An exam paper has been making the rounds on social media – the scholarship exam paper for Eton. It has generated some notable Twitter buzz, equal parts curiosity and controversy.
The focus is on question 1C, which follows an excerpt from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’:
“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. Protestors 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 protestors 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 protestors was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.”
Eton has educated 19 British Prime Ministers. There were sustained riots on the streets of London the year before last. As such, the question does not seem as hypothetical as it might. Instead it holds a kind of allure, that of an accidentally far-too-candid view backstage into the mechanics of “how things really work”; that is, the methods by which the elite trains its young to hold power.
1. It is significant that this question was asked
The question could have been asked elsehow, and it matters that it wasn’t – as Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon ably demonstrates.
The student is asked to make objections to Machiavelli in question 1B – and then ignore these in his answer at 1C. “We are looking for candidates who can see both sides of an idea and express them clearly”, says headmaster Tony Little. Flexibility of mind and the ability to argue is what’s sought – one’s ethical opinion one way or the other is irrelevant.
The exam paper is in that sense amoral. It is searching for the pupil’s ability to first identify and then manipulate a set of logical principles from the specifics of the excerpt given. Playing with hypotheticals is entirely the point – yet, this quest for this particular type of “cleverness” is culturally specific and carries with it a certain set of values. About abstraction & logic versus empiricism, phenomenology or experience; about abstraction versus empathy. (I abstract here, myself.)
Exceptionally few 13-year-olds have the educational privilege or the cultural heritage to be able to argue in this way and at this level.Yet there is little point arguing that this exam question should not be socially exclusive or exclusionary. It is for a school that costs £32,000 per year, and moreover it is a scholarship exam designed so that all bar a dozen will fail; elitism is exactly the purpose. Instead, what we might better criticise are the habits of mind such an exam (and wider curriculum creates). We are afraid the young scholar will grow up into a sociopath.
2. The social media reaction to this exam paper
The reaction has been such because the exam paper feeds back to us (the Twitterati and the left) what we want to believe about Eton, the training ground for Britain’s political elite. It does really rather too neatly – Machiavelli? Nietzsche? Justifying the army’s suppression of protestors? As some people commented, it’s beyond parody – you wouldn’t make this shit up.
But that’s why this exam paper has come to our attention: exactly because it stands out enough to be discussion-worthy. We should note this, and be careful not to assume it is typical.
This is the 2011 exam paper. The other ones are available here. And as the headmaster pointed out to the Huffington Post, “A similar question on the previous year’s paper is about a community without any government.” Indeed it was – though the attentive reader may note that the question does in fact asks candidates to consider the problems with such a state, following excerpts from Hobbes and Locke…
But in 2009, General Paper 1 asks questions about Ogden Nash limericks and, following Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, to discuss the nature of conceptual art. If this were our dataset, we would draw quite different conclusions about the kind of school Eton was. But of course, this was not the exam paper brought into public debate.
The use of the part to express the whole is a figure of speech – that of synecdoche. Effective use of figures of speech is part of the study of rhetoric. And rhetoric, as Aristotle put it, is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
So to read the 2011 exam paper as a microcosm of the British political system is a rhetorical act – one designed to persuade in a certain direction. It’s to read too much into it – and to read with conclusions already in mind (amorality, nepotism, corruption). Rhetoric can be sophistic – it is easily deceptive. Synecdoche presumes that the part is representative of the whole – it doesn’t provide any proof this is true. And thus rhetoric may obscure as much (about Eton, about politics, or about power) as it may reveal.
3. What kind of social object is the Eton exam paper?
We do better, I think, to examine the Eton scholarship exam paper as a totemic object or hypersignifier – something that means too much; something that means multiply, and cannot be resolved to a single sign. It is, variously…
A vehicle for a 13-year-old boy to demonstrate his intellectual ability and win a scholarship
Through the existence of a scholarship and an exam to award it, an indication of belief in intelligence as competitive, and hierarchical. That is, meritocracy
An illustration of Eton’s particular reputation for cultivating elegance of expression. Note question 2D: “marks will be awarded for originality and sophistication” – of a sentence written in the made-up language of Jangli.
A statement that Machiavelli, Nietzsche and intellectual wordplay are the intellectual values of the age.
A text that also epitomises the flaws in the perceived intellectual virtues of our age – that it is word-play and not sincere; that cleverness can be slippery and facile; the ability to pitch any argument while believing in none
A demonstration of the ‘covert curriculum’ at elite schools – how leadership is inculcated into the rich as a natural right
An illustration of how politicians are trained
Just an exam paper that’s not even typical of other Eton exam papers
It is a social media catalyst, one that activates the “Twitter mob” and the social event that is a good outrage. “Horrifying!” we tweet, with delight
Media fuel – end-of-week Twitter diversions now become national news stories:
Social currency, something worth sharing with others as a way of demonstrating one’s own wit or value. Highly retweetable:
An object for left-wingers to define themselves against – a hundred tweets saying that “we” would have instead asked the scholarship boys to imagine themselves in the shoes of the protestors, the bereaved, the subaltern.
And perhaps elicits a certain quiet longing from some who found themselves led briefly to wonder – what if I had had an education as imaginative and challenging as that?
It’s a very interesting exam paper.
Now, how to express that in Jangli? [3 marks]