For more than
a century, prospective Fellows of All Souls, Oxford have had to
sit a frightening exam paper that contains no questions and just
one word. Now it has been dropped – and Harry Mount (failed,
1994) says the college is the poorer for it.
the country are weeping over their trigonometry textbooks this week,
because the hardest exam in the world has just got easier. Dumbing
down has seeped upwards into Britain’s seat of highest learning.
All Souls College,
Oxford – the graduates-only college, where the brainiest of
brainiacs breathe a rarefied intellectual air in three Gothic quads
strung along the High Street – has just dropped the most difficult
part of its entrance exam.
And I should
know quite how difficult it is – I failed it in 1994. At least
I am in eminent company: the historian Lord Dacre, the literary
critic Lord David Cecil, and the writers John Buchan and Hilaire
Belloc all failed. Sir Isaiah Berlin, John Redwood, William Waldegrave
and the journalist Matthew d’Ancona passed. As did Sir Jeremy Morse,
the banker and former chancellor of Bristol University, who gave
his name to Colin Dexter’s Oxford detective.
anyone with a First in their Oxford undergraduate Finals has been
invited to sit the All Souls Prize Fellowship Examination at the
end of September – a gruelling, three-day ritual, with six
three-hour exams, one each morning and afternoon. Only those who
have sat their Finals within the past three years are eligible;
so the examinees tend to be in their early twenties. Women have
been admitted since 1979. Of the 500 undergraduates who take a First
each year, only 30 or so accept the invitation to go for one of
the two annual Prize Fellowships. It says something for David Cameron’s
modesty that, despite getting a First in PPE in 1988, he refused
to sit the exam. I was more arrogant.
I sat two specialist
papers on history, my undergraduate subject, two general ones and
a language paper. And then came the hardest, most brain-straining
paper of all – the one simply called "Essay"; the
one the All Souls softies have now decided to drop altogether. The
horrifying thing about Essay is not how difficult it is, but how
simple. You turn over the plain blank sheet of A4 paper, and there
is a single word on it; you have nothing else to write about for
the next three hours. My word was "Miracles". Other words
have included Bias, Style, Chaos, Mercy, Innocence, Novelty, Morality
and Water. A L Rowse (1903–97), the waspish Shakespearean scholar,
won his Prize Fellowship by writing on "Possessions".
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
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."
So, I’m afraid
I must disagree with the Warden of All Souls, Sir John Vickers,
a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee,
who has just said that the Essay is no longer useful for testing
the qualities for admission – "exceptional analytical
ability, breadth and depth of knowledge, independent-mindedness
and clarity of thought and expression". All of those qualities
are brilliantly tested by Essay, which also has a magical romance
to it that you don’t normally associate with exams. And All Souls
is poorer by its passing. Taking away Essay removes a chunk of mystique
from this most mysterious of Oxbridge colleges.