I like to think that as a society, we’ve gotten smarter as we’ve gotten older. In the past 100 years alone, we’ve discovered cures for many diseases, landed on the moon, invented radio and television and even cloned a sheep. With the invention of the Internet, students now have instant access to the entirety of human knowledge, so it would be easy to believe that today’s kids know more than their counterparts in the past. However, that assumption seems to be a little off, at least based on a recently unearthed high-school entrance exam from Kentucky in 1912.
After a quick glance at the test, you can see how difficult it would be to pass for an adult, let alone a middle-school student. Even taking into account the differences in language and understanding of science in 1912, most of the questions still make sense and are still pretty hard. Ask yourself if you could’ve passed this test between grades eight and nine, which was when it was originally administered. Most of us probably could have, but it would have required a great deal of studying and effort; no multiple choice, no true or false, just blunt questions with fairly open-ended answers.
While it sounds like I’m saying kids were more educated in 1912 than they are now, what I’m really trying to say is the emphasis and expectations have changed. Memorization of facts and long-form calculation of math problems have given way to tests of critical thinking and ability to analyze, which only reflects the ways the world has changed.
Getting into high school was a privilege, not a right. Kids had to study hard and be prepared to answer questions on a wide variety of subjects, just so they could get off the farm and into a classroom for four more years. It’s not really fair to make a direct comparison of the specific knowledge to what today’s students should know, but the expectations then and now were miles apart, for better or worse.