How did people get fancy degrees in the olden days?
March 11, 2017 12:34 AM   Subscribe

How did people – especially women, working class students, people of colour – go about getting a BA, and sometimes also a PhD, in the pre-WW2 era? Like was there a formal admission process and exams and scholarships for entry to uni and entry to graduate school like now? Or did you just network with the right professors? I know the system in the UK was essentially a closed shop for upper class white males, but how did the actual process work?
posted by dontjumplarry to Education (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would love to know about higher degrees in particular. Like say you're the most brilliant student in your philosophy class in the 1920s. As a woman, a minority, a working class person, how did you make the transition from student to PhD-academic? Presumably there was some severe exclusionary processes in place.
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:39 AM on March 11

You might be interested in the book version of Hidden Figures, which is much more true to history than the film (no criticism of the film intended -- they just rearranged some things in time for the sake of narrative), and covers a lot of details about how the black women whom the book focuses on were able to get their math educations in the 40s and 50s and 60s in the American South.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:43 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]

Wikipedia's entry on Women in science will be useful. As an outline, the late 19th c. saw a lot of women's colleges founded, and they would have wanted to help their most brilliant students. In specific, the article mentions a lot of women whose biographies you can read for specifics.
posted by clew at 12:44 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

I've got a friend who is an academic in her 90s, who got her BA (at Oxford) in the 1940s. She says back then, a PhD was something people only got if they weren't good enough to get an academic position after their lower degrees. So women and working class people didn't necessarily need to get a higher degree than the bachelors in order to go on and teach and research at universities at that time. Not that universities were exactly falling over themselves to hire minorities, of course, but it means the question should perhaps be more about how they got hired rather than how they got higher degrees.

My friend got a lectureship straight out of her BA at the same college where she studied. I assume she got a PhD eventually at some point because she goes by Dr, but she's done amazing work (she's in the International Who's Who of women, and has various national and international honours , so it's possible it was granted at some point as an honorary degree because of her work.
posted by lollusc at 12:55 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]

This wonderful New Yorker article on Franz Boas by Claudia Roth Pierpoint talks about his mentorship of women PhD students including Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead in the 1930s at Columbia (he was a pioneer in this as in much else). And yes women's colleges played a key role. Hurston was the first black student at Barnard College when she came to Boas' attention.
posted by spitbull at 4:36 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]

was there a formal admission process and exams and scholarships for entry to uni and entry to graduate school like now?

Yes, pretty much. There's famous stories about admissions processes going way back. Here's one about Galois, an upper class white dude now hailed as one of the greats, but he still flubbed an entrance exam and didn't get in to his top choice grad school. Probably didn't help that he threw an eraser at the reviewer.

Anyway, until I learn otherwise, I think it safe to assume relatively formal admission process is roughly as old as formal universities, 500+ years.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:29 AM on March 11

Yeah, I was going to mention Zora Neale Hurston, whose educational history is kind of amazing. At the age of 26, she pretended to be 16 so she could qualify for free high school! W.E.B. Du Bois would be another example, although he's a generation older than Hurston. Du Bois grew up in a majority-white town in Massachusetts where he attended integrated schools and where his academic abilities were apparent to everyone, and his church raised money to pay for him to attend Fisk, a historically black college in Nashville. He excelled at Fisk, and after graduation he applied to Harvard. He was accepted, but he had to earn a second undergraduate degree, because Harvard wouldn't accept him to grad school on the basis of his Fisk degree. One commonality between Hurston and Du Bois is that they started their college education at historically black institutions and then used that as a springboard to elite white colleges, where they came to the attention of influential people who could help them further their studies.
Anyway, until I learn otherwise, I think it safe to assume relatively formal admission process is roughly as old as formal universities, 500+ years.
In the US, I believe there was always a formal admissions process, but it changed over time. Someone posted a copy of a nineteenth-century Harvard admissions test here a while back. That doesn't exist anymore. Famously, elite American universities changed their admissions policies in the early twentieth century in an effort to exclude Jews. They went from a straightforward exam process to the current process, which takes into account things like activities, recommendations from teachers, and assessment of the student's character. Some discussion of that here. It's a review of the book The Chosen, which is a history of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But it's worth considering that most US universities are not Harvard, Yale and Princeton, which didn't even admit women undergrads until after World War II. There were a variety of institutions (public colleges, women's colleges, historically black colleges, etc.) that primarily served less-elite populations.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:10 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]

Both of my grandmothers had college degrees. Generally in their era, college degrees were geared towards allowing women to teach, as that was one of the few entirely respectable professions open to them. One of my grandmothers, born in 1905, went to Baylor and got her BA. My other grandmother, born in 1910, went to Washington State College and again, became a teacher. However, she later joined the faculty at Gonzaga and was head of the Theatre department, which did not require a graduate degree.

Both were able to go to college simply by applying; the cost was achievable for many, many more families then than it was today. My grandfather, on the other hand, was able to go to SMU because at the time it was free to the sons of Methodist ministers. He went on to get his PhD, although I'm not clear how that was funded.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:21 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]

You might look into Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American physician. The wikipedia entry on her gives a decent summary of how she got her education (her siblings were accomplished in their own right).

Ruth Benedict, a mentee of Franz Boas, got her Phd in 1923. The wikipedia entry on her again gives a decent account of her educational path.

My grandmother graduated from a women's college, now called Hood College, in 1900 (she did not get a higher degree.) Her father had been poor (and only learned to read and write as an adult, taught by his wife's sister, a teacher), but after the U.S. Civil War became successful in the brick making business. He valued both education and his daughters, and sent several of them to college. Hood College "was officially chartered in 1897 'with the purpose and object of creating and maintaining a college for the promotion and advancement of women, and the cultivation and diffusion of Literature, Science and Art.'" I know there was some kind of admissions process, but I can't remember what my grandmother said about it, unfortunately.
posted by gudrun at 6:50 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

There's an excellent chapter on anthropologist Charlotte Gower in
Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions: Essays Toward a More Inclusive History of Anthropology
(2000), which covers a lot of the challenges faced by women trying to get into academia in the 1920s and '30s in the US. The whole volume actually is fascinating, focussing as it does on anthropologists who were marginalized and excluded in various ways due to race, class, and gender.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:07 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]

Bear in mind that in those days, a tiny percentage of people went to college in the first place. Entry was, as stated above, by exam. That said, there was also a social hierarchy. My grandfather, for example, was a classmate of T. Roosevelt's eldest son (class of '09). They did not run in the same circles, my grandfather being a scholar who went on to get two more degrees and lead undergraduates into higher maths, Roosevelt being a swell who went on to get general's stars and lead GIs into furious battle.

It does raise the interesting question of when and why did college become the snob factor that it became, and in large part still remains. Did Roosevelt need the degree for his chosen career? One could argue not. My grandfather? Pretty much yes.

(Another interesting factor is to see how many faculty members at even ivy colleges ca 1900 did not have advanced degrees, even in hard sciences.)

Both my grandmothers also did college, one at the university of Berlin, so perhaps no bearing on your question. (Her father was a German Phd at an age when that meant serious scholarship, which may have been a factor.) The American grandmother - don't know, she seems just to have gone as a matter of course to the state U. down the block. Her (un-degreed) father ran the shop for the local railroad company, in which capacity he ran into Butch Cassidy - but that's another story.
posted by BWA at 7:30 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

I think women attending college was not exceptional in 1920's. My grandmother born 1906 went to Ohio State for a bachelor's degree but then got married and did not pursue a traditional career. My husband's grandmother born 1895 attended had an MA in Biology and PhD in Plant Pathology - she did research for the government during WWII and supported her husband's medical research throughout their joint careers. She went to University of Missouri.
posted by metahawk at 11:31 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]

Here some data on women's attendance at college: 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Page 65 says that the percent of the population going to college rose from 2% in 1900 to 7% in 1930 while during the 1920's the percentage of students who were women dropped from 47% to 44%.

Jump ahead to page 69 and it looks like in early 1900's, women were getting 20-30% of the BA and MA degrees and 5-10% of the doctorates.
posted by metahawk at 11:41 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]

Oxford and Cambridge had entrance exams for (as far as I know) most of the 20th century - certainly between the 1940s and 1970s which was when my female family members were choosing not to bother applying! These entrance exams were over and above normal sixth form exams, and required an extra year of school. So going to a red brick university meant that you would leave school and go to university at 18, but if you were applying to Oxbridge it was an extra year of school without any guarantee of a place at Oxbridge at the end of it. This was enough to put off a lot of people.

I know the system in the UK was essentially a closed shop for upper class white males
Yes and no. I'm currently reading Black and British, and it points out that the UK was the place that people from the Empire sent their children to be educated, including university. There were points in the 19th century where the only non-white population in the north-east of England were people studying at Durham university. While the Second World War may have provided somewhat exceptional circumstances, my grandmother's graduation photo is if anything more ethnically diverse than mine, as she went to a London university and I didn't - Oxbridge and London being the places that people coming from abroad tended to study. Tuition and living costs could be offputting, but there were scholarships and charitable funding available for some. The difference between then and now is that you approached each university individually, rather than there being any central process. That said, outside of Oxbrige, entrance to university in the UK could be very informal - I recall in Keith Simpson's autobiography that he got in to study medicine at Guy's by going up to London and having a chat with the medical school's admissions officer (obviously putting him, as a white male from a medical family, at considerable advantage).
posted by Vortisaur at 4:12 PM on March 12

As a handy sidelight, Daphne Spain's How Women Saved the City points out something interesting: in the US, at least, higher education for women became reasonably common a generation or more before paid professional employment became common for women. How to use those educations? What problems could women attack without being attacked for being women? ... it's a great story!
posted by clew at 12:11 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

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