Wiliamstown, Mass. July 7, 1880
Mr. James O. Woodward
The result of the exami-
nation is that we cannot accept
you. The math. examination was
a failure, the Latin very poor, &
in the Greek you did not at-
tempt to do the work.
Another year of solid work
ought to fit you for admission.
O. M. Fernald,
for the examiners
And to think that, nowadays, we are happy if they can put together a grammatical English sentence.
As chance would have it, I noticed that Amherst College makes explicit reference to this letter. That reference is hardly coincidental: It comes in the course of a report on the Class of 2006 from Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Tom Parker—who used to be the Director of Admissions at Williams. Parker introduces his report by engagingly contrasting the admissions experiences of two New Englanders: John Adams, who was personally examined by the President and entire faculty (all seven of them) of Harvard—and won admission and a scholarship—and the unfortunate Mr. Woodward at Williams 130 years later. He adds:
What also strikes me about Adams' and Woodward's experiences with the college admissions process of the time is its clarity and straightforward nature. One either knew one's Latin, Greek, and Mathematics or did not and was accordingly qualified or not.So far, so good—though we also should be under no illusion that these institutions were truly meritocratic even within the limited confines of the WASP elite.
Fast-forward another 130 years. Parker continues, somewhat less ingenuously:
That is certainly not the case at Amherst today. Virtually all of our applicants are not only qualified (although, I suspect, few could compete with John Adams' Greek and Latin), but are more than qualified and able not only to do the work here but to do it exceedingly well. This phenomenon owes itself largely to self-selection among students applying to Amherst and similar institutions.There's a lot going on in those three sentences, and a lot that goes unsaid. In the nineteenth century, admission was to a large extent predicated on possession of a specific pragmatic skill set. Those skills, however, were no guarantee of real intellectual acumen. To the extent that we have moved beyond that, and use a wider variety of criteria, it's all to the good. However, to pretend that the average applicant or accepted student today—even at one of the presumed elite colleges—is any better equipped for the rigors of higher education than his or her predecessor of 1880 is to risk succumbing to a different sort of illusion.
Our students are arguably more sophisticated in their general understanding of the world and their own intellectual endeavors, and yet, as any teacher can tell you, their basic skills often fall far short of what is required in order to complete the sorts of work that we want to assign. Back in poor Mr. Woodward's day, one could expect, as a precondition for admission the ability to carry out basic research, analyze sources, and construct a logical argument, based on persuasive evidence, and conveyed in smooth prose demonstrating a sure command of the mechanics of writing and style. Today, these are abilities that we hope students will be able to demonstrate by the time they declare a major (or: graduate).
Each age has its challenges. On balance, I would unhesitatingly choose ours over those of 1880. But wouldn't it be nice if we could count on the possession of the basic skills, so that we could devote our energy to showing students how to apply them in exploring the legacy of the past and the challenges of the present?