David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Of Historical Notes

August 29, 2011: Of Historical Notes

This week we were subjected to an annual list that may have lost its usefulness, especially for education, which was the premise for starting it originally.  Also, this week, I was told of a link to an 1930's exam that may speak volumes about how we have lost sight of much in education.  Let's start with the latter.

Thanks to my friend Steve for forwarding me this link to an 8th grade graduation test in West Virginia from 1931.  It's a reminder of a much different time in the history of education in this country.  Some of the interesting questions along the way:

From Geography:

  • Trace a carload of coal from a West Virginia Coalfield to a sea port or a lake port.  In the early 1970's my answer would have been "directly in front of my family's car all the way from Morgantown, WVa, to Washington, D.C."  Nothing is quite comparable to the 2-lane roads of West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia and the challenge of passing coal trucks.  As of now, I guess I would answer this with "straight across the flattened mountains brought down by overzealous strip mining."

From Physiology and Hygiene

  • Name some important uses of the skin.  Why should we bathe?  Anybody who can answer this question to the ability of convincing my 12-year old to bathe, please respond immediately.  As for important uses of the skin, I think I have been too twisted by Silence of the Lambs to answer that appropriately.


  • Write a page on the points of the standard West Virginia Boy or Girl.  Is it just me or does this seem a really dangerous question to ask a 14 year old boy?  And is there a standard?  And God forbid what the rest of the country might think is the standard West Virginia Boy or Girl?  (Insert incest joke here.)

From Reading:

  • Name the authors of the following writings.  Wow, this is straight from my Ph.D. exam at Indiana University--what we called the trivial pursuit part of the exam.  Then, later down, the student is to identify where passages came from.  Also straight from my Ph.D. exams. We get this again in the English section! I'll take American Literature for $200, Alex.

From Civics:

  • What does the family do for the education of the children that the school can not do?  What does the school do for the education of the children that the family cannot?  Every elected official must answer this question immediately.  Apparently, they want to answer to the first part, "nothing," and to the second part, "everything . . . and more." 

From English:

  • Write a letter to the Gerald Manufacturing Company, Newark, N.J., making application for a job as filing clerk in the office.  Give general education, experience, etc.  First off, 14-year olds had any experience to reference? In West Virginia, I suppose that was in the coal mines and the farms.  And now days, no one could "write" the letter; cursive writing is barely considered important.  And "filing clerk?"  I'm too good to work in a nail salon!

From Penmanship (frankly, see directly above):

  • Give at least three good reasons why every boy and girl should learn to write well.  I even struggle to come up with one!  Forms can be filled out online, and the messier the signature, the more authentic it looks!  (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

From Arithmetic: 

  • A man sold a wagon for $45 which was 3/5 of its cost.  What did the wagon cost him?  A week sleeping on the couch, since the wagon was an heirloom from his wife's family, and she knows for damn sure she could have gotten $125 for it on e-bay.

From Spelling:

  • Give the abbreviation of the following words:  Collect On Delivery.  Huh, what is this "Collect on Delivery?"  I don't comprehend. 

From History:

  • What great men did the colonial period produce? Write briefly of each?  This is a sexist question, and I suspect a racist one, too.  I'm going to write my congressperson!

All jokes aside, which is not easy for me to do, this is one really, really difficult exam.  I'm not sure I could answer all of it, even if we updated it to include a few more questions relevant to the 21st century.

The truth of the matter, I find these old exams much more interesting and illuminating than what's becoming the tired cliche of the Beloit Mindset List--you know, the annual list about what incoming freshmen don't know.  Twelve years or so ago, when it was started, it was interesting and relatively thought-provoking.  Now, it just drifts off into silliness (perhaps I am the last person to criticize silliness).  I mean look at some of the stuff that made this year's list:

Jim Carrey has always been bigger than a pet detective;

Life has always been like a box of chocolate;

John Wayne Bobbit has always slept with one eye open;

Dial-up is soooooooo last century;

New Kids on the Block have always been known as NKOTB;

Ferris Bueller and Sloan Peterson could be their parents.

Honestly, how do these factoids really change how we will educate them?  Sure, many teachers use popular culture references while they're teaching, but these strain the usefulness of this list.  I'd say the Mindset List has jumped the shark. 

It's time for some institution to make their name with an old exam list, comparing a 1911 West Virginia state exam with a 2011 state exam, perhaps. Every year, compare the exams from a century ago, a half century ago, even just a decade ago.

Or, it could be, "Today's in-coming freshman's parents were tested on this for their high school completion. See how wider the generation gap evolves."  These would be great water cooler topics, much more so than any NKOTB reference.