If you’ve ever visited Oxford, chances are that you’ll spend some time in Radcliffe Square, admiring the University Library and the round Radcliffe Camera building. Along the east side of the the square is a long wall with a black metal gate set into it; people often poke their heads in to see an immaculate yet strangely deserted quadrangle. This is All Souls college.
Unlike most colleges in Oxford, All Souls does not admit undergraduates. It currently has 76 fellows, as well as a number of visiting fellows. For a college that has an endowment of around £144m, this is a small group indeed. Depending on their status and, for example, whether they teach at Oxford, fellows of All Souls receive a certain stipend and rooms; nothing huge, but enough for them to pursue whatever line of research they might want. This alone would be an attractive prospect for any academic, but the reputation of the college and fellows both current and past (e.g. Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Wren, Amartya Sen) including elevates the college into a realm that is occupied by, arguably, none other than itself.
All Souls holds a particular fascination for Oxford students. While most fellows who join the college are postdocs and are elected by its current members, every year, two graduate students – who might be as young as 21 – are admitted as Prize Fellows. The way these two people are chosen is through a famous exam.
The exam consists of five papers. Two are on general topics (PDF), such as:
- Can terrorism be justified?
- Would you have burned Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, as he requested in his will?
- If the Greeks invented democracy, what is it?
- Is Amazon.com good for literature?
- Is China overrated?
- What can we learn from Las Vegas?
- Is Dark Energy more interesting than Dark Matter?
These two general papers have around 30-40 questions each, and candidates have to answer three questions on each, with three hours per paper (i.e. one hour per question). Two more papers are based on the candidate’s field of study, and cover Classics, Economics, English, History, Law, Philosophy and Politics (all PDFs). These subject-specific papers have fewer questions per paper, and while they are relatively general questions, e.g.:
- Whither social democracy after Tony Blair? (Politics)
- Can animals think? (Philosophy)
- Why was resistance to the Mongols so seldom successful? (History)
- Write on any one of the following: games, food, body parts (English)
you clearly have to have a good grasp of the subjects; or at the very least, you would gain a real advantage from having studied them at the degree level. In other words, it would be difficult to wing it; there just aren’t enough ‘really general’ questions on the subject papers to make that possible.
These questions are all very interesting and I know that candidates enjoy being able to tackle such broad issues. Even so, the exam wouldn’t have its legendary status if it wasn’t for the fifth paper. Here is a question from last year’s fifth paper:
That’s it. You have three hours to write an essay on ‘water’. You can do pretty much whatever you want, although they do discourage ‘verse, stories or autobiographical accounts’. Here are other questions:
It isn’t hard to see why this is so fascinating for Oxford students; it’s an almost pure test of imagination, intelligence and knowledge. You can’t cheat, you can’t waffle, you can’t data-dump – you have to write something good, something better than the 59 other people also taking the exam.
Many of the candidates for the exam are invited, by virtue of gaining the ‘top first’ in their subject or excelling in some other way. However, most students aren’t aware that practically anyone may enter the exam; if you have graduated from Oxford in the last three years, or you have been a grad student for under two and a half years, you’re eligible. In fact, you might have been a terrible student and you can still enter – and be accepted, as a New Statesmen article about the experiences of a candidate reveals:
David Gilmour, in Curzon, his life of Lord Curzon, viceroy of India and almost prime minister in the 1920s, describes how upset Curzon was on getting a Second in his classics finals. He “thought a Second would be so humiliating and make his life so insupportable that he would have to retire somewhere and hide his face from the world”. Curzon wrote that he would devote his future to “showing the examiners that they had made a mistake”. The best way of showing them was to win the All Souls fellowship which, after a year’s study, including a volume of Gibbon every two days, he duly did.
You may have noticed that there are no papers for any of the sciences. All Souls does count scientists among its fellows, and Prof. V. S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist I studied under, was a visiting fellow, which demonstrates that they don’t have any intrinsic objection to science. However, I still found it a little odd; presumably they had a good reason for omitting the sciences, but what was it?I emailed the Warden’s Secretary and received this answer:
Science subjects have not been one of the traditional subjects of the Prize Fellowship Examination, and the reason for maintaining this is that young scientists on the whole are well looked after in other colleges and universities.
This is basically true; it is much easier for young scientists to find funding from not only colleges and universities but also government and NGO funding bodies like the BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust. However, I would argue that this isn’t the whole story. Anyone smart enough to win a Prize Fellowship at All Souls is smart enough to get plenty of funding from anywhere in the world; their reason would make sense if they were offering dozens of fellowships, but not only two. The reason why graduates want to join All Souls is not merely receive funding, but for the prestige, company and freedom that it entails; something that scientists equally prize and cannot be obtained from other sources.
All Souls is a private institution and it can do as it pleases. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that the criteria which the college selects Prize Fellows also includes how interesting they are, and whether they are good conversationalists (hence the viva and ‘dinner test’ for shortlisted candidates); and as a former scientist, I would be forced to concede that we are generally not as good in those areas as others. Even so, I can’t but help think that All Souls is missing out on some excellent scientists who can match any arts or humanities students blow for blow.
Aside from the issue of science, I find that the All Souls exam is a refreshingly tough yet interesting test for which it is impossible to prepare. Its generality and openendedness allows candidates to shine, instead of being confined by narrowly-defined questions, and as such I imagine it’s a very good way to discover smart and interesting people. Such tests are sadly rare these days.
(I’m inclined to pose some of the questions on the After Our Time forum when it gets a bit busier; they make particularly good discussion topics)