One hundred years ago the 200 odd students of Harvard College were completing the academic year 1824-25, and being examined, in the peculiar fashion of the time, in the 16 courses that were open then to undergraduates. Today, there begins a 14-day examination period in which nearly 4000 students in the University will take examinations in the 325 courses that are offered this year by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The contrast illustrates the transformation that Harvard has undergone in the third century of her existence.
In 1825 just 16 prescribed courses composed the curriculum of the College; in 1850 these courses remained, changed a little in character yet not in number; in 1875 they still clung on, but with only two years of life ahead of them. The germ of the new Harvard lay not in those time-honored 16 prescribed courses, but in the 12 elective courses that were introduced into the curriculum between 1825 and 1850. The expansion of these, and the growth of the examination period that inevitably went with it, is a barometer of the development of the University.
In 1875, soon after the coming of President Eliot there were 84 elective courses open to the choice of undergraduates; in the next quarter of a century this rudimentary elective system bloomed into maturity, and by 1900 319 courses were offered, and most of the prescribed ones had disappeared forever. By this time also the examination period had lengthened into two and a half weeks, and in the 25 years since there has been little change in either.
As he enters unwillingly the long stretch of examinations today, the undergraduate may well look backward and give thanks to President Eliot who gave him the elective system and the 14 day examination period that came with it. At the same time, he may be excused if he also looks forward to a golden future when some great educator will take that examination period away again, and, still leaving him all knowledge for his province, at the same time remove the harassing, mechanical restrictions that the curse of examinations has laid upon him.