November 27, 2004


Dumbing down: the proof
(The Spectator, November 27th, 2004)

As a service to Spectator readers who still have any doubts about the decline in educational standards, we are printing these exam papers taken by 11-year-olds applying for places to King Edward’s School in Birmingham in 1898.
Posted by Peter Burnet at November 27, 2004 6:48 AM

What percentage of post-grad education students, let alone an 11 year old, do you suppose could pass such a test today? I've seen a similarly difficult test taken by kids in Kansas in the late 1800's.

Posted by: Jim Elrod at November 27, 2004 8:13 AM

Also, none of our current students could pass it if it were in Sumerian, proving Sumerians were way smarter than we are.

Of course, back in the real world, IQ scores continue to rise:

On the other hand, the U.S. lags in IQ gains, too.

Posted by: Social Scientist at November 27, 2004 8:33 AM


Boy, you've got it bad, don't you. IQ's just keep on rising, although more and more universities are forced to give remedial English and math courses. What a paradox! Do you think it might have anything to do with the inevitable fate of standardized tests?

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 9:21 AM

"2. Add together £132 4s. 1d., £243 7s. 2d., £303 16s 2d., and £1.030 5s. 3d.; and divide the sum by 17. (Two answers to be given.)"

Thank God for decimilisation.

And the fact that more than a narrow elite have a chance of a decent education these days.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 27, 2004 10:17 AM

Make that decimialisation :)

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 27, 2004 10:19 AM

I meant decimalisation.

This is embarrassing.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at November 27, 2004 10:20 AM

The SAT has been dumbed down about 200 points since I took it a little over two decades ago. Take a look at an Algebra II Regents exam in NY from 40 years ago and compare it with its modern equivalent and the difference is quite stark.

What has happened is that politicians have decided that the way to make parents(i.e. voters) happy is to ensure that no demands are made of their little savages until it is too late. Just give all the little snotnoses wheelbarrows full of awards for showing up with a pulse and it'll all work out in the end, or at least by the time the parents discover the Music Man nature of this swindle of their tax money, they'll be retired.

If worse comes to worse, you can always blame it on the courts, the teachers or, more better, the teachers' unions. (The Flip Wilson defense, the devil made me do it.)

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 10:21 AM

M Ali:

You are lucky we don't rap knuckles anymore and make people write out misspelt words two hundred times.

I don't think that "narrow elite" quip holds up--not for the late 19th century for 11 year olds. Jim above mentions exams from Kansas and I've seen a similar one from turn-of-the-century Saskatchewan. Those weren't exactly bastions of artistocratic elitism. Between community efforts, home schooling, charitable ventures and extended family contributions, most kids above the very poor got a basic and demanding education.

What is very different is that no one thought it natural for everyone to stay in school until eighteen and therefore adjust the curriculum accordingly.

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 1:24 PM

Wrong, Peter. Since this is such a hotbed of demographics, you might consider who was taking entrance exams in England or America or Canada in the 1890s.

I like to personalize things, so my example is Warren Harding, who grew up in the prosperous farming and market town of Marion, Ohio, population 10,000 in 1890, the year Harding graduated from Marion High School.

One of 10 graduates.

How many high school graduates per 10,000 do you suppose we have today?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 27, 2004 1:46 PM


And those ten graduates were eleven years old?

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 1:53 PM


Only a narrow sliver of British society would have even been eligible to sit for that exam. The wealthy permanent aristocracy had governesses and special schools for their children preparing them for these exams. The general run of students never received much more than enough to read and write on the most rudimentary level.

The American examinations were similarly of dubious value in measuring the education level of most people. Harry is correct as the vast majority of people had little schooling, compulsory education laws being a 20th century phenomenon. For example, when Huey Long attained the Louisiana governorship, over 25% of White Louisianans had never been inside a schoolhouse.

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 2:11 PM


As usual, you exaggerate

Plus, as you both well know, the history of the 18th and 19th century is replete with tales of people being educated one way or another. Most of the upper and middle classes were educated.

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 2:17 PM

The middle and upper classes, as we would define them today, were a small percentage of their respective societies in the 19th century(at most 10%). About a quarter of the population in the US were involved in agriculture and at least as many were in factory or mining jobs requiring no education.

There has been public education in some locales for longer. And New York City had a fabulous system, in fact, in 1939, spending more than the 11 states of the Old Confederacy on education combined. But for most early Americans, education was an ad hoc affair, and not readily accessible to most people without significant sacrifice until after WWII.

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 2:28 PM

"About a quarter of the population in the US were involved in agriculture"

Yes, and most of their kids went to school.

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 4:20 PM

For how long? And what happened when they were needed on the farm?

Two of my great aunts were graduates of Door-Kewaunee Normal School in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin prior to WWI, and they got their professional starts in one-room schoolhouses, so I have some perspective on the reality. Education was basic but the methodology for self-improvement was emphasized however it was rare for people to be able to leave that environment to attend university even in a land-grant state like Wisconsin. Climate also had an impact. Keep in mind that Wisconsin was far better than most American states in terms of education for ordinary folks.

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 4:46 PM


OK, so now we are moving considerably beyond the "narrow sliver" of society and admitting most people got a basic education and a lot more than is commonly supposed got more. Yes it wasn't universal or standardized and yes it wasn't always fulltime, especially during harvest. I don't know what you mean by "basic", but the point of the post is that it may have been a lot more rigorous than today. And don't forget the huge involvment of parochial schools. University was not seen as necessary or desirable for most. And so your point is?

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 5:05 PM

Peter B,

Most kids were out of the system by 11-12. The rest were not really well-educated by modern standards. I can tell you that my mother never had even Algebra II(which I completed in a NJ public high school at age 14, and my dad completed in NYC at the same age) till she got into college, and she was valedictorian of her high school in 1948.

The point is that these exams don't represent the reality for people of the eligible age group then and so any comparison between the kids who sat for those exams and the kids of their age today is absurd.

If you want to debate that we have dumbed down education for most people, that is a different issue from the one presented, and worthy of debate.

The thing is that I believe we should make high school more intellectually rigorous for the average kid. When I went to a French lycee for a year, it was exponentially more intense than my suburban NJ high school, but within about a month I was able to fully adjust. America has never been a nation which demanded intellectual rigor of its citizens, even though we should. There never was a 'Golden Age' nationally where the average kid was asked to perform academically on a level that would seem a pipe dream today.(NYC excepted)

Posted by: Bart at November 27, 2004 6:19 PM


"America has never been a nation which demanded intellectual rigor of its citizens."

The North American disease. Believe me, you have friends. My experience with the European parents at my kid's school is that they are all incorrigible secular progressives, but they all take a very no-nonsense attitude to their kids' education. Self-esteem has a place, but not a very big one. Bully for them. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

One of the funniest putdowns of modern education I ever saw was a cartoon in Punch many years ago which had a feminist harridan screeching at an elderly, gowned classics professor: "I DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT SOCRATES THOUGHT. I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HE FELT!". On the side, a bust of Socrates looks equally distrought.

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 7:35 PM

Nicotine boosts cognitive ability, and I do not think it is a coincidence that most children of that time were already long time smokers by the age of 11.

Posted by: carter at November 27, 2004 8:41 PM

OK, another real world example.

On the battleship Arizona, around 1926, new radio equipment was installed. One of the enlisted men was chosen for training, on the grounds that he had more education than almost anyone else in the crew -- he'd gotten through 10th grade.

Until the secular ogre state paved roads, hardly any rural children went to high school. Families that considered education important moved to town if they wanted their children to go beyond grade school.

Townies had better access to schools, but it was not usual for an American child to "complete" school until after World War II.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 28, 2004 7:46 PM

OK, no argument here now that we've dropped the hyperbole. What is the point as it relates to declining standards--that universal education demands a lowering of standards?

Posted by: Peter B at November 29, 2004 5:08 AM

Peter B:

That's Orrin's working hypothesis.

It does seem likely. If we're not willing to let kids drop out once they've had enough, then it's necessary to keep things simple.

Actually, you made almost exactly that point, that we now expect kids to stay in school until eighteen.

My thought is that we should teach kids basic math, how to write, and keep drillin' 'em until they read at a college level, nothing else until they've got a firm grasp of those skills.
After that, it's up to the kids to demonstrate why they should be allowed to remain in school.
If they want to drop out at 12, fine 'n' dandy.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 29, 2004 9:50 AM

What's the point?

The common school movement was never to turn out college entrants, but to teach readin', ritin', 'rithmetic and civics to the unwashed children of the unwashed hordes.

King Edward's School was, I believe, an elite-aspiring institution designed to provide a select segment of the middle class with schooling until then the province of the aristocrcy and squirarchy.

At the same time, other English children went to cadet school, where they got a tough education but not much for literature.

At least compare apples with apples.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 30, 2004 2:28 AM


But you don't know that, do you. You have no idea what this school was about in 1898. You assert it was elitist because it fits into the paradigm of what you want to believe. You do the same on other subjects.

Posted by: Peter B at November 30, 2004 8:37 PM

Actually, I do know that, though I cannot give you a reference.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 30, 2004 10:39 PM