College 200 years ago was for the few, the erudite


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.

16 thoughts on “College 200 years ago was for the few, the erudite

  1. My headmistress would have approved of that…and thanks to the education provided at her school – very much her school – I recognised all the names! We read the Latin works in the original…but not the classical Greek ones…we were taught New Testament Greek instead to encourage knowledge of the Bible.
    We’d dealt with fractions, square roots and English grammar at an early stage of school education, so thankfully could leave them behind for university!

    • The depth of your classical education is evident in your blog, Helen. In fact, I was wondering recently, after reading it, just how many people today would even understand what “The Venomous Bead” is a play on? Or perhaps good old Bede is better known in Europe than here in the U.S.

      Whatever the case, I think your headmistress would approve of your abilities in both rhetoric and logic.

      • That’s very kind of you…and I suspect that you are right about both Bead and Bede. These days I have to provide my own amusement, given the level of literature and art, so am duly thankful for the dedicated ladies who showed me how to learn and how what I learned could furnish my mind for ever after.

  2. In the current public school level these no longer applies unless one wants to pursue this an elective as well as proper cursive writing. Most students are receiving the passing grade to make room for the next students.

    • Many school administrators are only interested in the funding they can receive per student enrolled, many teachers are tired of distinterested students whose parents are unwilling or unable to assist in the education of their own children, and many children are allowed to seek the path of least resistance. An tremendous amount of potential is squandered in the current system, and few are willing to do the work to change things.

  3. amazing, what well rounded students must have been turned out from those hallowed halls. i am all for it, though doubt it would play well in today’s world. most everything is driven by time and money –

  4. I’m like Helen, didn’t know all of them, certainly grammar, algebra, Latin though. Luckily not too much bible study.

    But hey, I went on to study a useless degree in Ancient and Medieval History and Archaeology. I know I was useless one of my tutors told me so on my graduation day. I’d do the same useless degree today.

    • The fact that you would study the same thing today tells me it wasn’t a useless degree. I tell my kids – who are still young enough to listen to me – that learning is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. You can’t ever hope to complete the puzzle if you don’t get a good foundation (the borders), and a lot of what we call a classical education helps fill in the borders. I also tell them the world we live in today didn’t suddenly spring into being, which is why learning about the past is so important.

      Whoever your tutor was should have been punched in the back of the head. He or she certainly shouldn’t have been a tutor.

      • I think a ’rounded’ education is critical. I took optional French lessons in sixth form at school ie non exam, for interest, I’d already passed my O level. I took optional Something else at university, German maybe? You can never learn enough.

        My tutor had a doctorate in sarcasm. He was very dry and very bright. His point was that it wasn’t a vocational degree and being British, was also poking fun at himself for working in the same ‘useless’ field. Actually he’s still an honorary/guest lecturer.

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