Education

THE Harvard Examinations for Women are an attempt to create and bring to bear upon schools and courses of study for girls influences similar to those already exercised upon the schools for boys by the supervision of the colleges. That these college influences are indirect makes them none the less powerful. And it has long been the opinion of careful observers of the education of girls that some well-recognized standard to work up to could be made as useful for them as for boys.

It is plainly indispensable that the authority which sets the standard should be one widely known and esteemed. For this reason the Woman’s Education Association of Boston, in their efforts to secure higher qualifications and more thorough training among teachers, and more genuine work in the schools for girls, applied to Harvard University for help.

A precedent already existed in the Higher Examinations for Women by the universities of London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Cambridge. Even a short experiment in England had demonstrated that young women were glad to submit to exact tests of ability, and, what is more important for the practical influence of the work upon schools in general, the certificates of proficiency awarded by the universities attained at once a market value, securing for their holders more desirable positions as teachers and better salaries. “No one would think now of employing a governess who had not a university certificate,” is the remark of Miss Yonge.

The New England plan really owes not much more to the English one than that general suggestiveness in which so much comes from the Old World to the New.

Our public-school system has made the idea of examinations of some kind familiar to girls, while in England, until the recent government inspections, they were almost unknown. But an examination of a whole school in classes, by a visiting committee, is an entirely different thing from the voluntary choice of a young woman to devote herself to a specified course of study, and then to offer herself for a thorough testing of her work.

Merely to have duplicated the high-school examinations would hardly have been worth while, nor would it have attained the desired end. The high-schools are of necessity planned to meet the average wants of a large number of pupils. Their standard must be set for the capacity of the average, which always proves far below the ability of at least one quarter of a large class. The very effort of the schools to make the work thorough under the difficulties of irregular attendance and insufficient preparation makes it narrow and cramped. The schools which fit boys for college demand so much special labor from the teachers in the few studies required for the entrance examinations that in the girls’ side of the schools the subjects the study of which is necessary to fit them for intelligent women in ordinary life must be neglected. To put it in other words, the girls, who can at best take only a four years’ course of study beyond the grammar-schools, are obliged to put up with what is merely the preparatory work of a course intended to last nine or ten. The extreme disparity of standard between school and school has also been a serious barrier to progress.

With these considerations in view, after a careful survey of the work actually prescribed in a large number of high-schools, academies, and private schools, the course of study now required by the Harvard Examinations was marked out.

The papers and the examiners are provided by Harvard University, and the certificates of success are signed by the president.

The expense of the work is borne by local associations, who assume all the labor of advertising, giving information, and making suitable provision for the young women at the time of the examination. The work at Cambridge, Massachusetts, is under the auspices of the Woman’s Education Association of Boston. That in New York is under a local committee. Examinations will be held at other centres as soon as there is a demand for them and competent persons are ready to undertake the local supervision.1

The examinations are of two classes, — preliminary and advanced. The first may be divided into two parts at the option of the candidate, with the reservation that the examiners must be satisfied in at least three subjects at the earlier examination. Candidates must not be less than seventeen years of age to receive the preliminary certificate, and no one will be admitted to the advanced examination who has not passed the preliminary. In this respect it differs from all the English plans except that of London University. That alone requires all the subjects before granting the certificate. The others require only three or four, and the candidate’s choice among the given subjects is almost unrestricted.

In the advanced work the study may be confined to branches of one subject, — mathematics, language, history, or literature. But for the preliminary examination the candidate must be prepared in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, physical geography, botany (or physics as an elective), French with either Latin or German, English and American history, and English literature.

The variety, or we might say the manysidedness, of this course of study, together with the condition that all this preliminary work must be satisfactorily done before attempting further special study, indicates very clearly the character of the whole undertaking. It is not to encourage or multiply specialists, but to enforce the importance of thorough elementary work as the indispensable foundation for a liberal education. It does not aim at professional training, not even for teachers, but seeks first to secure that general discipline and furnishing of the mind on which must be based, with equal necessity, both that higher education which is to give us cultivated women in ordinary life and the special study which fits for a profession.

As to the amount or the quality of the work to be done, whether in the single subjects or as a whole, it is difficult to make a satisfactory statement without a literal repetition of the official requirements. It is not too much to claim that the preliminary examination will serve as “a test of elementary education of a liberal order.”

“ The best work of the best high-schools” was the original interpretation of the standard, but the experience of five years goes to prove that the schools are few which pursue a course of study of such breadth as this, or which insist upon the requisite thoroughness. The public schools, as we have already hinted, lack in breadth. It may be a useful education ; it is not a liberal one.

The private schools (we mean the term to include all schools not free) are likely to fail in the drill and discipline which develop power in mind and character. The reasons why would furnish material for a whole article. The interference of parents renders any systematic plan almost impossible. The preference among the mothers for showy accomplishments sacrifices reality to appearance; and to sum all in one word, the entire ignorance among our wealthy and leisurely class of the indispensable need of rigorous training for success in social life defeats the endeavors of the most skillful teachers.

Yet it is a fact that so far the candidates who have succeeded best have come from private schools. This is partly accounted for, on the one side, by the possession of means sufficient to secure special instruction; and on the other, by the greater freedom of private schools to adopt, if they will, new plans of study. Superintendents and committees move slowly. And, moreover, there is a natural reluctance on the part of the already burdened high-school teachers to add anything to the work already required of them. As we said before, the girls are sacrificed to the boys. It is not improbable that we may have to wait before seeing very large numbers of candidates until, as it were, a new generation of teachers and committees arise who can see that in education, as in building, one must plan the end from the beginning. A four years’ course of study becomes an absurdity if it is identical with the first four years of a course intended to cover eight or nine years.

We ought not to omit in our sketch the stimulus and the help which such examinations may give to solitary study. There is a good deal of idle young ladyhood, the result simply of not knowing what to do. Only the true “scholar” can work without external aid, but the love of books aud the habit of study can often be fostered by wellmade paths and definite points to mark the way, such as examinations may furnish.

We would not be understood in all this as mistaking examinations for a means of education. We approve them only as a test — the best, perhaps, which our imperfect methods have yet reached — to show what use has been made of the true means of education. Of their effect upon girls, when conducted as these are, without the element of competition, we quote a letter from a school-mistress in England who has had much experience of the university examinations : “ So far as they bear upon the characters of pupils, we have nothing to complain of, but everything to encourage us. We find that they frequently strike a most effectual blow at sentimentality and conceit, and they lead to habits of order, economy of time, and interest in study, and to more sympathy with those who are engaged in the graver business of life.”

There is a small but hopeful band of enthusiasts who will answer every word thus said by insisting that all girls should be fitted for college, and that college education is the universal panacea. Such sanguine spirits are hard to convince, but cooler judgments and more practical eyes will see that it will be long before any considerable proportion of young women go to college. The wherefore is beyond our present purpose, but it must be evident that the work to be done for the immense majority of young women must be accomplished within or near the limits of school life.

Such a plan as the Harvard Examinations for Women traverses no one’s special theories. It leaves the college question entirely open, and at the most it professes to be only one way of helping toward the better education of women in a field which offers but too many opportunities for patient effort.

Some breath has been rather idly spent in reproaching Harvard for offering examinations without instruction, as if it were the shadow without the substance ; but whoever makes such a suggestion seriously must have little knowledge of the actual work of great universities. A large part of it has always consisted of just such labor. Our people are so unfamiliar with any sort of examination outside the old narrow schoolcommittee interpretation of the term that it is scarcely strange that the good of them should be questioned. But in older communities the probable superiority of the tried or tested man or woman is rarely denied.

The necessity for independence in the examiners has led many persons even to maintain as a distinct theory that it is a decided gain not to have the instructing and the examining body one and the same. Without insisting upon this view of the matter, we cannot do better than to call the attention of these objectors to the great prominence which was given to this very point in the discussions upon university reform in England fifteen years ago, — discussions of which these very Higher Examinations for Women were a direct result.

It is not, its friends said, solely the instruction of the university that is of such value to society, but it is the guaranty that is put upon the work done by the student. Other work equally good is no doubt done elsewhere, but there is no stamp to distinguish it from the worthless. Let us have the same guaranty outside the walls of the university, and its usefulness will be vastly widened. The various local examinations throughout Great Britain and Ireland were the result of this demand.

Without claiming for Harvard any such position as that of the Old World universities, and even admitting her influence to be in some aspects a local one, there is no authority on this side the water more widely recognized, and no verdict more highly esteemed, than hers.

It is this wide recognition and general acknowledgment of the competency and impartiality of the verdict that will make the plan so useful in determining the worth of teachers. As we have already said, the university certificates in England from the outset had a market value. From the very first the demand for teachers holding them exceeded the supply, and still continues to do so, although hundreds now pass each year.

The female teachers of our country number about two hundred thousand. Accepting as colleges all the institutions that claim the name, we do not find that they send out even two or three thousand graduates yearly. The normal-schools do not graduate as many. In 1874 the number going from them to teach of both sexes was under fourteen hundred. The vast majority must then have received, with the rarest exceptions, only the ordinary school education. But to discriminate between the schools from which they come or the abilities they have, there have been no means whatever that could have any force outside each separate community. Each superintendent, supervisor, or committee sets his own standard, and oftener than not refuses to acknowledge the existence of any other.

“ The regulations respecting the examination of teachers appear to be responsible, to some extent, for the frequent changes which occur, and which form a special blot upon the American system. . . . An annual examination mast be insufferable. . . . The want of uniformity must work prejudicially. Teachers who are rejected by one set of examiners are passed by another. In one county of Ohio ninety-seven per cent. of those examined passed and received certificates ; in another fifty-five per cent. of the candidates were rejected. This instance alone is sufficient to prove the necessity for some definite standard of qualification and uniform method of examination.”2 No ex perience is so disheartening to the young teacher as this passing from one set of examiners to another; while so long as this variety of standard exists, the public has no protection against the clever pretenses of the shallow or the ignorant, and no defense against the piteous pleading of genteel necessity.

The success of the three years’ work at Harvard is not to be measured by the number of candidates, for it has been emphatically seed-time. It must take years for the mere knowledge of such a scheme to reach those for whom it is intended. The correspondence of the committees in charge represents every State in the Union, every variety of school, and all classes of teachers.

It is plain that the study cannot be taken np at the last moment except by girls of unusual natural power or of specially fortunate instruction. It must grow with their growth. The girls in the grammar-schools now are to be the candidates of the next decade.

It is to this element of permanence that the scheme will owe its success. Any short experiments in education are worse than money thrown away, and time lost. The association is determined that there shall be a fair trial, and, if need be, the university is ready with yet longer patience.

A pamphlet containing requirements, lists of books, specimen examination papers, etc., will be forwarded on application to the secretaries, 114 Boylston Street, Boston, Massachusetts, or 65 Fifth Avenue, New York.

  1. There will be centres at Philadelphia and Cincinnati in 1878.
  2. The Free School System of the United States. F. Adams. England.