Few will question that college has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. Today, post-secondary education is often geared toward preparing an individual for employment, where 200 years ago the goal was to provide a classical education.
In the early 19th century, very few people went to college, but it would appear that those who did were extremely well educated.
Consider this description, taken from The Life and Times of C.G. Memminger (1893), a biography of the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury, of the knowledge necessary to gain admittance to South Carolina College (today’s University of South Carolina) in 1819:
“A candidate must be able to sustain a satisfactory examination upon Arithmetic and Elementary Algebra and English Grammar; upon Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, and the whole of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin; and in Greek upon the Gospels of Sts. John and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Greek Grammar.”
And that was just to get into the school!
The description goes on to add that “The studies to be pursued in the Freshman year are Cicero’s Orations and Odes of Horace in Latin, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Memorabilia in Greek, Adam’s Roman Antiquities, Vulgar and Decimal Fractions, the Equations and Extractions of Roots, English Grammar and Rhetoric.”
My first thought is one would be hard pressed to find a college student today proficient in the above in their mother tongue, never mind in Latin and Greek.
Some of the names listed above are familiar, others not so much.
Cornelius Nepos was a Roman biographer whose simple writing style made his passages a standard choice for translation on Latin exams.
Gaius Sallustius Crispus, often known simply as Sullust, was a Roman historian and politician whose works include The Conspiracy of Catiline.
Xenophon was a Greek historian, soldier and student of Socrates. Cyropaedia has been described as “a political romance, describing the education of the ideal ruler, trained to rule as a benevolent despot over his admiring and willing subjects,” while Memorabilia is a collection of Socratic dialogues which serve as a defense of his teacher.
Roman Antiquities (1791) was written by Alexander Adam (1741-1809), a Scottish teacher whose pupils included Sir Walter Scott.
Virgil, Horace and Cicero, noted Roman poets, remain well known today, as is Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, whose war commentaries are noted for their style.
A vulgar fraction is another term for a simple fraction. Extraction of roots refers to finding square and cube roots.
After reading what was required to get into South Carolina College and through the first year, one can only imagine what the curriculum for the next three years entailed.
Incidentally, Christopher G. Memminger, who grew up in a Charleston orphanage, gained admittance to South Carolina College at age 12 and graduated as class salutatorian at 16.