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Culture & Religion

Oxford Ends Uniquely Cool Examination (one David Cameron Declined to Take)

Called “the hardest exam in the world” by the Telegragh, the entrance test necessary for those keen to spend graduate careers at All Souls, Oxford, included a celebrated element, the “Essay,” in which test-takers were provided one word—innocence, chaos—and asked to riff on it and its meaning, in addition to presumably anything else which came to mind in the process. Is this free-form expression—as opposed to cold, rational analysis—the ultimate test of what makes a mind bright? Or, more broadly, can free thinking be credited for making one better positioned to succeed in academic environments? Famously, new British Prime Minister David Cameron, while having been “invited” to take the test, itself a sign of accomplishment, declined.

All Oxford undergraduates who receive a “first” in their respective fields are asked to sit for the examination. Historical results being private (maybe one day someone who sat the exam will release a copy kept on her PC), it is almost impossible to assess the variable brilliance of the answers, but the theory behind the test is compelling. The entire test lasts three days, and as the Telegraph—as well as a front page piece in today’s New York Times—insists, this is the “genius” test, something that has served as a point of pride for generations of those invited to participate as well as those who scored well enough to merit a place at All Souls.

Harry Mount, a cousin of Cameron’s, wrote the Telegraph piece, and this is the crux of his argument:

The Essay is an exceptional test of intelligence. Ask someone when the Battle of Hastings took place, and they’ll either get it right or wrong. Ask them, “How did Athens run the Laurium silver mines?” – as I was asked in my ancient history Finals – and the answer is still pretty specific. But ask someone – or don’t even ask them, just state to someone – a single word, and there’s infinite room for genius, or stupidity, to expand within the word’s parameters.

“It’s not the sort of exam you can blag,” says a friend of mine, who sat the exam in 1993, when the Essay was “Error”. “It was the first exam that I’d ever come across where I couldn’t fall back on native wit and blagging, as I had done with my Finals.”

To blag, to paraphrase Urban Dictionary, is to bullshit.

The Essay sounds brilliant as well as useful; perhaps we should consider incorporating it more broadly in all schools. There is no reason rigorous creative thinking should be confined the halls of Oxford colleges, or to students nearing the end of their academic careers, as most seniors at universities are. The ability to think wisely and freely, to force the specific from the broad (rather than the vastly more common politician’s trick of doing the reverse) is important for kids otherwise fed an often quotidian, rote diet of facts and figures. All disciplines, from math to art, become rigorous and theoretical at the highest levels, but it is rare that we ask student for more than Yes or No or Sum or Date. Why not? It is in leaving open the ceiling that we afford the exceptional kids to touch the sky.


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