Friday, May 24, 2013

Eton Scholarship Papers

I sat a whole bunch of these when I was 11 and 12 in preparation for my own scholarship exams somewhere else (which I failed with flying colours). They were generally speaking bloody hard (the French paper included colloquialisms that had gone out of fashion in the 1950s). But by far the most fun was the General Paper. This didn't require any revision or prior knowledge - pretty much everything you needed for the answer was provided in the question - but it did require that you think.

Everyone has got themself into a bit of a tizzy about a paper from a couple of years ago that started off with the famous section from The Prince by Nicolo Macchiavelli ("it is better to be feared than loved" etc), and then went on to ask the following questions:

a) Summarise the argument in the passage (5)
b) Explain to what extent you find the argument unappealing (5)
c) The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral. (15)

Laurie Penny has dashed off a typically overwrought piece saying that this is typical of the way that the elite is taught to think and that if she were answering this now she'd write ‘go fuck yourself’ across the paper in my sparkliest pens. And so on and so on. Because clearly this is all an extended part of indoctrination that only Etonians can ever be Prime Minister (because there's been, ooh, one in the last 40 years).

And this is obviously bollocks. It's an intellectual challenge designed to show how well the examinee has understood the passage, and whether he is able to apply it to a contemporary scenario. In one of Laurie's tweets she gasps that this par for the course - that "in debating clubs I often saw people trained to defend the indefensible". You don't fucking say. Arguing both sides of a point (and the question above first asks the student to point out why Macchiavelli's argument is unpleasant - it's worth fewer marks because it's a much easier question) is a fundamental part of learning how to debate. And that in itself is a key to becoming more - not less - broad-minded. If you can't bring yourself ever to see an opponent's point of view you become calcified in your own opinions and inclined to dismiss all opposition as inherently evil. If you can't argue the opposite, you can't properly understand your own position.

She also sniffs that The significant line in that extended question is ‘You are the Prime Minister.’ As if you’d be anything else. Question 4 envisages the examinee as a hotel handyman. As if you'd be anything else. If you can't imagine any other school asking questions like this (and some do by the way - the Eton scholarship paper is prety much the same as for the other top schools) then it's because you can't imagine a school exam for 12 year olds asking them to read and apply philosophy. And that's not Eton's fault.


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