Great-grannie's education is worth more than yours
By Dan K. Thomasson
Scripps Howard News Service
WASHINGTON — My father's mother had an eighth-grade education. She married a man, my grandfather, who was a college graduate, and from every indication throughout their short life together (he died quite young of typhoid fever), she was an intellectual match for him in the management of everyday affairs.
But that was before the turn of the 20th century, when, evidence seems to support, the public school system that taught both of them was far superior in many ways to the current one with all its technical bells and whistles and expensively and extensively educated faculties. The reason was obvious. Because of economic conditions that required many young men and women to cut short their formal schooling and head for the fields or into the mills and factories of the industrial revolution, it was imperative that those public-school years were meaningful.
As the White House and Congress struggle with a thousand different schemes — from vouchers, to mandatory testing to throwing more and more billions at the problem of "saving" the beleaguered public system — it seems appropriate to review the kind of education that even the one-room schools of America were offering so long ago. In so doing, it also seems in order to note that New York City's fourth-grade teachers are protesting mandatory testing they contend puts too much pressure on them and their pupils.
Pressure? Well, measure their arguments against the following provided by the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, Kan., and the Salina Journal.
It is the year 1895 and in Salina the eighth-graders are about to take their graduation examination. There are five subjects — grammar, arithmetic, history, geography and orthography (spelling), each with 10 questions. The five-hour test begins with grammar and the pupils have one hour to complete that component. Here is a sampling of the questions:
— Give nine rules for the use of capital letters. . . . Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications. . . . Define verse, stanza and paragraph. . . . What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of do, lie, lay and run. . . . Define case, illustrate each case. . . . Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.
The next subject tested is arithmetic and the time limit was one hour and 15 minutes. Hold onto your hats.
— Name and define the fundamental rules of arithmetic. . . . A wagon box is 2 feet deep, 10 feet long and 3 feet wide. (Remember, this is Kansas.) How many bushels of wheat will it hold? . . . If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 pounds, what is it worth at 50 cents a bushel, deducting 1,050 pounds for tare? . . . District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals? . . . Find the interest of $512.60 for eight months and 18 days at 7 percent. . . .What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 feet long at $20 per meter? . . . Write a bank check, a promissory note and a receipt.
Having completed that successfully, we now turn to history. Our eighth-graders are obviously prepared, so are given only 45 minutes.
— Give the epochs into which U.S. history is divided. . . . Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War. . . . Show the territorial growth of the United States.
For geography, students are being given one hour to answer 10 questions like these.
— What is climate? . . . Upon what does climate depend? . . . Describe the mountains of North America. . . . Name and locate the principal trade centers of the United States. . . . Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
Now we come to orthography. The time allotted is one hour.
— What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication? . . . What are elementary sounds? . . . What are the following and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals? . . . Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
Would anyone like to take this exam for credit? Remember before saying yes that a lot of questions were left out for space reasons.
The object of this exercise was only to reveal what many of us have known for some time. The dumbing down of American public education over the past 100 years has been substantial, particularly in the past 50 years. When Great-grandma says she only had an eighth-grade education, don't smirk.