Who Knew a WWI Literacy Test Could be So Trippy?

Friday May 11, 2018 Written by Sam Wilson

Wide soldiers 620X740 v3

Yes or no:

  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?

In case you’re wondering, these questions were not formulated by someone under the influence of wacky baccie. They’re part of a literacy test given to military recruits at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, during World War I.

Though literacy isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you consider what qualities are needed for wartime success, the US Army was concerned by how many soldiers couldn’t read printed directions for basic military tasks. Psychologist E.A. Shaw devised this particular test, available in several versions, which recruits had to complete as part of a broader suite of psychological assessments.

Most of Shaw’s questions have an obvious yes/no answer: Is your nose on your face? Do books eat? Do pirates accumulate booty? Can you carry water in a sieve? Even so, there’s something about them that makes you wonder if there’s more going on here than the words suggest. Do you cordially recommend forgery? (As opposed to what: rudely insisting on it?)

Meanwhile, some questions seem to be testing social or cultural values as well as comprehension skills:

  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?

Curiously, stones are a recurring motif:

  • Do stones talk?
  • Are stones soft?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • Do men eat stones?

Hmmm. Perhaps the answer depends on this question: Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?

Psychology was a relatively young profession at the time of World War I, and many of its practitioners were eager to try out new intelligence-testing techniques to sort recruits into the military streams most suited to their mental capabilities. (Read more about that in the 1921 report, Psychological Examining in the United States Army)

All the same, we have to wonder what Shaw was hoping to discover with these mind-benders:

  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Is a ‘gelatinous exaltation’ ridiculous?

Your guess is as good as ours.

Read more about Army intelligence tests during World War I.