Despite primitive conditions, country schools educated students well
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Today, Warren County schools are overseen by a regional superintendent who is also responsible for schools in Knox, Mercer and Henderson counties. But it was quite a different situation 89 years ago when a single superintendent focused his entire attention on the schools of Warren County.
That came to light recently when I was sent a 1928 high school entrance exam by Jeanne Robeson and her husband, Lew Gould, who came across it while going through Jeanne’s mother’s papers. The test is itself remarkable, but so is the story behind it.
To give a sense of the Warren County education system in 1928, one-room schoolhouses were still the norm. The county had only 16 graded schools and 112 ungraded schools. There were 24 brick and 110 frame schoolhouses. Approximately 5,000 students were taught by 235 teachers (mostly women), whose annual salaries ranged from $600 to $3,500. Overseeing such a vast yet disorganized network would have been a challenge for any administrator.
In 1865, the position of county superintendent of schools was established, replacing an earlier county school commissioner. In 1905, Superintendent J.D. Regan became concerned about a lack of uniformity in textbooks in the many country schools throughout Warren County and established a committee to recommend a common set of readings. He then prepared a uniform course of study and uniform examinations, which were mailed to all the country schools.
Such direct supervision, Regan reasoned, would improve the odds of “country” kids being able to enter and succeed in high school. He established an annual spring event called the Warren County Final and Scholarship Examinations. On a Saturday morning each April, hundreds of eighth-graders from outside of Monmouth would converge on Monmouth’s Central School for a daylong exam, covering subjects from physiology to orthography to geography.
The exam was administered by area teachers and personally graded by the superintendent. Students who passed were entitled to enter the high school of their choice in the county (Monmouth, Roseville, Little York, Kirkwood, Alexis or Youngstown).
The student with the highest score from each township won a four-year scholarship to any state university in Illinois. Because Warren County was entitled to 15 such scholarships, a scholarship could be awarded to more than one student from a township if all the townships were not represented in the competition.
Commencement ceremonies for the graduates were held in late August, in conjunction with the annual teachers’ institute.
The instructions for the 1928 exam provide a taste of what an eighth-grader had to look forward to: “A pupil who is ready for High School should be able to read and understand any of these questions. In fact that is a part of the examination. You will show a weakness in this examination if you ask a lot of unnecessary questions. Those pupils do best who depend upon themselves and proceed with the examination in a businesslike manner. It will be useless for you to write in this examination if you have not had both the seventh and eighth grade as you will not be promoted into High School without your seventh- and eighth-year term records.”
How would today’s eighth-graders fare on the 1928 exam? Here are some sample questions, so you be the judge:
PHYSIOLOGY: 1.State some facts about Tuberculosis — its spread, prevention and cure. 2. Describe muscles and tell how they do their work. 3. Name 10 ways in which we may injure the body through neglect. 3. What is meant by the following terms: Vertebrae, Retina, Epidermis, Ganglion, Medulla, Reflex action, Suffocation, Tonsils, Neurons, Ligament. 4.Tell something of the growth, care and exercise of the brain.
ARITHEMETIC: 1. A bronze statue weighing 50 lbs. is 88% copper. How many pounds of copper are there in the statue? 2. Henry received $9 for selling a radio. If this is 15% of the price of the radio, find the price of the radio. 3. There is a pool 20 feet in diameter in a park. What will it cost to lay a walk around the outside of the pool 4 ft. wide at 20 cents a square foot? 4. Find the cost of these pieces of lumber: 40 pieces 2x4, 16 ft. long, at $35 per M.: 32 rafters, 2x6, 16 ft. long, at $40 per M.: 10 sills 6x8, 16 ft. long, at $45 per M. 5. A swimming pool is 4 ft. deep at one end and 9 ft. deep at the other. What is the average depth? It is 30 ft. x 100 ft. How many barrels approximately does it hold when full? Count 7–1/2 gallons per cubic foot.
READING: 1. What was Poor Richard’s Almanac? Make your answer quite full. 2. Write a biographical sketch of one of the following: Robert Louis Stevenson. Oliver Wendell Holmes. John Burroughs. 2. Do you get books from the Warren County Library or its branches? Make a list of books you think a seventh and eighth grad pupil should read. Underline the ones you have read. 3. Write the following words in a column and after each write a synonym: grope, centuries, zephyr, shay, melancholy, mansion, gallant, steed, gloaming, unwittingly.
GRAMMAR: 1. Name and define the parts of speech. 2. How are sentences classified according to use? According to form? 3. Define the following: tense, infinitive, transitive verb, relative pronoun, predicate adjective. 4. Distinguish between a phrase and a clause. Write sentences containing each and underline each.
HISTORY: 1. Compare the voyage of Columbus with that of Lindbergh. 2. Name five colonial settlements, giving time, place and purpose of each. 3. Name 10 presidents of the United States and state some important fact about the administration of each. 4. Name five things that have had an influence upon the settlement of the Western frontier.
CIVICS: 1 .Is it our duty to obey a law if we believe the law to be bad? State your reasons. 2. Explain why some people are required to pay more taxes than others. Why are taxes necessary? 3. How many United States senators are chosen from each state? Do all states have the same number of representatives in the National Congress? Tell what you think about this being a wise plan. 4. Give several facts about the constitution of the United States.
ORTHOGRAPHY: 1. What do the following prefixes mean: mis, re, in, ad, ex, dis? 2. What do the following suffixes mean: ness, able, ible? 3. What do the following roots or stems mean: fer, graph, fact, man, spec? 4. Superintendent will pronounce 25 words to be spelled.
GEOGRAPHY: 1. Draw a figure and locate the zones on the earth showing the equator, tropics, circles, etc., and name each. 2. Name ten large cities of Europe. Locate and give an important fact about each. 3. Name five countries of South America and tell the importance of each. 4. Name three possessions of the U.S. and give a product of each. 5. Discuss Japan as to climate, products, industries and character of people.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 38 years.