Tagged: politics

The Eton Scholarship Exam Paper

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.”

[full exam paper PDF]

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.

eton reactions

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]

The census, a changing Britain, and the need for new narratives

First published on hautepop.tumblr.com, 13 December 2012.

I’m annoyed and angry at the racist fear being stoked up by reporting on the 2011 England & Wales census. Yes, the country has changed – an extra 6% foreign-born residents (mostly from India, Poland and Pakistan), and Muslims are now 5% of the population, not 3%.

But in both media and popular comment, the response is hysterical – “British culture is being destroyed”; ‘We are being outbred”; “White Britons will be a minority in our own country” – and disgusting, and false.

Having more non-British born people in Britain is not “destroying our culture” – it’s not as if they’re burning Shakespeare plays, or banning morris dancing, or forbidding anyone from liking Nigella Lawson or the Specials or going out for a Ruby Murray (curry). My ability to participate in my white British cultural heritage is not remotely affected by a rise in the foreign-born population – it’s not as if Jane Austen is only legible in a monocultural setting, or the fact of a Turkish cafe round the corner makes the King’s College Choir sing flat.

And there’s not a monolithic “Muslim culture” and it’s not the enemy of anything. (Would this be North African Islam, or Indonesian, or Sufism or Black American Nation of Islam?) The “outbreeding” fears are so demographically unfounded I won’t even go into the counterarguments here – needless to say, a rise from 3% to 4.8% of the population in 10 years may be 60% growth, but that rate cannot and will not continue – i.e. Muslims won’t be 128% of the population in 2081…)

But Britain is still adjusting to being a multiethnic society. If a Londoner – or an American – it’s easy to forget how ‘white’ much of the country is – over 95% in many places. If people aren’t interacting with people from other races and cultures on a regular basis, then there’s an unfamiliarity, and it is easy – not right, but easy – for people to be worried by the ‘Other’.

The fear underlying it, though, is less racist than economic. It’s a belief that there’s not enough of the pie to go round:

Is importing a net of 200k people annually sustainable? Is our economy/society and subsequently our services able to absorb such numbers successfully? These are legitimate and uncontroversial questions to ask.
Given that we have a housing crisis, a youth unemployment crisis, increasing pressures on our schools, NHS, social security system I would say it is time to reflect on whether we can sustain immigration at current levels. We weren’t racist when immigration was at 50k in pre-nulab days and we aren’t racists now.
[Fickleposter, Guardian, 11 Dec]

A fear caused by 5 years of recession and the prospect of another decade of stagnation to come.

The fears are real, and shouldn’t be written off. Yes, people’s living standards have been hit, and people are afraid they won’t be able to survive in old age or give their children the opportunities they want. People see a changing country – Eastern European communities springing up in rural farming towns, or how many NHS doctors are Indian – and they connect the two.

Actually – there’s not a relationship between migration inflows & unemployment rates. The decisions to fund the NHS or build more schools are political – and there is money in a pot, it’s a question of how it is allocated, corporation tax cut versus Trident versus RPI-uprating welfare benefits. And housing, jesus – *that* problem is as much about major housebuilders sitting on their landbanks rather than building so as to retain profit margins.

But these are statistical and economic arguments, and quantitative figures butter no parsnips. On an emotive level, arguments like “The country is full” are much easier to grasp than the nuances of “It’s not a finite fiscal pie”.

What we need: new stories, new narratives to make sense of where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going next.

There are some of these. It’s something that the Transition movement are working on, finding ways to conceive of a post-oil lifestyles. And Milliband, E. has in a small way caught the public mood and signalled potential opposition to the Tory narrative of “benefit recipients = scroungers”, instead refiguring benefit stories to focus on the majority of striving, working poor. But ethnically, racially, immigrationally – public narratives haven’t really got there yet.

Meanwhile, 1 in 10 children in the UK have mixed-race parents and disapproval of mixed-race relationships is literally vanishing – down from 50% to 15%, and just 5% among young people. That’s not to validate any “post-racial” narratives – but it does indicate the scale at which narratives about a changing Britain might actually be built – that is, at home. Domestically. Bottom up.

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Peak freedom?

I read an article a week ago which argued that this – here, now – is what peak oil looks like

A decade ago, those few of us who were paying attention to peak oil were pointing out that if the peak of global conventional petroleum production arrived before any meaningful steps were taken, the price of oil would rise to previously unimagined heights, crippling the global economy and pushing political systems across the industrial world into a rising spiral of dysfunction and internal conflict.

With most grades of oil above $100 a barrel, economies around the world mired in a paper “recovery” worse than most recessions, and the United States and European Union both frozen in political stalemates between regional and cultural blocs with radically irreconcilable agendas, that prophecy has turned out to be pretty much square on the money, but you won’t hear many people mention that these days.

The point that has to be grasped just now, it seems to me, is that this is what peak oil looks like. Get past the fantasies of sudden collapse on the one hand, and the fantasies of limitless progress on the other, and what you get is what we’re getting—a long ragged slope of rising energy prices, economic contraction, and political failure, punctuated with a crisis here, a local or regional catastrophe there, a war somewhere else—all against a backdrop of disintegrating infrastructure, declining living standards, decreasing access to health care and similar services, and the like, which of course has been happening here in the United States for some years already.

[John Michael Greer, What Peak Oil Looks Like, 7 December 2011]

What if we have also reached ‘peak freedom’ – the maximum extent of individual freedoms and civil liberties?

Europe and America became considerably more free through the 19th and 20th centuries. Slavery was abolished; women gained the vote; homosexuality decriminalised and employment and welfare reforms provided a baseline of freedom from exploitation and freedom for all to have a chance at a decent living. We gained the right to unionise; to (all) own private property; that everyone could access legal representation through legal aid if they couldn’t afford their own defence. From the Chatterley trial, to journalist’s privilege not to name sources, to the rise of internet we have gained increasing freedoms of thought and expression.

Where next?

Wednesday I met up with an old, old friend by name of @metaleptic. We talked about 2011 and the coming end of the world – and what felt significant about our conversation is that perhaps for the first time I was as pessimistic as him.

What happened in 2011?

  • The Met Police, Tory government and supposedly independent judiciary seeking to criminalise all forms of protest that aren’t walking along a pre-determined march route (and how long will they keep authorising big protest marches, you wonder?)
  • Kettling, mass arrests, police infiltrators, 944 deaths in police custody since 1990. Et cetera
  • The US Senate overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which gives the military (not the police) authority over domestic terror investigations and interrogations…
  • …allows for indefinite detention without trial of absolutely anyone suspected of being a terrorist…
  • …and defines the whole of the United States as a “battlefield”.
  • The normalisation of drone warfare and extra-judicial killings of British citizens in Pakistan, a country we are not at war with
  • SOPA and the Digital Economy Act threatening basic internet freedoms

What’s coming in the rest of my lifetime?

  • The start of a four-degree or more rise in global temperatures, leading to extreme weather events and potentially the total loss of climate equilibrium (then god knows what)
  • The oil runs out, as does rather a lot of minerals we use to make rather a lot of things
  • The water runs out and large parts of the globe become uninhabitable
  • Starving and/or displaced people in the billions
  • Fortress Europe to (try to) keep them out of our (collapsing) economies and welfare states
  • A geriatric population in the West no longer producing wealth but functioning as a massive voting block to stymie any change. (Actually Hugo and I did disagree here – he’s more cynical and doubts even the veneer of democracy, voting etc will survive. I predict a mere move through simulacra into simulation.)

Given that, then – Year of Protest or not – how is there any likelihood that the world will get more free?

The question becomes simply when we passed the peak – before or after 9/11?