably grateful for the social and scientific progress of the last century.

As we investigated the archives, the question soon became: How do today’s College students compare to the Greek and Latin-wielding hooligans who used to run Billsville over a century ago? Are we smarter than our forebears? The Record contacted current majors in each of the subjects studied by turn of the century Ephs to put our student body  – and generation – to the test.

The subjects that appeared most frequently and steadily throughout the 50 years of examinations were French, Latin, Greek, mathematics, English, and philosophy, partly because prior to admission, applicants to the College were required to take difficult exams in French, Latin, Greek, English, geometry and trigonometry. After reviewing an 1901 language entrance exam, French major Christopher Huffaker ’15 commented, “I started taking French in first grade, and I never would have gotten into Williams if I had been required to pass that exam.”

Although these entrance exams in certain subjects seem quite formidable to the average College student today, other archival exams that were taken during students’ actual attendance of the College were considered surprising or backwards to current students for other reasons. For instance, a 1905 Economics 1 exam enigmatically asked a question on the piece of literature: “What were Robinson Crusoe’s wants in the order of importance?” The same final examination also bluntly asked, “Why are the wages of women lower than the wages of men?” and then, “Why are domestic servants so hard to get, but of factory girls there is a plenty?” In another reminder of changing times, an 1895 Geography exam written before the capital city of Constantinople had famously changed its name to Istanbul posed in its “Modern Geography” section: “Over what waters would one sail from New York to Constantinople?”

The main collection of midterm and final exams from the late 19th and early 20th centuries happens to coincide with a period of tremendous scientific breakthrough and discovery, such as Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity, which were published in 1905 and 1915, respectively. Coursework at the College, especially leading up to and following the establishment of relativity, reflects the scientific discovery precisely around those years.

With pre-relativistic physics taught and studied at the College, many questions involving the ether, the medium postulated to propagate light before relativity disproved its existence, popped up on mandatory sophomore physics exams throughout the late 1800s. For instance, a final exam administered on June 17, 1891 to all sophomore students asked, “Describe the condition of the ether about an electrified body.” In a June 24, 1894 sophomore physics final exam, students were asked to name “the properties of the ether” and, in a progressively skeptical twist, “the reason or reasons for the assumption of its existence.” The same exam’s final question also mirrored the recent scientific currents of the time in its requiring students to write an essay on “an explanation of the telephone,” debuted by Alexander Graham Bell not even 20 years before.

“It is fun to see this,” Professor of Physics William Wootters commented. “We no longer believe in the ether, so the question tends to make a present-day physicist laugh. Still, I expect the exam question is trying to get a handle on empirical phenomena that we would still accept … It’s also interesting that they don’t seem to be taking the ether utterly for granted in 1894.”

While the physics department seems to have exhibited the most change over this period of time, the department that had seen the least change to its curriculum was decidedly the philosophy department. Mandatory philosophy courses taught a century ago required a similar comprehensive study of the development of Western philosophy as they do today, beginning with the Ancient Greeks and continuing to the Modern Philosophers, such as Leibniz, Hume, and Kant. After reviewing the exams, department major Robyn Shapiro ’15 expressed, “The 1906 and 1907 exams are fairly doable and similar to tests that would be given now. That’s probably because the department has maintained its love of really old dead guys who were also really old and dead back then.”

However, the department’s final exams, although more centered around testing rote memorization than analytical abilities as other subjects were, posed a few daunting questions by which current College students might be shocked. After three hours of intense examination on the philosophical doctrines of millennia of thinkers, students in February, 1907 were finally asked, “State and defend your own ethical doctrine.” Then in June, 1908, they were once again called upon to offer their own opinion: “Give your own view of the nature of the self, defining carefully and defending it.”

While revisiting our pedagogical past as an institution allows us to laugh at how far we’ve come, if anything it is a reminder of how our own exams, papers and problem sets – the concrete records of our academic lives at this school – also serve a historical function for future generations of Ephs and scholars to reflect on (and make fun of) our quaint ways of thinking about the world. I, for one, am a proponent of the belief that we should rejoice in the inevitability of our current work being ridiculed by future generations. Let’s just say doing so is not so much a willing forfeiture of the meager remaining shreds of dignity we have left as spent College students, but rather as an optimistic statement of faith we have in world progress.