Eton’s Scholarship Exam

By Alice

23 May 2013

This is one of the questions in the Eton College King’s Scholarship Examination 2011 (pdf). There are a few questions in there that might raise an eyebrow, but as educational visions of the future go (and assumed position within it), this is a doozy:

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.

Do suggest your own answers. Team NLP are yet to get round to making their left-ish free school happen, but if we do, the best ones will totally get a gold star from headteacher.

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12 Comments on "Eton’s Scholarship Exam"

By John, on 24 May 2013 - 08:02 |

I mean, it’s a bit much that a SCHOLARSHIP boy would expect to be the Prime Minister in later life.

This seems pretty progressive, don’t you think?

By Dave, on 24 May 2013 - 08:09 |

If I were a parent, I’d wonder what I were paying all my money to them for if they’re going to steal questions from devious bomb threat tricks made by Jeremy Iron’s character in ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ as they have for 4(e)

By David, on 24 May 2013 - 09:17 |

When you click through to look at the question in its context its actually worse than it originally appears. There’s a quote from The Prince and then 25 marks available for three questions on it. Five marks for summarising it, five marks for noting any reservations you might have, and fifteen for putting it into practice. So 80% of the marks are for absorbing and applying an authoritarian philosophy, and 20% are for critical thinking. That’s training, not education.

By Luke, on 24 May 2013 - 09:48 |

I sat the Eton scholarship exam in 1991 and all I can really remember of it was that it was hard. *Really* hard. And that’s because it was designed to be as difficult as possible. The French exam required us to learn the past historic tense and the maths exam had a question on logarithms which at that stage I’d never encountered.

So looking at this question, and taking it in context, I can appreciate it for a number of different reasons.

The question is titled “Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared” and contains an except from chapter 17 of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

The student is first asked to summarise the argument in a maximum of only 50 words. (Hard!)

Then they are asked to explain to what extend they find the author’s argument unappealing.

Then, having been asked to identify the central arguments of the text and think why they might be unappealing, the student is asked to put themselves in a position where they can use these arguments (which are unappealing) to justify, both morally and practically, some controversial actions. The question is asking 12 year old students to evaluate and use moral relativism. (Hard!)

However, it does it in a way which is believable (at least for a 12 year old). We’ve got an Etonian Prime Minister; we are running out of oil; and they captured the zeitgeist quite well as London ended up rioting just a few months later. It also does it in a way which is challenging, as it asks the student to put themselves in an uncomfortable position.

But at the same time, it gives the student hope and purpose: you could be prime minister (which probably seems like a good job to a 12 year old). And thereby it uses exactly the sort of extrinsic motivation that is described by Machiavelli, like rewarding children with gold stars, that, in lieu of cultivating an intrinsic desire to learn, is seen to be detrimental to a child’s education. (Bruce, at al.)

However, it’s not really a very nice vision for the future and I hope it remains purely in the realm of speculation and fiction.

[As an aside, I’d recommend reading JG Ballard’s “Theatre of War” published in Myths of the Near Future for a good twist on dystopian Britian.]

By Sandman, on 24 May 2013 - 10:04 |

You do realise that being able to analyse and properly formulate an argument from a position that you disagree with is a key critical thinking skill?

By Jules, on 24 May 2013 - 10:33 |

This exam is taken by 12 year olds! Pretty hard.

By David, on 24 May 2013 - 10:36 |

Luke, you say,  “the student is asked to put themselves in a position where they can use these arguments (which are unappealing)...”.

Its difficult to see on what basis you make the assertion in parenthesis here. The arguments may well be unappealing to us, but they are not presented as such in the paper. On the contrary, the extract justifies them at length, no counterveiling view is offered to balance that, and then a scenario is provided, in subquestion (c), which is highly sympathetic to a Prime Minister employing those arguments.

The scenario in subquestion (c) is as rigged in favour of the point of view presented in the extract as the classic “ticking timebomb” scenario is rigged in favour of arguments for torture. So Sandman, far from challenging the student to think critically, they are given a scenario where they can employ The Prince’s point of view from a position of great comfort. Challenging them to think critically would have involved presenting a scenario where the state’s killing was plainly disproportionate, unjustified and criminal, and then asking the student to apply the rationale espoused in extract from The Prince to justify it. That would allow the student to demonstrate the ability “to analyse and properly formulate an argument from a position that [they] disagree with”.

By Aaron, on 24 May 2013 - 11:24 |

Question 2, on the other hand, is brilliant! Anyone care to have a go?

By Ed, on 24 May 2013 - 20:28 |

I don’t think there’s a problem with the form of question 1 per se, it’s all about the form in combination with the content. Having to argue about a particular situation from the perspective of a passage you’ve been given to read may not reach the highest levels of critical thinking, but it’s still a task which requires the ability to apply ideas to a given context. That’s a useful skill. And as has been remarked, for a 13 year old the whole thing is difficult, certainly by average standards.

But when you put the given content into this form, you’re looking at some serious ideological education

By James, on 25 May 2013 - 10:15 |

Machiavelli’s is not an authoritarian philosophy - he’s one of the most important thinkers in the dissenting tradition of political thought. Asking kids to read him, make sense of him and think about being in a position of rule is fabulous. What is sad here is not that the Eton scholarship kids get to do this but that everybody else doesn’t. 

By ALS, on 30 May 2013 - 12:41 |

My view is that the Machiavellian context of the paper concentrates the answer in a much more precise and productive way than if it were given as one option among a number of other unrelated questions. This allows a greater possibility of an answer that doesn’t lapse into easy ideological clichés (making no particular assumption about the examinees’ backgrounds) but one that specifically considers the role of the prince in maintaining order. And I completely agree with James – it’s a shame not everyone gets to answer questions like this at this age.

By Alan Short, on 03 June 2013 - 09:53 |

The question sounds like a good argument for intervention in the Middle East today and support for Israel in ensuring that we don’t run out of oil. Unfortunately our recent actions make the scenario in the question more rather than less likely. I think my answer would be that I wouldn’t have got into the mess in the first place.

On the Machiavelli issue, I recommend that the Tom Stoppard play Jumpers should be on the curriculum, though when performed at the Colchester Theatre the leading lady didn’t wear any clothes. Perhaps Boris saw this when he was a lad at Eton!

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