Campus & Community

This month in Harvard history

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  • March 9, 1857 – The faculty adopts the recommendation of a joint faculty/Overseers committee that annual examinations of each Class in each subject before an Overseers Visiting Committee be in writing instead of by recitation. Papers are to be set and marked by instructors, with Overseers essentially functioning as proctors. Thus begins Harvard’s modern ritual of blue books and final exams.Burning his blue books unread, Greek Professor Evangelinus Apostolides Sophocles later refuses on principle to downgrade the student who has done well in daily recitations but poorly in the written final. And if a student should show significant improvement on the written, chalk it up to cheating, he says.

    In the late 1920s, Professor Herbert Weir Smith describes this colorful character, born in the shadow of Mt. Olympus, as a “self-exiled Greek [who] lived in his ascetic cell in Holworthy as if he were a monk on Mt. Sinai or in Cairo. [. . .] Many are the tales of his capricious disregard of academic regulations. To a proctor, reporting that a student had cheated at examination, he made answer, ‘It make no matter. I nevare look at his book anyway.’ [. . .] X and Y were among the candidates for admission [to the College] examined in a group, and viva voce, as was the custom then. The next day X asked his grade. ‘Passed,’ said Old Sophy. ‘And Y?’ said X, though certain that his friend had failed. ‘Passed,’ was the reply: ‘It is unfair to discriminate. You all do know nothing.’”

    – From the Harvard Historical Calendar, a database compiled by Marvin Hightower