Entrance Exam

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
Principal Joseph W. Fairbanks (served 1878-1884)

1879.  Williston Seminary, transitioning not altogether painlessly into the post-Samuel Williston era, had a new Principal, Joseph Whitcomb Fairbanks.  Fairbanks was finishing up his first year, having replaced the unfortunate James Morris Whiton, who had failed to finish his second.  Innovation was not Fairbanks’ strong suit,  His greatest talent lay in getting along, a skill that had escaped his predecessor.  (Yes, class, we’re setting you up for a future story!)

But in that first year, he had an idea: printing the Williston entrance examination in the Annual Catalogue.  It had not been done before.  For a variety of good reasons, including the possibility of scaring away potential candidates, it would not be repeated.  But 138 years later, it opens a window on what the entering Junior (i.e., 9th grade) or Junior Middler (10th grade) was expected to know.

Note that this is a “specimen” exam.  The actual test would have had different questions.  But try them!  Would you have been admitted to Williston in 1879?  (Please click images to enlarge.)

From the Annual Catalogue of Williston Seminary, February 1879

One confesses that many of these questions seem written to be annoying, demanding multiple conversions of equivalent measures or, in the geography section, asking for a deal of trivial knowledge.  To travel from Vienna to London by water requires cruising down the Danube some 1,000 miles in the wrong direction, east to the Black Sea.  And so on.  But how did you do?  (You weren’t expecting an answer key, were you?)

It may be instructive to look at this exam in the context of Williston’s curriculum at the time.  There were two divisions, Classical, emphasizing Latin and Greek, intended to prepare students for university entrance and, at least as originally conceived, a future in law or the ministry; and Scientific, emphasizing subjects needed in the technical professions.  Since the Civil War, the demands of the workplace and the expectations of colleges had changed, forcing the Williston model to evolve.  But the arrival of a unified comprehensive curriculum, in which all students would be exposed to significant science and math, required modern as well as classical languages, modern as well as ancient literature and history,  was still some three decades away.

Observant readers will note the minimal requirement for the study of English in both divisions: 1 hour per week, one hour of composition each month.  (At least Scientific freshmen were taught a full grammar and writing course in their first year.)  That was about to change; at this time Classical Languages Professor Robert Porter Keep was in the midst of a correspondence with the eminent editor and critic Horace E. Scudder, who had fascinated Keep with a radical proposal for teaching Literature as the center of the curriculum.  (We will address the Scudder correspondence in a future post.)

As it was, scheduling all this must have been complicated with a faculty of only nine!

This fall Williston Northampton will enroll some 160 new students in grades 7-12.  They will have undergone a rigorous but personalized admission process that includes campus visits, interviews, application forms, and, yes, standardized testing — but nothing quite like that 1879 exam.   We invite you to Explore our 2017-18 academic offerings.

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