An Examination

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 1, 1910

Ignorant College Men

 How much is education worth? To what extent does it fit a man to grapple with his environment? How much that is really worth knowing does a three-year college course add to the average man’s stock of knowledge? These gloomy problems now engage a section of the English press. One paper had discovered, or says it has discovered, that not 10 per cent of the young men who were “graduated A.B.” at Oxford last spring know the difference between a reciprocating engine and a turbine, or the cause of dandruff, or the exact extent of a husband’s liability for his wife’s debts, or the proper dosage of paregoric for an infant of 17 months. Another paper finds that not 5 percent of the sixth-year pupils in the average English school know the distance from London to New York, or the nature of an oath, or the altitude of Mont Blanc, or the speed of the Dreadnaught, or the chemical formula of ordinary baking powder.

Can it be so? Can it be true that education leaves us ignorant of the very things most worth knowing? Can it be true that the pedagogues stuff us with knowledge which merely makes us proud and neglect to give us any of that better knowledge which might make us better citizens of the world? In brief, is the average educated man really educated? Let us find out. Let us set down a series of test questions and see how many we can answer. Thus:

  1. How is the horsepower of a steam engine determined?
  2. What is the best and safest way to stop the flow of blood from a razor cut?
  3. Who is the Governor-General of Canada?
  4. What is the composition of a seidlits powder?
  5. What is pragmatism?
  6. What is the tax rate in Baltimore for 1910?
  7. Who invented the incandescent lamp?
  8. What is the New Nationalism?
  9. Why are some men bald?
  10. What is the difference between a dynamo and a motor?
  11. Is Porto Rico a Territory? If not, what is it?
  12. How many teeth has a normal adult?
  13. What are the trade winds?
  14. What theory is at the bottom of the common custom of taking quinine for colds?
  15. What is a writ of mandamus?
  16. What is the difference between murder and manslaughter?
  17. Between murder in the first degree and murder in the second degree?
  18. What is the meaning of the word militia?
  19. How many Philippines are there?
  20. What is Mendelism?
  21. Chauvinism?
  22. Metabolism?
  23. How many arteries pass through the human neck?
  24. What is the common law?
  25. The Westminster confession?
  26. The Nicene Creed?
  27. The binominal theorem?
  28. Who was Ibsen and what did he write?
  29. What was the Young Turks movement?
  30. Suppose a citizen encounters a highwayman stealing candy from a child, and suppose the citizen interferes and the robber runs away. Is it lawful for the citizen to shoot?
  31. What is the normal weight of a man 5 feet 9 inches in height?
  32. Why is it unsafe to eat ice-cream after deviled crabs?
  33. What are derby hats made of?
  34. What is glucose?
  35. What is the precise difference between iron and steel?
  36. What is the composition of ordinary illuminating gas?
  37. Under what conditions is it explosive?
  38. How is the area of a circle determined?
  39. How many feet are there in a mile?
  40. How many acres in a square mile?
  41. How many square yards in an acre?
  42. What is the weight of a gallon of water?
  43. What is the cause of eczema?
  44. What is the theory of least squares?
  45. By what process does vaccination produce immunity to smallpox?
  46. What is the difference between a bishop and an archbishop?
  47. Who invented the typewriter? When?
  48. Who wrote the Constitution of the United States?
  49. What sort of hides are used for making show leather?
  50. What is pleurisy? Give one of its symptoms.
  51. What is the value in American money of an English guinea?
  52. Is it perjury to violate an oath of abstinence taken before the Supreme Court of the United States?
  53. What is the meaning of the word perfecto as applied to a cigar? Panetella?
  54. To what country does Key West belong?
  55. Is it libelous to call a man a rascal? A liar? A scoundrel?
  56. What nations are parties to the Triple Alliance?
  57. Is an oyster a fish or a reptile?
  58. How is soap made?
  59. What is the difference between a battleship and a cruiser?
  60. Who wrote the Gospel according to St. Mark?
  61. What are the essential doctrines of Methodism?
  62. What is the difference between an engraving and an etching?
  63. What is the process of lawmaking in Switzerland?
  64. Is it lawful for a man to beat his children with a rattan?
  65. How many plays did Shakespeare write?
  66. At what age do children commonly begin to walk? To talk?
  67. If a man dies in Maryland leaving neither will, widow nor children, who gets his money?
  68. How many States are there in the Union?
  69. Is Hawaii a territory or a colony?
  70. What is a symphony?
  71. What is borax?
  72. How much laudanum can an ordinary man drink without danger?
  73. Is typhoid fever contagious?
  74. What is the difference between an ambassador and a minister?

Here are 75 easy questions. How many can you answer? Go over them carefully. I have done so. Altogether I have found myself able to answer 18 with reasonable lucidity. The rest baffle.

(Source: University of North Texas microfilm collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.