Sunday, August 29, 2010

A 1909 History Test

“What explorations or discoveries did each of the following named persons make? Give the date in each case.

a. De Narvaez.
b. Coronado.
c. Marquette.
d. LaSalle.”

A candidate for the 1909 plebe class of West Point would have answered such a question on his (there were no hers) written entrance exam. The candidate would also have been asked questions on algebra, plane geometry, English grammar, English Composition and Literature, geography, and history.

In order to prepare, a candidate would have found sample questions from the encountered year’s exam in the Official Register of the Officers and Cadets of the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, June 1909. For the history questions, it advised, “Candidates must be thoroughly familiar with so much of the History of the United States, and of Ancient Greece and Rome as is contained in good high-school text-books on these subjects, and must have a good knowledge of the important facts in General Ancient History and the History of Medieval Europe to the end of the fifteenth century.”

The candidate might, for example, be asked, “Mention the principal events in the reign of Darius I, and the most noteworthy features of his government. Of what nation was he ruler?”

Or: “Give the main points in the Greek colonial system. How did the Roman colonial system differ conspicuously from the Greek?”

Or: “Toward the close of the fifteenth century in England was the power of Parliament becoming greater or less than it had been previously? By what right was Henry IV King of England? What was the earliest form of parliamentary assembly in English History?”

Or: “Define: Electoral College; Spoils System; Primary; Supreme Court”.

Candidates who failed these examinations were replaced by alternates. In 1909 there is no evidence West Point had any difficulty in filling its annual quota of plebs. The 147 candidates who entered West Point in 1909, at least one from each state and territory in the Union as well as one from the District of Columbia and one from Puerto Rico in addition to at-large appointments, passed these examinations.

Some questions tested factual knowledge. Other questions tested the ability to compare and contrast similar and dissimilar historical events and institutions. Some asked the candidate to explain the causes; others ask the candidate to explain the consequences; some both.

All of the sample questions for history were short answer questions. Today multiple-choice questions are more common. There are obvious thematic differences from 1909 to 2010. The historical questions that appeared to historians in 1909 to be significant are not necessarily the ones that appear to be significant today. On the other hand, there is considerable continuity: the importance of the Ancient Near East; the development of self-rule in Greece; the long term impact of the Roman Empire; the importance of the rediscovery of self-governance in Medieval and Early Modern Europe; and so forth.

High school and college history text books were a large market in nineteenth-century America. They were sold to schools and students. In addition, many found their way into bookstores catering to adults interested in history. Most texts included chapter headings, sectional headings, and numbered paragraphs. Most of the leading textbooks included various aids to help the student organize and learn history. They often included chronologies, maps, and reproductions of primary documents, pictures, a glossary, pronunciation aids, and review questions at the end of the chapter. Texts published in the early nineteenth century focused mostly on facts while those published toward the end of the nineteenth century introduced more complex ideas of causation and themes.

One popular text of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was Phillip Van Ness Myers’, Modern History. It was first published in 1886 and its popularity kept it in print through 1921. Like contemporary text books, this extremely popular text book listed in its preface twenty contemporary historians who had helped with the book and read the manuscript. Myers intended his text book to represent the best and latest thinking of academic historians. The sample West Point 1909 examination questions for history reflect Myers desire to stay abreast of what “historians” are saying. The 1909 West Point examination questions are a reasonable effort to determine what the students have learned from text books such as Myers’.

For the past several decades the teaching and learning of history has been hotly debated. Some argue our students don’t know enough history; some argue they don’t know “the right kind of history”; some say the fault is the teachers; others say it is the fault a society that seemingly cares little for history. Critics from both sides of the discussion do not, however, argue that American high school and college students know “too much” history.

A comparison, however, between the 1909 sample history questions from West Point and a randomly selected sample questions from contemporary sources such as state high school proficiency exams or the New York State Regents exams suggests that while themes and question design may have changed, teachers then and now demand a high level of content knowledge. Let me illustrate. Below is a sample question from a recent New York Regents test practice exam:

“In the Colonial Era, developments such as the New England town meetings and the establishment of the Virginia House of Burgesses represented

1. colonial attempts to build a strong national government

2. efforts by the British to strengthen their control over the colonies

3. steps in the growth of representative democracy

4. early social reform movements”

That question is from the Oswego City School District Regents Exam Prep Center, Oswego, New York. It is representative of many similar online sources intended to improve a student’s performance on SAT, ACT, or state mandated graduation tests. The URL for this particular site is:

The complete text, with the sample exam questions, from the Official Register of the Officers and Cadets of the United States Military Academy for 1909 may be found at:
An interesting exercise might be: Using the complete texts from the online sources, compare and contrast the two documents. Answer the following:

1. How well (given changes in thematic emphasis) might have West Point candidates in 1909 succeed on the New York Regents (or similar) history exams?

2. How well (given changes in thematic emphasis) would contemporary students succeed in the 1909 West Point candidate history exam?

Do you answers suggest more continuity than change, or the other way-around?

In addition to the above sources, analysis and samples of nineteenth-century American text books may be found at the University of Pittsburg Digital Research Library, 19th Century School Books: