The Modern Greek Exam, “Professor Blank’s” Method, and Other Stories from the 1930s

After publishing Jack Davis’ essay about the recent history of the ASCSA admission exams and while I was reflecting on Donald Haggis’ reference to the Modern Greek exam, defunct since WW II, I recalled a passage in Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell (1947). While writing about his life in pre-WWII Corfu, Durrell painted a perceptive, if not-so-flattering, image of the foreign archaeologist in Greece: “Like earnest mastodons petrified in the forests of their own apparatus, the archaeologists come and go, each with his pocket Odyssey and his lack of Modern Greek. Diligently working on the refuse heaps of some township they erect on the basis of a few sherds or a piece of dramatic drainage, a sickly and enfeebled portrait of a way of life.”

Durrell’s criticism and the recent discussion of exams in this blog enticed me look more carefully than I had ever previously done at the pre-WWII fellowship exams. Here, I should emphasize that these were FELLOWSHIP exams. Before WW II there were no admission exams. Candidates sat competitive examinations only for fellowships. Harold Fowler (1904-1917), Samuel Bassett (1917-1936), Benjamin Meritt (1931-1932), and others served as Chairmen of the Committee on Fellowships (only in 1950 was its name changed to the Committee on Admissions and Fellowships). Students were admitted on the basis of their credentials; although a knowledge of Classical Greek “was expected and assumed…in exceptional cases, a student ignorant of the Greek language [was] accepted as regular member of the School if he [was] qualified to pursue special studies in some field (e.g., architecture or art) where a knowledge of the Greek language [was] not absolutely necessary (ASCSA Handbook of Information, 1932, p. 16). Those competing for fellowships in Archaeology were examined in Modern Greek, but not in Ancient.

What were these exams like? Below I reproduce, as an example, the Modern Greek exam of 1936, which to my surprise also included a passage to be translated from English to Greek, as well as the requirement to translate an essay by poet Kostis Palamas from Greek to English. The passage for translation from English is amusing and imagines a conversation between an American archaeologist and a Greek boatman, the latter complaining about Edmond About’s unflattering portrayal of Greece (La Grèce contemporaine, 1858) and hoping that his American passenger will steer a different course!

The Modern Greek Exam of 1936

The Modern Greek Exam of 1936. Click to enlarge

My rambles in the ASCSA Archives for the preceding purpose yielded other interesting tidbits that may or may not be relevant to a continuing dialogue concerning modifications to the School’s procedures, but in any case are fascinating “archival gems” in their own right. I made these discoveries while digging in the papers of Samuel E. Bassett, Chair of the Fellowships Committee (1917-1936). In 1924, for instance, I discovered that professors Edward Perry of Columbia University and Francis Allinson and Kendall Smith of Brown University made an appeal to “substitute Attic Composition for Modern Greek as a requirement” in the fellowship exams. Edward Capps, Chair of the Managing Committee (1918-1939), objected strongly, asserting that “Modern Greek, besides its practical value for the student who is to spend a year or more in Greece, [had] a high and very distinct value to the student of Ancient Greek” (Capps to Bassett, April 28, 1924). Of course, most of the Modern Greek exam was in καθαρεύουσα which according to William Goodwin, Professor of Greek at Harvard and first director of the American School “differed less from the Greek of Xenophon…, [and] that Plato or Demosthenes, were he to return to Athens, could read the daily papers with little difficulty…” Goodwin further believed, as Capps also implied, that καθαρεύουσα was an incidental advantage for the American student because it helped him to conceptualize ancient Greek as a real spoken tongue. What is even more interesting in Goodwin’s first report as ASCSA director are his views about teaching Ancient Greek with Modern Greek pronunciation because that “would be of great assistance to every one who goes to Athens to study,” and he claimed that Plato or Demosthenes would have probably preferred “an Athenian’s present pronunciation of Greek” to “that of a German or American professor.” Goodwin believed that “the advantages of connecting our ancient Greek with a living language by a common pronunciation decidedly outweighed […] disadvantages… (Bulletin of the School of Classical Studies at Athens. I. Report of William W. Goodwin, Boston 1883, pp. 21-23).

The pleasure I drew from Capps’ support of the Modern Greek exam did not last long, however, as I probed further. On April 11, 1931, Capps proposed establishing a fixed ratio of fellowships between men and women, one that would award many more to men. Why? Because “there [was] a dearth of men archaeologists and a superfluity of women” and “the latter [couldn’t] get jobs.” In Capps’s view the School was wasting its resources by awarding fellowships to women, and he noted that even, the “Roman School” (the American Academy in Rome) had set fixed numbers for men and women. But Capps did recognize that women were outshining the men who took the exams. Thus, before instituting such a measure in Athens, it was necessary that “we must produce men candidates who will conscientiously equip themselves for the examinations.” LaRue Van Hook of Columbia University was on the same page as Capps. Hearing the names of the winners for the 1933-1934 fellowships he wrote to Capps: “But one cannot be elated over the winners! In [Sidney] Gould we have another ‘foreigner’ and Miss Welker is a woman (not that I am a misogynist, but more MEN at the School would be welcome), who is very deaf, and wins after three (or is it four) tries” (April 21, 1933).

Reactions to the candidacy of “Miss Welker”, Marian Welker, a graduate student of Johns Hopkins, are worth reviewing further. Rhys Carpenter, Director of the School (1927-1932), although he was sympathetic to her problems and recognized her abilities (“omnivorous reader and a hard worker”), thought “that she [would] have to pass examinations very much more brilliant than any other competitors to justify investing School funds in her future” (Samuel Bassett Papers, Box 1, folder 1, Carpenter to Meritt, January 28, 1932). David Robinson of Johns Hopkins University, on the other hand, who was Welker’s supervisor supported her strongly “as one of the best students I have ever had, in all fields of archaeology,” held on the principle that fellowships should be given to the one who knows most, despite other defects (Samuel Bassett Papers, Box 1, folder 2, Robinson to Bassett, April 22, 1933). Welker was given the Fellowship.

Van Hook’s unkind comment about the “foreign” identity of one of the Fellows (Sidney Gould) was not unique by any means. In the Managing Committee meeting of May 1934, there was a tumultuous discussion, initiated by Clarence Young, also of Columbia University, about the fact that two of the School Fellows for 1934-1935 were not American citizens; instead they were Canadians (Cedric Boulter and William P. Wallace) enrolled at Johns Hopkins University. The previous year another Canadian, Sidney Gould (PhD from Yale in 1933), had won one of the fellowships, not to mention the Canadian Walter Graham, one of the Fellows for 1930-1931. Carroll Brown of the College of the City of New York went so far as to claim “disbarment” of American students by Canadians. The meeting ended when a resolution was passed that only “when Canadian institutions became supporting institutions of the School, their students might be accepted as candidates for fellowships on equal terms with Americans” (Annual Report 1933-1934, p. 45). The affair did not end there. At the Managing Committee meeting of May 1935, it was finally resolved that “candidacy for the fellowships in the School be limited to citizens of the United States,” a decision taken over the objections of Bassett and Meritt that the School should not be nationalistic. Only in the early 1950s were Canadians once again welcome.

I have saved my best discovery for the end of this post: “Professor Blanks’ Method” of my title, a true scandal, perhaps the only of its kind in the history of the ASCSA’s exams. In late 1932, Bassett had received a letter from a graduate student of Johns Hopkins that exposed “Professor Blank’s method of putting his students through the Fellowships examinations,” “an accepted thing down at Blank University.” During the exams, “Professor Blank” discussed extensively with his students the contents of the questions and helped them with their answers. Bassett, who was justifiably alarmed, corresponded with other members of the Fellowship Committee and the Chair of the Managing Committee, without, however, ever exposing the name of the professor. Although disturbed by the revelation, Capps and members of the Fellowship Committee agreed to “put a stop to the scandalous talk…, not from the point of view of sparing or defending the person criticized, as to uphold the honor of the examinations themselves…” (Capps to Bassett, Jan. 1, [1933]). “We speak of keeping the scandal down, but it seems to me that we have here a situation which of itself will rapidly develop into a terrible scandal, unless we do something,” wrote a worrisome Charles A. Robinson of Brown University. The solution they chose was to place the exams under the supervision of professors who had had very little contact with the students who were candidates for fellowships.

David Robinson, 1931

David Robinson, 1931

But who was “Professor Blank”? I suspect I know the guilt culprit, but cannot speak with certainty: after all, the “scandal” remained a well-kept secret within a small circle of scholars. A comment by Richard (Dick) Stillwell, Director of the School (1932-1935), offers one clue. Complaining about the large number of School fellows from Johns Hopkins University, Stilwell wonders how a man who has only spent about six weeks at Hopkins was able to win a School fellowship. He commented further that “it is only too well known that the work at Hopkins is so calculated as to coach people particularly for School Examinations” (AdmRec, Box 318/3, folder 6, Stilwell to Capps, May 31, 1934). A second clue is Charles A. Robinson’s description of “Professor Blank” as “a powerful figure in the classical world” (Samuel Bassett Papers, Box 1, folder 2, C.A. Robinson to Bassett, January 3, 1933). Was “Professor Blank” David Robinson himself?

All of these stories from the 1930s may warrant further research, and it is likely that some of the topics introduced here will surface again in subsequent posts: e.g., the treatment of women at ASCSA. But let it suffice for now to say that, if you were a woman (not to mention handicapped) or a Canadian in the 1930s, your chances of receiving a fair hearing by the officers of the American School were slim. The fellowship exams did guarantee a more level playing field which was difficult to negate without raising the brows of those who believed that fellowships should be given to the best students, regardless of gender and nationality. Those who believe that the ASCSA exams should be restructured, but not eliminated, have a strong case. Exams support meritocracy –unless, of course, “Professor Blank” is on the examining committee!


7 Comments on “The Modern Greek Exam, “Professor Blank’s” Method, and Other Stories from the 1930s”

  1. […] More on the American School of Classical Studies at Athens entrance exam and some shady dealings fro…. […]

  2. […] and the response of the former director of the School, Jack Davis. Luckily, we do not have the modern Greek exam, which was once required–though I am sure it would not hurt to have better modern Greek […]

  3. Besides being female, handicapped, or Canadian, if you were a Jew it was also difficult to win an ASCSA fellowship in the 1930s. Letters in the Samuel E. Bassett papers in Yale’s manuscript and archives library show that the Fellowship Committee gave Israel Walker the 1930-31 Fellowship in Greek Language, Literature and History only with great reluctance. In an undated letter to Edward Capps about the results of the 1930 fellowship examinations, Bassett lamented that John F. Latimer, “a very attractive young man and an excellent teacher,” fell down badly on the history and literature exams, while Walker placed 6 or 7 points ahead of his nearest competitor. The committee agreed to award the fellowship to Walker since he was “vouched for as personally acceptable” by La Rue Van Hook, Walker’s Columbia professor, who wrote that “his semitic blood does not make him objectionable.” Van Hook’s letter (5 March 1930) actually said, “He is of Semitic extraction, but a quiet, modest, and unassuming fellow, very presentable.” When Bassett had asked David Robinson’s opinion about giving the fellowship to Walker (Robinson was a member of the Fellowship Committee), Robinson had replied (29 March 1930), “I am a firm believer in examinations and if Walker comes out far ahead in general average I should hesitate not to give him the fellowship, especially as he can work under his own instructor, Van Hook [Annual Professor for 1930-31]. . . . Personality is an important thing and I hate the Jews with a few exceptions, but these fellowships are given for scholarship and ability to do research work and not merely on the grounds of personality.” If Robinson was indeed “Professor Blank,” I suppose one could argue that he was “a firm believer in examinations” because he was influencing their outcome, but it does sound in this letter like he was advocating intellectual meritocracy even against his own personal preferences.

  4. […] (ASCSA) factored religion into decision-making about student applications for fellowships  (https://nataliavogeikoff.com/2013/10/01/the-modern-greek-exam-professor-blanks-method-and-other-stori…). Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan had observed that fellowship procedures in the 1930s were weighted […]

  5. […] “Davy told Nike [Eunice] that he had procured the School Scholarship for her-…- and she is going to take the matter up with Dr. Carpenter, and if there is any suspicion of dirty dealing, refund the $1000.” Of course, Van Ingen’s comment fits well with the accusations, in 1932, that a professor (“Professor Blank”) was feeding information to his students so that they could pass the School’s exams for fellowships. Perhaps not coincidentally, Robinson’s students had received the largest numbers of School fellowships in the early 1930s. (About “Mr. Blank’s” unorthodox methods, see also https://nataliavogeikoff.com/2013/10/01/the-modern-greek-exam-professor-blanks-method-and-other-stori&#8230😉 […]

  6. Johnny says:

    This was a great story and a great read… Such scandals like that didn’t just happen in the 1930s. At the Classics Department of the University of Queensland during the 2000s postgraduate students who were being supervised by the Departmental Head had an abnormally higher than usual chance of being awarded departmental scholarships than those who weren’t. And infamously one of the Departmental Head’s own ‘special’ postgraduate students was awarded a travelling scholarship which became an all-expenses paid travelling (4 weeks) honeymoon for the new married winner and her fellow postgraduate husband. And during that same time there were also cases of diploma students being accepted into the higher postgraduate research courses without the proper qualifications and prerequisites if you were “liked and favoured” by the Departmental Head. So academic scandals like “Professor Blanks” are nothing new nor surprising to me.


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