The exam reputed to be one of the hardest in the world has just got (slightly) easier. All Souls College, Oxford has this year dropped the famous one-word essay question that has taxed new entrants for almost a century.
In a typical year, around 50 academic high flyers – all graduates – compete for fellowships at the Oxford college, lasting seven years and offering an annual stipend of £14,783. For the two successful candidates, it is often a ticket to academic stardom. Former fellows include Sir Isaiah Berlin, Marcus du Sautoy and Keith Joseph. In previous years, by far the most daunting element was a single card with one word on it (“innocence”, “miracles” or “water”), about which candidates were asked to write coherently for three hours.
The exam now consists of four papers of three hours each: two general ones and two specialist papers. Try this paper from 2008 for size. If it’s all a bit much, don’t worry, both John Buchan and Hilaire Belloc took the exam and failed to get in.
Candidates should answer THREE questions
1. Is it immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag?
2. “I don’t care if anyone reads my books; I write for myself,” said the author of a half-dozen published novels. Is there anything wrong with this statement as a theory of art?
3. Are boycotts futile?
4. “Every act you have ever performed since the day you were born was performed because you wanted something” [Andrew Carnegie]. Do you agree?
5. What, if anything, is wrong with selective schools?
6. Is dislike of politicians a sensible default position?
7. Why is a leather jacket more acceptable than a fur coat?
8. Why do Jane Austen’s novels continue to be so popular?
9. Can any public and political institutions be trusted to reform themselves?
10. Is it an extremely unnatural condition for a male and female to live continuously together?
11. Is student mobility in Europe merely a form of subsidised tourism?
12. Do children’s games involving blindfolds reveal an essential cruelty in human nature?
13. Why does the UN tolerate so many bad regimes?
14. Is there a breakdown of family values in the west, and if so should the state attempt to redress it?
15. Should governments support scientific research when there may be no technological benefit?
16. Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?
17. Isn’t global warming preferable to global cooling?
18. Should the laws of a secular state accommodate religious groups which desire to live by their own customs governing family, property, and marital relations, administered through separate religious courts?
19. What should the west learn from China?
20. Does celebrity entail a loss of dignity?
21. Is the desire for posthumous fame irrational?
22. What, if anything, should be done about the “obesity epidemic”?
23. Why has Africa done so badly economically?
24. Can the world afford not to grow genetically modified crops?
25. Can architects and urban planners design out crime and social breakdown?
26. Do very large salaries for sports professionals alter the character of the games played?
27. It has been said that architecture is frozen music. Does this make any sense?
28. “Old poems such as Beowulf, The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost are now unreadable by modern English speakers (without special training), so the cultural and social value of the ‘great’ poetry of the past lies in the material it provides for modern adaptations, such as the recent film version of Beowulf and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.” [The Economist]. Do you agree?
29. Why hug a hoodie?
30. Is string theory science?
31. Can a painting change the world?
32. Can (and should) Europe maintain its relatively high standard of living as compared with emerging economies?
33. Can you love someone if you don’t respect them?
34. Is the treaty of Lisbon a further step towards the federation of Europe – or is it a step back from it?
Philosophy (Sept 2009)
1. Are vague concepts incoherent?
2. Should we distinguish between persons, human beings, and their bodies?
3. Can computers think?
4. Does any ancient philosopher have something to teach moral philosophers today?
5. Does beauty lie in the eye of the beholder?
English (Sept 2009)
1. How European was Chaucer?
2. Discuss relationships between allegory and realism in any period.
3. “At that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” [Jane Austen] Discuss.
4. Write an obituary of Harold Pinter.
5. Discuss ONE of the following in relation to the literature of any period: apocalypse, Biblicism, commemoration, dialect, enclosure, fortune, geriatrics, homoeroticism, imprisonment, justice, kingdoms, letters, manners, notions, options, pain, questions, republicanism, stupidity, testaments, unimaginability, verisimilitude, wealth, X-Men, youth, zillionaires.
History (Sept 2009)
1. Is Greek sexuality worth studying?
2. To what end did William the Conqueror assert continuity between his rule and that of Edward the Confessor?
3. “Medieval kings were like modern drinks dispensers; when they didn’t do their job, you kicked them till they did.” Discuss.
4. “Like all revolutions, the French Revolution was deeply reactionary.” Do you agree?
5. Did Peel or Disraeli do more to found the Conservative party?