Exams are getting harder -- shock
Yesterday I was sent an intriguing present. It was the exam papers taken by a Newnham Classics student in 1901-1902. I’d seen these before, in their pristine, bound volumes in the University Library. But actually fingering the ones that come direct from the exam room, still marked with the blood, sweat and tears of the poor student (well, almost) makes a more powerful impression.
It’s hard not to ask yourself the obvious question: are these degree exams really more difficult than what our students do, like the gloomy commentators claim?
Well, put aside any romantic nostalgia for the glory days of rigourous classical education at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The good news is that what our undergraduates face at the beginning of the twenty-first is actually rather more challenging.
True, these papers look a bit more formidable (something to do with the close set typeface, I think), and there was a gruelling run of two three-hour papers per day (our students take only one a day). And you certainly had to know a lot. But there isn’t much evidence that a lot of thinking was required. Imagine the brightest and best classicists sitting down after three years at Cambridge to: “Mention the chief works of Zeuxis, Timanthes, Nikias and Timomachos” (a question about ancient painting, for which you just need to know the relevant passage of the elder Pliny). Or “Describe with a sketch-plan the Circus Maximus at Rome”.
My favourite is the one that asked “for a short description, showing where possible its evolution in classical times” of the “lock and key”.
Now maybe it’s charming to think of generations of students mugging up the workings of the ancient equivalent of a Yale lock. But our kids have more thinking to do. The question from last year’s paper “What role did religion play in policing sexual practice” would have floored most of the class of 1901-02 for more than the obvious reason. So too the tricky: “Did physical beauty have moral value in Classical Greece?”
But, you might be wondering, what about the more specialist linguistic tests? It’s one’s thing to deal with this modern style of “think-question”, but surely the students of a hundred years ago were asked to undertake much more difficult exercises translating from Latin and Greek.
Again, I’m not so sure. There was certainly a lot of it in the old papers, and they must have had to work at a cracking pace. But the passages from ancient authors they were asked to translate are not so very different from now. In fact, something very close to one passage from Cicero in 1901-02 was set just last year.
The funniest comparison, though, is between what those students were asked to translate into Latin and Greek, and what ours do. Turning English into classical prose and poetry was one of the mainstays of a Classics degree a hundred years ago. It no longer has that central position, but it’s an option that many of our students still choose (particularly translation into prose – verse is rather more arcane).
The papers of 1901-02 are full of passages from Bishop Berkeley and the like to be rendered in Latin; plus some choice extracts from Tennyson and Dryden to go into verse. Last year our students had more fun. They had some Seamus Heaney and David Bowie to turn into Greek and Latin poetry.
Of course it’s a dangerous business comparing exams across the decades, especially when (in the case of 1901-02) we only have the questions and no idea what the answers looked like. (Maybe those answers on the lock and key would have surprised me.) But there’s not much ammunition here for those who think classical, or university, standards have dramatically slipped.