Wednesday, December 13, 2006


My father has *only* an 8th grade education. By the time he was ten, he'd lost both of his parents. (His mother died he before he was three. The only thing he remembers about her is watching her wooden box being lowered into the grave--by horse.) So he was living with his oldest brother when he finished 8th grade and thought he'd better get out into the world and support himself. (That would have been about 1930.)

I remember being a bit embarrassed by his lack of education when I was in grade school. By my late high school and college years, I was often amazed at what he knew and wondered where he learned so much. (No, I wasn't that abnormal. I thought I knew much more than he did and thought both my parents were total idiots until I was about 25. But idiots and knowing a lot...two different things.)

In 1996, this exam from 1895--35 years before my father's 8th grade graduation--began circulating on the internet. (It drew attention, based on an article printed in the Salina Journal, Salina Kansas using the original exam archived at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Saline County. Columnists and newspapers all over the country picked it up from there so you may have seen it.) This is what it took back then to graduate with an 8th grade education. I'm including only two of the easier questions from each section of the test. The original sections were 8 to 10 questions each. If you want to see the whole thing, check out the links.

8th Grade Final Exam: Salina , KS -1895
Grammar (Time, one hour)

2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
6. What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.

Arithmetic (Time, 65 minutes)

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)

1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour)

3. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Geography (Time, one hour)

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?

The exam was five hours long, was given orally and was also graded for penmenship.

One of the luxuries of hanging out with readers and writers is that they seem to be so much smarter than the general population. (Sorry, but I don't worry that I'm going to insult anyone since I doubt that anyone not interested in books, is going to read this.) So I intelligent as we all are, which of us could pass this test?


Nancy Morse said...

Intelligence and book smarts are two different things. That test pertains to things you learn in school. Intelligence is something you're born with or acquire along the way through the sheer act of living. My dad didn't go to college and worked in a sweat shop his whole life to support his family. He's not book smart, but he's kind, loving, intelligent,all the things that make a great role model. When I was a kid, I used to wish he were a brain surgeon or something equally brilliant, but in my line of business I interact with MDs, PhDs, RNs, MSNs, and I can tell you that some of them don't have the sense they were born with. As for book smarts, sometimes on TV you see where the reporter goes out into the streets and asks passers-by general questions about geography or something like that. It's scary how many truly dumb people are out there.

JoAnn Ross said...

Alfie, not only am I floored by this, I've just surrendered my trivia tiara. (I also sent members of my writers group over here to read it, I found it so amazng!)

Nancy, my half-sister graduated from Cornell with a degree in geophysics, then Conoco paid for her to go to grad school at UC Santa Cruz. She's brilliant (could beat my husband at chess when she was nine.) In fact, she recently spent two years in Russia searching out oil for Halliburtan.

She also fills her glass nearly to the brim BEFORE putting in the ice cubes. Whoops. You'd think one of those physics courses would've taught her not to do that. lol

Shanna Swendson said...

I guess that might be a sign that we've lowered the educational bar a wee bit. It's not so much the head full of facts that matters as the high expectations and intellectual rigor that go into learning those facts.

My grandmother left school after third grade to take care of her younger sisters when her mother died, but she was a lifelong learner who was always reading and who instilled a love of books and reading in all of her children and grandchildren. In that way, she had an impact that outweighed any advanced degree.

Allison Brennan said...

JoAnn, intelligence and common sense are definitely use two different parts of the brain!

I'm not surprised by the quiz, but I sure feel stupid.

K said...

Interesting test! What struck me is the practicality of the information. I'd probably barely pass it if I took it today, but I'm sure I'd have been an A+ student back in the day (all of those subjects are of interest to me...if there'd been calculus, chemistry, or fashion on the list, I'd have been in trouble).

Keep in mind, however, that a current high school eight grader could be prepared to take and pass this test in eight years of school as well (they just wouldn't get the foreign language, music, art and science education they do today because this test would require a lot of rote memorization and drilling).

Human nature is to teach to the test. We just can't help it :-)


Loralee said...

I hope this comment goes through. I always seem to have trouble, but if this works I may just sign up for a day to blog.

I'm sure I wouldn't pass the test, but I know there are many others who could. I admire and respect anyone who has earned college degrees. I'm sure it wasn't easy. I graduated from high school in a class of thirteen. Yep, 13! Seven girls and six boys.
My continuing education has been from the School of Life plus a short course at a secretarial school in Austin a millenium ago. That training led to a job in the Finance Dept on an Air Force Base. Yes, the girl who hated numbers and math was doing payroll for the boys in blue. But I learned and kept learning.

Reading everything I could get my hands on has allowed me to learn things my small school didn't offer. First and foremost is the love for books. I had a wonderful English and Literature teacher who made sure everyone in her class read extensively. Thanks, Mrs. Smith. I owe you big time.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, no matter what our level of education might be, there is always something to more to learn every day. At my age, I still have a long way to go. But I doubt I could ever pass that test!

Christie Craig said...


Wow, I loved this. Like you, my father is a self-educated man. I'm amazed at how smart he is. I'm a firm believer in education, but I also know that sometimes the best education comes from life.