Dumbing Down: Then And Now

The Way We Were
school_sm.jpgThis is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , Kansas , USA . It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina , KS , and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

8th Grade Final Exam:

Grammar (Time, one hour)

1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of ‘lie’, ‘play’, and ‘run.’
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6. What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 – 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time, 65 minutes)

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?
4. 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?
5. Find the cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per meter?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)

1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus .
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas .
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour) (Do we even know what this is???)

1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, and syllabication.
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, sub vocal, diphthong, cognate letters, and lingual.
4. Give four substitutes for caret ‘u.’ (HUH?)
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final ‘e.’ Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi-, dis-, mis-, pre-, semi-, post-, non-, inter-, mono-, and sup-.
8. 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.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication

Geography (Time, one hour)

1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. H ow do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver , Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco .
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of: Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

The Way We Are

Case Western Reserve’s Ted Gup, in the April 11, 2008 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about how little his students know:

“Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries – China, Cuba, India, and Japan – not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses – half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975.”

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 31 percent of college graduates could read a ”complex book and extrapolate from it.” Furthermore, the study found that far fewer college graduates are leaving school with ”the skills needed to comprehend routine data, such as reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity.”
From “Failing Our Students, Failing America“, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute report on the testing of 7,000 college students at 50 colleges, 2007-2008:

“College seniors know astoundingly little about America’s history, political thought, market economy and international relations… Not one college surveyed can boast that its seniors scored, on average, even a ‘C’ in American civic knowledge. Harvard seniors scored highest, but their overeall average was 69.9%, a ‘D+’.”


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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28 thoughts on “Dumbing Down: Then And Now

  1. The institute plans to conduct medical trials along with the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and a Raipur-based mostly hospital. Some animal trials have been carried out previously, and the institute stated last yr it hoped to get regulatory approval for human trials.

  2. If this is truly an 8th. Grade test, I am not only ashamed for my fellow Americans, I am for myself. My parents wern’t nearly as uneducated as I thought.

  3. Although your article does an provoke an interesting viewpoint, you have to take into account the culture of the time period. Most people did not exceed an 8th grade education level. They needed to know proper grammar to write their own letters, bank statements, receipts, etc. They needed to know bushels, rods, and acres because many of them would be farmhands. They had 100 years LESS of U.S. History to learn, and questions about Lincoln, Bell, and Morse were recent history to them. The geography they learned was trade-oriented, because many of them would be farmhands.
    Nowadays, people who go through the education system do not strive to become farmhands, and there is no common trade amongst the general population (Well, unless you count Craigslist). Children now are taught the things they need to know to prosper in the current world. Kids are taught Algebra and Geometry instead of farmer-math. Kids have 250 years worth of history to learn as opposed to 150 years. They have to learn how to operate computers. They are taught Biology, Astronomy, Physics, and other forms of science. Many of them will become Engineers and Doctors.
    Instead of a “Dumbing Down” of society, I see it as a simple change in culture. Children are generally not taught specific agricultural and trade related information, because it would serve them little purpose in the modern world. Rather, they are taught a broad range of information while they are young enough to soak it all up. Once they have developed and know what it is they want to do with their lives, the go into college for the specific information they need for their career.

  4. We just had an entire town wiped out by fire in Alberta, Canada. We should all be aware of how to prevent wild fires and to be safe when fires threaten people’s homes and lives.

  5. This comment invokes some interesting thoughts, but in the wake of the recent mid term elections and what will be the outcome? I feel that there is now a complete disconnect between the House of Representatives and the Senate? Mr. Obama is already backtracking and trying to position himself to the public that he is wanting to work with Republicans. This is currently being viewed as being redicilous on his part. The people of the United States have had enough of his garbage and they are ready for a change. The proof is in the pudding, the results of the mid term election prove to us that “We The People” have had enough. We are almost 50% there and the best way to look at it is: “We only have 2 more years to go”!

  6. You can definitely see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always go after your heart.

  7. I gave the “general knowledge” test to a group of second-semester Latin students here, and here are the results; please note that there were 16 students in the class that day.
    1. Name at least one country that borders Israel.
    13/16 got at least one; 7/16 named multiple countries correctly.
    2. Of what country is Kabul the capital?
    3. Who is the U.S. Secretary of Defense?
    2/16 (Ouch – although many remembered Rumsfeld)
    4. Which of the following countries is/are democratically ruled?
    5. In what years did the U.S. Civil War begin and end?
    1/16 (I wonder, would it have helped if I had called it The War Between the States?)
    6. What is the principal religion of South America?
    7. What social issue did the Supreme Court decide in Roe v. Wade?
    8. How many justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court?
    9. In what year was the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima?
    I told the students that I thought their summertime reading should include a newspaper.

  8. Why would I ever need to know the DENSITY of WHEAT?
    (Great test, by the way.)
    I noticed some of my answers would blow the teacher’s mind, like, “Describe a mountain,” I’d say, “The tallest category of vertical rock formations appearing at convergent boundaries of continental tectonic plates.” Oops, they didn’t know about plate tectonics until the 1960’s. Heh.

  9. I’m currently reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series to my DD. One of the things that struck me in reading the passages dealing with the formal schooling she received is how much more academically rigorous it was than what’s offered in today’s public schools. The only exceptions are the advanced high school science and math courses, which only some students today take.

  10. I read the Snopes article one of the posters mentions. It wasn’t very convincing. On the other hand, I am sure that Globalists, who are not terribly interested in what anyone else thinks, for reasons that should be perfectly obvious, would love to use this information to justify outsourcing and work visas.
    But another simple, but none the less empirical, way of measuring the extent of our dumbing down is by considering that the height of intelligence is actually reflected in our spirituality. Something not at all confined by any particular religion, or any religion for that matter. A spiritual person in this sense would be a man or woman intensely interested in values and in an ability to give expression to them. A person who works daily, not resting on laurels, to integrate the most important human qualities of the physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological. A person who lives at the height of their times, as Ortega once put it; or, as Henry James once said, a person on whom nothing is lost. A person who walks the talk. In short, a power of example.
    On the bottom rung of that ladder would be someone enmeshed in the lowest expression of the physical and material, ie; gratuitous sex, pointless violence, and money, money, money.
    Now, simply step back, take a good look at the West, and at the world for that matter, and ask yourself where we stand today in this respect.

  11. Smart people should be classified as a disadvantaged minority and given preference to top jobs because I can guarantee that all these college educated dumb asses are running the majority of everything worthwhile. In many cases, running the operation into the ground a la Enron and Bear Stearns, etc.
    Ask these same nitwits how to swindle an extra percent or two from a contract, backslide on a deal, or insert a dagger into the back of a colleague and I bet there would be some impressive answers indeed.

  12. I’ve actually seen the original document. It is indeed an exit/graduation exam for “8th graders,” but it’s important to remember that was the highest level of public education offered in that area at the time, or in almost any other. *th grade then did NOT mean what it means today–a bunch of giggly 14 yr olds with poor math skills.
    The “high school movement” did not begin until right about 1900, and before that there were very very few “high schools,” and those almost exclusively in larger metro areas. They served much the same function as four-year colleges do today, to train white-collar workers in specific areas and provide a grounding in the liberal arts for the middle and upper classes of society. Universities and colleges were few.
    As I mentioned before, many of those “8th graders” of 1895 were 17 or 18 by the time they would take this exam–rural school schedules were necessarily flexible because everyone worked on the farm or ranch, and school was taught only during the winter months. You had to pass an exam to go on to the next grade–no passing just by breathing, no “social promotion” with your age group. Often by the time a “class” reached 7th or 8th grade, half or more of the students would have alrady foundered out in lower grades, and of the remainder, maybe two-thirds would actually pass the exit exam and graduate. From 8th grade.
    The exam shown would not only serve as today’s equivalent of a high school honors exit exam but also as the equivalent of the SAT. Anyone who passed it and gained their diploma could rightfully be called “well educated” by any standard. To boot, the students knew what would be on the test. You hear complaints today about teachers “teaching to the test” when it comes to assessment exams, but that’s exactly what they did in 1895.
    Everytime this one pops up it mostly reminds me of how little the average person today knows about the history of education in America.

  13. Wow. Now I know why my parents insisted on working jobs that they hated to send my to a private school. Not only could I name all five countries Israel borders without resorting to google and name the secretaries of defense going back to Dick Cheney, but I could answer most of the questions in the 8th grade final exam without really trying, I’m sure if not for some vagaries such as knowing the exact size of a bushel, I could have answered them all.
    Despite all this I’m not bragging. I’m of above average intelligence true but I’m certainly not a rocket scientist. I went to a school where they were more concerned with discipline and education than self esteem and self actualization. Thank God for the wisdome of my parents.

  14. …in the April 11, 2008…Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel…
    But <>none of the 8th grade class in 1895 could have answered that. And none of them could have answered in hypertext markup language either. In fact, not a single one of them would have the slightest idea how to even access this comparison between their knowledges. I’d say, and many other people say, it’s a whole lot tougher being a kid today than it was 113 years ago, so get off their backs, they’re far from stupid.

  15. In 1895, not a very large proportion of people went to college. If it is assumed that typical college students in 1895 were biased towards those that were already the best at schoolwork, that could explain the poor showing of today’s students. At the same time, it calls into question why today’s college education is so expensive: Bias notwithstanding, is this the product of 100+ years of improvement in educational theory, technology and productivity?

  16. The government has control of each student for thirteen years. Kindergarten to 12th grade. Nine months per year for thirteen years. And billions are spent across the nation in the process.
    After thirteen years the students do not know math, geometry, chemistry, physics, geography, history, civics, reading or English–or any foreign or classical language.
    What, besides babysitting and wasting prodigious amounts of extorted taxes, are the government schools doing for those thirteen years? They even fail at sex education, unless one considers teenage pregnancy “success.”
    This is outrageous.

  17. The problem is, that you are apparently repeating a conjecture (or outright falsehood) about the 1895 document. Having actually *seen* the document in question, there is nothing in its text to suggest that it is an “8th Grade Final Exam.”
    In point of fact, there is some internal evidence to suggest that this is actually an exam intended for those seeking a credential to teach. How so? Instead of addressing “students,” it addresses “aplicants” in describing instructions. Further, question #4, while odd for a student is precicely the sort of calculation which a teacher would need to be familiar with.
    Take a look for your self at:

  18. The test is actually for real(it did come from that place and time) but…..
    What never seems to be mentioned when this one is passed around is that only seven kids from a class of roughly forty passed the exam that year, whereas the year before and the year after there were 28 graduates from that school. Seems that not too many 8th graders then could pass it either.
    In addition, graduating 8th grade in 1895 was somewhat like graduating high school nowadays, and an “8th grade” student was likely to be 17 or 18 years old, and have gone to school for ten years or more sometimes taking two years to move on to the next grade. High schools, where they existed, were more like community colleges and few kids ever went to them. All the specific knowledge called for HAD been taught to these students. When was the last time you needed to figure acres and bushels and rods?
    Not that our educational system doesn’t have major areas of suckage, but this test comparison is meaningless.

  19. Wow. I already feel bad I never had a classical education (no Greek, no Latin, save what I study on my own). Now I feel bad that even my primary ed had been so ludicrously poor. Where are those self-esteem classes when we need them?

  20. Come on, is it really that bad, at the UNIVERSITY level? Don’t we see kids on shows like ‘Are you smarter than a 5th grader’ or on spelling bee contests, that are smart?
    I would not be surprised if that was some inner city school. But these are University students we are talking about here…,

  21. Amazing what can be taught when time isn’t wasted on student’s self esteem. Thought it’s a good thing I feel so good about myself, otherwise I might feel bad about not being able to answer some of those questions.

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