The Present Requirements For Admission to Harvard College

“The old system of examination aimed to find out whether the candidate had studied those books in language or science which the college recommended. The new system aims to find out whether he can reason and use the knowledge he has gained from those books.”

In the last ten years great changes have taken place in the course of study required of boys in preparation for Harvard College. The present list of requirements was published in the College Catalogue for 1886-87, after much discussion in the college and outside of it. The main point of dispute was the compulsory study of Greek. The opponents of Greek attacked it as being of no practical value to any person who was not to become either a student of language or a teacher, and argued, from this point of view, that it was absurd to require all boys to study it. Many other persons, trained under the old system, could not conceive of a liberally educated man to whom Greek was but a name, and therefore defended the requirement. The college authorities have settled the question for a time by admitting pupils with no knowledge of Greek, but only under very stringent conditions.

This is a wide departure from traditional standards, but the college has made other changes even more far-reaching in their results than this. Changes in the form of examination set by the college in many of the old subjects of study have altered the whole course of preparation in them. These great changes have been so slow and gradual that the general public has almost no knowledge of them, and even many of the preparatory schools have no adequate appreciation of them. Nevertheless, parents with sons to be fitted for college, and all persons interested in education, ought to understand the present requirements in order to see the general tendency and the purpose of them. It is well worth while, also, to consider whether they make a good foundation for a liberal education before other changes are suggested.

The studies required for admission are divided into two classes, elementary and advanced. The first class is prescribed for all students except under two conditions, which will be mentioned later, while the second class is elective. Without going into troublesome details, it may be said that the examinations in the elementary studies test the following acquirements: an elementary working knowledge of four languages, two ancient, Latin and Greek, and two modern, French and German; some acquaintance with English classical literature, and the ability to write clearly and intelligently about the books which have been read; a knowledge of elementary algebra and plane geometry; an acquaintance with the laws and phenomena of physics obtained from experiments performed by the pupil in a laboratory, or a knowledge of descriptive physics and elementary astronomy; and last, a knowledge of the history and geography either of ancient Greece and Rome or modern England and America. In addition to examinations in these prescribed elementary studies the candidate must be examined on two more subjects, chosen, according to his tastes and natural aptitude, from the following list of nine advanced studies: —

Latin Translation.

Greek Translation.

Latin and Greek Composition.



Trigonometry and Solid Geometry, or Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry.

Advanced Algebra and Analytical Geometry.



Although the college, by implication, if not by actual words, recommends the above course of study as the best, she permits two deviations from it. Candidates are allowed to substitute one additional advanced study for either French or German, and also to substitute two additional advanced studies for either Latin or Greek; but in that case the subjects chosen must be either mathematics alone or mathematics and natural science. The permission to make these two alterations in the recommended course of study is wise, and reasons for it, I think, are not difficult to find. It is clear that the study of both the modern languages is considered necessary to a liberal education, because the candidate who offers only one of them for admission is obliged to study the other during his first year in college. But as many schools in the past have been very deficient in good teaching of the modern languages, and some would still find it hard to teach both French and German, it is very probable that the college does not wish to demand more than they can do. The second permission is the one which has caused so much discussion, and has made many persons think that Harvard has lowered her standard; in other words, has made it easier to enter her doors. Any one, however, who examines carefully the subjects which must be substituted for the omitted ancient language will see that only those minds which are especially adapted to the study of mathematics and natural science can possibly master them. It seems very wise to permit boys with such minds to devote their time to mathematics and science for which they have a natural bent, and drop the study of language to which they are not suited, provided they do not lose entirely the peculiar training to the mind which is given only by classical study. Under the present requirement, they will obtain this from the one ancient language, which must be retained under any and all circumstances.

Let us examine these studies in detail, and notice what changes have been made in the methods of examination in them, in order to see and understand the new methods of instruction which are required to meet the new tests. In the elementary examination in the classics, the test applied is the translation at sight of passages from Cæsar and Nepos in Latin, and from Xenophon in Greek. These authors all have a simple narrative style, and their thought is neither involved nor profound, so that their works are entirely within the comprehension of the average boy. Such a test as this requires an entire change from traditional methods of classical teaching, but unfortunately many persons do not understand just what this change is. Formerly the candidate was asked to show that he had read certain specified works by translating passages from them, and to show his knowledge of some standard Latin or Greek grammar by explaining the grammatical construction of certain words in these passages. To be able to do this the pupil stored in his memory a translation of passages from the books he had himself read or had heard some one else read. Unless he had a natural fondness for language, he read these passages as combinations of words, for each of which he had to have some English equivalent word, but rarely realized, or cared to realize, the thought which was meant to be conveyed by them. He was taught to pick out his Latin or Greek words by means of their English equivalents in an English order; that is, first the subject, then the verb, and last the object, each with its modifiers. He then studied these English words in the English order to make something out of them which, according to his English notions, made sense. His thoughts and conceptions were only his own English ones. He was made to learn all the rules of syntax before he did any reading, because he must explain each construction he met by making it fit under one of these rules. This whole system of teaching looked at the classics only from an English point of view. The student gained very little more than a confused knowledge of the arbitrary names which grammarians have given to Latin and Greek constructions, and some insight into ancient life and customs, which would have been clearer and would have been obtained more easily if he had read any good translation of his author. He did not learn to read the languages, nor realize that thoughts were expressed by them. Now the college requires him to be so familiar with the vocabulary and forms of thought of the classics that he can read a passage he has never seen before, in which the style is not different from that to which he is accustomed, and the thought not more profound than it is in the books which he has read. In order to do this at all, the pupil must read each sentence as he reads an English or French one; that is, he must take in the ideas in the order in which they are presented in the Latin or Greek sentence. He must learn how a Roman or a Greek thought, to be able to grasp the new thoughts which may be presented to him in a new passage. He must get at the ideas expressed by his author before he attempts to translate; that is, before he puts these ideas into good English. The new system of teaching, if it would meet the new test, must keep these two processes—the understanding of the Latin or Greek thought, and the expression of it in English translation—entirely distinct, because the student can arrive at the ideas in a passage he has never seen only through the language in which they are found; whereas, under the old system, the two were confused, and the tendency of the teaching, as we have seen, was to make him translate before he had a clear understanding of the thought. The student must look at the different constructions of the language as ways of conveying thoughts, and be asked to explain the thought which is contained in them rather than to give some arbitrary rules of syntax for them which he often does not understand. In order to read the thought, he must be familiar with the syntax; but he gets this familiarity by reading, as the physicist, by observing phenomena in his laboratory, arrives at the knowledge of nature’s laws. This new method of teaching gives, as it were, a laboratory training in language. The aim is now, not to read a certain quantity of Latin and Greek, but to learn how to read these languages, and to make the student realize that, although the languages are dead, they were and are still vehicles of thought.

Reading with this aim is what the phrase “reading at sight” really means. In many schools this is too little understood. It is supposed to mean guessing at words to save the use of a dictionary, while in reality the dictionary has to be used much more thoughtfully than before, as the boy must learn what each word meant to a Roman or a Greek, and not simply find some English word for it which will fit into his preconceived notion of what the sentence means. Pupils are too frequently allowed to pass over forms in a slipshod way without learning them. Experience with pupils in preparation for college has shown me that an exact knowledge of the forms is absolutely essential in order to see at a glance the relations between words, and so to grasp the thought which is expressed by them. Such exact knowledge of the forms can be got only by memorizing them.

This method of studying the classics brings out clearly their educational value. The conceptions of Latin and Greek and the forms of expression are so different from the student’s own that he must analyze words, phrases, and sentences containing complex ideas to arrive at any real comprehension of the author’s meaning. Being thus obliged to look at each thought from two points of view, the Latin or Greek and the English, he is forced to get a clearer conception of the thought than he could possibly get by looking at it from the English side only. As few words in two widely different languages have exactly corresponding conceptions behind them, — that is, are synonyms, — he must get at these conceptions to see what a sentence really means. He must think, and think clearly. He grows accustomed to clear thinking, and therefore expresses his own thoughts more clearly both in speech and in writing. From this kind of classical training, as from mathematics, he learns to reason logically, but with this fundamental difference: in mathematics he reasons from letters and figures representing quantity, and from this limitation in the symbols he receives only narrow conceptions; while in language study he reasons from words representing thought, and from this breadth of the symbols he receives broad conceptions. Something of this mental training was got under the old system of classical teaching, but the college examination did not then test this power of thinking as the present one does. A pupil cannot translate a passage he has never seen before without this power. To read at sight, a student must have a large vocabulary of Latin or Greek words, of which each word represents to him not one English equivalent word, but an idea. Under the old system of examination this vocabulary was not necessary, because he had read the passages before, and could often remember the context without knowing the meaning of separate words. This vocabulary will always be a valuable possession to him, when we consider that a large part of our English vocabulary is derived from Latin and Greek, so that a perfectly intelligent use of English words is impossible without some knowledge of these languages. This system of teaching the classics is for these reasons practical, and this study of them is as valuable to the business man as to the college professor.

The desire to banish all studies which are not to be of immediate money value to the student, which has given rise to the discussion of the comparative usefulness of ancient and modern languages, has caused many persons to overlook the true value of a right study of Latin and Greek. The study of them is valuable to every man for the mental training which they give much more than for the knowledge of ancient life and literature which is obtained through them. This knowledge can be and often is obtained by reading English translations of the classics, and modern works on ancient art, life, and literature; but this training can be got only by the study of the languages themselves. The man who says his Greek or Latin is of no use to him in business or elsewhere does not realize that if he really studied either language his powers of thinking were increased, even though he has forgotten every fact learned about the language itself.

The modern language requirement is the ability to read ordinary French and German prose at sight. This requirement is the same as the classical one, and demands the same kind of teaching. But as these languages have always been studied from a practical point of view rather than that of the grammarian, there has had to be no change in methods of study. No arguments are heard against these languages on the score of uselessness, but, on the contrary, it is sometimes claimed that the purpose of classical study, which I have spoken of above, is entirely fulfilled by them. This is only partially true. The student of elementary French and German does get some training of the kind I have mentioned, but he gets much less of it. These languages are so little different from English in forms of thought that he can arrive at the ideas expressed in them with very little careful thinking. The new point of view from which he looks at each thought is so nearly the same as his own English one that he gets no clearer conceptions. The ideas represented by French and German words are not sufficiently different from those presented to him by English words to make him do much analytical thinking. Hence French and German are easier to learn to read than Latin and Greek, and the unconscious training which the mind receives is proportionately less, although the knowledge of them is of enormous practical value.

The training in mathematics which is tested by the college examination of to-day, and really secured in the best schools, is almost as different from the old as the new classical training is different from the old. To be prepared for the old system of examination, the pupil had to know a certain number of problems or propositions. He was very sure to meet enough of these old friends on the examination paper to pass creditably, even if he had only memorized them, without really understanding the reasoning of them. Now the candidate must go to Cambridge so trained in algebraic analysis and geometrical reasoning that he can reason out the problems which are given him with intelligence and accuracy, even though, as is extremely likely, he has never seen one of them before. No amount of cramming can enable him to do this. He is no longer examined as to his memory of certain proofs and solutions, but as to his ability to use the training his mind has received from these proofs and solutions. To meet this requirement he must have received a training in exact reasoning which will help him all his life.

The change in the physics requirement has been more radical than that in any other subject. Such a change in a comparatively new branch of human study is, however, not so remarkable as are the changes in other branches which the world has studied from the same point of view for ages, and in which the methods of study had become stereo-typed and fossilized. For years the college required only such a memory knowledge of physical laws and phenomena as could be got from a descriptive textbook. In schools where there was money at command the study of the textbook was accompanied by illustrative experiments shown to the pupil, but under the best of circumstances the pupil’s thinking was largely done for him. By this method of teaching, as by the old classical training, his memory was loaded with facts of which he might or might not have any real understanding, while he did very little real thinking. So marked was this attitude of the college toward physics that for years, at the examination in that subject, the candidate was asked which of the textbooks recommended by the college he had studied, and he was given a paper of questions prepared from that very book. Hence any boy could be sure of knowing the correct answers to these questions, if he had learned the text of his book by heart, and had never exercised his powers of thinking. This was a system of teaching hardly calculated to train his mind, or to awaken an interest in a branch of science in which the nineteenth century is doing its most active thinking and producing its greatest results.

How different is the present attitude of the college! It now publishes a descriptive list of forty experiments, covering the elementary principles of mechanics, sound, light, heat, and electricity. These, so far as possible, are quantitative experiments; that is, they require careful measurements from which the laws and principles of physics can be reasoned out. Where, for any reason, such measurements are impossible, the experiments are merely illustrative; but even from these the pupil must reason carefully to arrive at the principles which they illustrate. The pupil must perform these experiments himself in a laboratory, under the supervision of a teacher. He must keep a record of all his observations and measurements, together with the conclusions which he draws from them. The laboratory book in which this record is kept, bearing the certificate of his instructor, must be presented for critical examination when he comes to Cambridge. In addition to this, he is tested by a written paper and by a laboratory examination.

This very complete form of examination, although it takes a long time, really tests the candidate’s knowledge of physics, his skill in experimenting, and his power of reasoning. It is very unfortunate that the time devoted to the mathematical examinations is too short to make the tests as fair as this. One hour is all that is allowed for each of the mathematical examinations. The result of this is that the pupil is asked to do more thinking than he can do in the time allowed, or the ground covered by the examination is so small that the examiner cannot estimate the candidate’s knowledge and ability accurately.

In the laboratory study of physics the pupil learns fewer facts, perhaps, than he did in the textbook study, but each fact is impressed upon his mind with the additional force of personal discovery; just as we all have a deeper impression of a fact which we have discovered for ourselves than we have of one which is told us by others, or of which we read. He learns to observe and make an intelligent record of what he sees, and, what is most important, he learns to reason from these observations to the broad generalizations which are called physical laws. Such a course of study as this, under a good teacher, is certainly practical. The pupil’s mind must be trained, and his interest awakened by it.

Unfortunately, the expense of laboratories has compelled the college to allow the old physics requirement to remain as an alternative to the new one, but the study of elementary astronomy is coupled with it; so that the amount of work required is greater than in the laboratory course, and schools are rapidly coming to teach the new in preference to the old. No such remarkable changes have been made in the examinations in history and English, but in these subjects, by comparing the old and the present examination papers, one sees the same tendency which has been noticed in each of the previous subjects. The pupil is not examined on facts alone, but is also obliged to show his powers of analysis. The questions in history are now broader, and frequently deal with the development of nations rather than with the incidental facts which marked this development. In the English examination, the candidate is obliged to show his practical acquaintance with English forms and good use by correcting specimens of bad English, and by writing a short composition on a subject chosen from the books he has read. To be able to do this he must have read the books intelligently, and must have had sufficient practice in writing to express himself readily and clearly.

The advanced studies are supposed to occupy equal amounts of time in preparation, and in that sense are considered equivalent. Hence the student, in making his choice of two or more of them, is guided only by his tastes and abilities. The examinations in them demand the same kind of training that has been pointed out in reference to the elementary studies. Each subject must be studied from this same point of view, namely, to train the thinking powers as well as to store the mind with useful facts.

In the four language studies the pupil must read more advanced works; that is, works in which the style is less simple and the thought more profound. He passes from simple narrative to poetry or argumentative prose. The requirement in Latin is the reading at sight of average passages from Cicero and Virgil. In Greek the passages are chosen from Homer or Herodotus. In Latin and Greek composition the candidate must be able to translate passages of connected English narrative into good Latin and Greek. In French and German he must show his familiarity with certain specified works which have become classic, and, moreover, must also be able to read at sight any passage of standard French and German prose, and to write in these languages about the books which he has read. In physics he must perform sixty additional experiments, covering the same branches of the science which he has already studied, but requiring more skill and knowledge of physics. The examination is like that in elementary physics. In chemistry he must perform sixty experiments, covering the elements of the science. He must keep a laboratory record, as in physics, and his examination is of the same kind. In mathematics he goes from algebra and geometry into higher branches of mathematical science. In trigonometry he must not only study the science itself, but must also understand its practical application to surveying and navigation. In solid geometry he applies his power of geometrical reasoning which was got by a study of plane geometry to the study of surfaces and solids. In analytical geometry he applies his knowledge of algebra to the study of plane figures and conic sections. In advanced algebra he studies the more abstract conceptions of higher algebraic analysis.

From this brief discussion of the forms of examination and the kind of instruction which is required to meet such examination, it is seen that the desire of the college is to require each student who is admitted not only to have a large amount of useful knowledge, but at the same time to know how to use this knowledge to the best advantage. All the changes which have been made tend toward this desirable end. The old system of examination aimed to find out whether the candidate had studied those books in language or science which the college recommended. The new system aims to find out whether he can reason and use the knowledge he has gained from those books. For instance, he is not asked to show that he has read Cæsar, but that he can read it. No cramming can enable him to pass such examinations as these. Hence he must be educated. Every pupil lays a good foundation to build his superstructure on, and can pursue the courses of study offered to him in college to the best advantage. Each elementary study is of great practical value to every man, whatever is to be his calling in life, and can therefore be prescribed for all candidates without imposing unnecessary and profitless work upon any one. Each subject, if taught as the college evidently means to have it taught, makes the student think, and gives its own peculiar training to his mind, beside imparting useful knowledge. The classics give him broad yet exact conceptions, and enable him to read their ancient literature when he is older and can appreciate it. The modern languages give the same training to his mind, but to a much smaller extent, and open to him the living literatures of two great nations beside his own. The mathematics give exact but narrow conceptions, and the power to solve the practical problems which meet a man at every turn. The natural sciences, while enlarging his thinking powers, give him a knowledge of the forces around him, and show him how truth may be learned from phenomena. English teaches him how to write and speak his own tongue, and introduces him to the great thoughts of our own literature. History gives him an insight into the deeds and motives of great men and into the development of great nations. In short, every subject enlarges the student’s mind, and stores this enlarged mind with knowledge. Surely such a requirement as this is a good foundation for a liberal education.