Every year, ten thousand of the best minds in Britain apply to Oxford University. The majority of these candidates then face a test that constitutes one of the most imaginative and challenging set of questions to be found anywhere in the world: the Oxford entrance exam.
Within Oxford, cherished stories are told about this exam. In one example, the student is asked ‘What is courage?’ and the candidate replies ‘This is…’, leaving the rest of the page blank. We are told that he got in. In another case, the candidate outfaced the examiners with a conundrum of his own. ‘Is this a question?’, the paper asked. ‘Yes… if this is an answer.’ came the response. Again, the student was accepted.
These stories are popular because they capture an essential truth about the entrance exam. Namely, that both examiners and candidates employ unusual rules, pivoted around unusual questions and answers, to resolve the critical question of who gets in. It is the unusual nature of these questions and answers that makes up the central focus of this essay. In particular, it is the questions from the general paper that define the scope and interest of this study, so let us look at a sample of them.
‘The great enemy of truth is often not the lie, but the myth’ (J. F. Kennedy). Discuss.
If God is omniscient, what is the point of praying?
‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting’ (Rutherford). Discuss.
What makes a good joke?
‘Cease to use your hands and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness’ (George Orwell). Discuss.
Giving reasons, arrange the following in the order of their suitability to act as money: chickens, shells, ice-cubes, cows, stones, gold.
‘Cities were not built to experience weather.’ Discuss.
What is the difference between advertising, information, and propaganda?
Consider the suggestion that the history of a mountain is simpler than the history of a mouse.
Would the law be necessary in a society of angels?
‘Maps are fictions, works of the imagination.’ Discuss.
Could a stone shaped by the elements constitute a work of art?
Is silence golden?
For questions like these, there is no syllabus, no set book, no underlying theory to draw upon, and no single answer that is correct. Separately, each question hangs a tempting morsel of meaning from the sharp point of a hook that accords with the hidden agenda of the Oxford examiners. Collectively, the questions show a quality and scope that astonishes people from outside the university, and perhaps especially from those abroad (How could a mere teenager handle such a challenge? How could one ever talk about the nature of silence – and for an hour?). Clearly, this is an exceptional exam looking for exceptional qualities, and this is not surprising. After all, these are the gates to what is probably the most famous university in the world.
(Actually, I see from a recent survey at http://www.thes.co.uk/worldrankings/ , the website of the Times Higher Education Supplement, that in fact Cambridge leads, at least in the sciences. I quote – ‘Where are the world’s top scientists? Over the four years of the The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings, the verdict has been unanimous: the world’s top scientists are in the UK and the US. Last year, they made Cambridge and Oxford the top two science universities…’)
Below, I append a list of more of these general paper questions, with the aim of showing just how important a social document the entrance paper is in the context of British culture.
1) What features do traffic signs share with language?
2) Of which of the following can it be said that it has a right and a left: a person, a street, a boat, a pair of scissors, a tree, a cat? Explain the basis of your answer in each case.
3) Who is more corrupt, the man who gives bribes or the man who takes bribes?
4) ‘Everything that can be said can be said clearly.’ Can it?
5) ‘Art is meant to disturb: science reassures’ (Braque). Discuss.
6) ‘The novel is an impression, not an argument’ (Thomas Hardy). Discuss.
7) Consider the problems raised by the statement ‘God answers prayer’.
8) ‘The camera may do justice to laughter but must degrade sorrow’ (W. H. Auden). Discuss.
9) Would the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe present any problems for the Christian faith?
10) When, if ever, is it justifiable to break a law?
11) Is nature ever as beautiful as art?
12) How can the road to Hell be paved with good intentions?
13) ‘Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?’ (B. Springsteen). Are unfulfillable hopes and aspirations dishonest? If so, in what ways, and to whom?
14) ‘If Crick and Watson had not discovered DNA when they did, someone else would have done so before long; but if Beethoven had not written his works, no one else would have done so.’ Is there a difference between being a genius in the sciences and being one in the arts?
15) What is the difference between an act of war, a reprisal, and an act of terrorism?
16) ‘This above all, to thine own self be true. Thou can’st not then be false to any man.’ Why not?
17) ‘Why do we have to obey the government?’ Is the answer to this question any different from that to the question ‘Why do we have to do what is right?’
18) ‘Where you live is who you are.’ Discuss.
19) Do ideas have to be right to be valuable?
20) Does it matter whether a forgery deceives? Is there any reason to believe an original is aesthetically more valuable than a perfect copy?
21) What distinguishes the natural from the supernatural?
22) Can animals be said to have rights? Can plants?23) ‘There can be no crime without a victim.’ Discuss.
Some questions that are not from the general paper, but could be. These are just additional questions that I use on my students who are about to try and get into Oxbridge. I tried to pose them in the same spirit, but inevitably my own favourite themes permeate their content, making them a rather personal collection of posers.
24) ‘Manners maketh man.’ What maketh manners?
25) Can photography, haute-cuisine, advertising and Bugs Bunny ever be considered as art?
26) ‘Humour is a science of the human condition expressed in the language of the particular.’ Discuss.
27) ‘Human behaviour is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand.’ What consequences does this have for the social sciences?
28) A religious person is someone who carries on believing the first story they ever read. True or false?
29) If we describe mortality as death to the living, could we describe its opposite, immortality, as a living death?
30) Select three candidates for the title of the ‘single most important fact’, and justify their claim to this status.
31) What is the point, and what is the cost of dangerous sports, such as parachuting, scuba-diving, caving, mountaineering, ski-ing and hang-gliding?
32) Appearing naive can be a form of sophistication. So why is the reverse not possible?
33) What would an alien most need to know if its species wanted to take over our planet?
34) In public we present an idealised self, but in private, this presentation falls away like an abandoned mask. Which face is real, and how does one affect the other?
35) What is genius? Does it take one to know one?
36) How do your eyes differ from a camera?
37) ‘Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere’ (G.K.Chesterton). ‘Many a truth in jest’? (W. Shakespeare).
38) Everything has its price – so is price everything?
39) News … is where the journalists are. What else is it?
40) Explain and comment on the differences between a tourist, a traveller and an ex-pat.
41) In a world without secrets, truth is often in danger. Discuss.
42) ‘Ideas are cheap, but systems of ideas are both rare and valuable’. Is this just another of those ‘cheap ideas’?
43) How CAN the whole be greater than the sum of its parts? Anyway, so what?
44) Who washed the dishes at the Last Supper? What sort of question is this, and why was it conceived?
45) Why is it easier to describe Hell than to describe Heaven?
46) Why are there so many languages, and why are they almost always made of sound?
47) ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. But we might say: ‘To hell with good intentions; the road is paved!’ Is expediency the best plan of all?
48) Historically, the physical sciences preceded the biological sciences which preceded the social sciences. Would this be the same on most planets with intelligent life, and if so, why?
49) If adults tell children the truth about Santa Claus, who tells adults the truth about their own particular versions of Santa Claus? Our children?
50) Dance is an art, not a sport. Or is it an entertainment that is now becoming a science?
51) What is the difference between religious, political, moral, aesthetic, scientific and practical reasoning?
52) Is it a tragedy that a human can die before society learns to appreciate and celebrate their work or life posthumously? Where does such thinking lead?
53) Why is it that designs in both nature and culture fall short of perfection?
54) ‘Instead of blaming people, we should treat them as if they were simply forces of nature, like the wind or rain.’ Would life be easier if we adopted this point of view? If so, why has man never succeeded in seeing other people in this way?
55) Would the possession of a ring that conferred complete invisibility change your behaviour? What social consequences might result from a limited availability of such a ring to others?
56) Distinguish between a cult, a religion, and a sect.
57) Is understanding nature better than standing under nature?
58) ‘The chicken is the egg’s way of making more eggs’ is just the kind of idea to be expected from science: it exalts breakfast, but diminishes dinner. Fancy lunch?
59) Reality generally falls short of our ideals. Why should ideals hover outside our reach?
60) Surely, everything that exists, in whatever way it exists, is true? So even lies are a form of truth?
61) We read a history book rather than consult our parents; listen to music rather than create it; take photographs rather than paint; watch football rather than play it; and buy a bush rather than grow it. Are these all on a par, and what do they say about human nature?
62) What is the difference between morality and ethics?
63) What does it mean to be civilised? In what sense can an individual be said to be civilised?
64) Philosophy is conceptual masturbation. Is this why so many philosophers find it hard to see?
65) Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? And which came first; the chicken or the egg? Does it make sense to talk about such a thing as the ‘First Cause’?
66) How common, and how important, is absolute certainty?
67) What makes a good essay?
68) Why do people say that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’, and how often are they right?
69) It might be said that whilst women need sex in love, men need sex and love. Whatever the truth of this, which do you think is the most potent force in human affairs: sex or love?
70) ‘Civilisation is the control of surfaces’. What are those surfaces, and to what extent does an analysis of these surfaces constitute a theory of civilisation?
71) Whether you discover that there is life after death, or that there is no life after death, the effect on your life is equally momentous. Why might this be, and where does it lead?
72) Before Darwin, the difference between animals and mankind was clear and absolute. But Science made us animals. Now science also wants to show us the ways in which we are not an animal, whilst popular opinion wants to show how animals are really like people. So, just where do these comparisons between ourselves and animals lead?
73) Yesterdays news is stone cold, whilst tomorrow’s news is hot as toast. What does this tell us about todays temperature?
74) How are idols and ideals not the same, yet not that different?
75) Why is it that when a person speaks to God, it is Prayer, but when God speaks to a person, it is Schizophrenia?
76) Imagine a planet where great wealth was suddenly found, and made available to all. What would happen to that peoples sense of worth? Would things stay more or less the same?
77) ‘Actions speak louder than words’ and yet ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. Which lies nearest to the truth?
78) How did such a risky thing as the imagination evolve, and what keeps it in check?
79) Why is natural creation curvy, but human creation straight?
80) Consider the suggestion that the history of a mouse is simpler than the history of a house.
81) Science has made the universe its cathedral. Yet most of us look elsewhere for illumination and solace. Why?
82) ‘Gambling is a way of life’. Is the opposite also true?
83) How do stories and screen dramas draw us into their world? What supports our willing suspension of disbelief?
84) What are the values enshrined in the interior of the house you live in?
85) What is the difference between an academic, an intellectual, and a pundit?
86) Swallowing saliva is normal, but if we are told to spit into a glass and then drink it, we find it disgusting. What other bodily functions are disgusting, and why?
87) What do we mean by ‘untimely death’, and what is meant by its opposite?
88) Now that the our grounds for maintaining a strict moral code are less certain, is it nevertheless possible to found a code on aesthetic grounds alone?
89) The elegant stiletto-heeled shoe symbolises civilisation, whilst the heavy boot represents war. Discuss.
90) What is the difference between influence, power and might?
91) W. H. Auden said that civilisation is about attaining unity whilst retaining diversity. How so?
92) Business is about just two things: people and money. Handle these well, and the business will succeed. How significant is this insight?
93) Cause and purpose are different categories of force. Does purpose have cause, and does cause have purpose?
94) How are those who oppose fundamentalism not themselves fundamentalists? Are such moral paradoxes important?
95) Why do both mortality and immortality present intelligent life with a problem?
96) The purpose of Science is to turn purpose into cause, and cause into numbers. Discuss.
97) Why are Darwin’s ideas dangerous?
98) Which is best. To be in prison when you did’nt do it, or be free when you did?
99) Why do people stop believing in Santa Claus, but carry on believing in Jesus Christ? Is the bible just a book that has been taken literally, not literary?
100) Science holds the only hope of changing the parameters of the human condition. What does this mean?
101) To be or not to be? That is not the question. To be or to become? That is the question.
102) How do the arts and sciences differ in their use of language, models and mathematics?
103) ‘Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.’ Peter Ustinov. How might this be so?
104) There are many religions around the world, but only one science. Isn’t this diversity of thought better than the monopolistic body that is science?
105) Games are a universal favourite with adults and children alike. Why do humans enjoy games so much?
106) What is the difference between a philosopher, a scientist, and a fundamentalist?
107) ‘A kiss is an application on the top floor for a job in the basement’. What is interesting about the nature and use of the kiss?
108) In real life, there isn’t much drama, which is why when it does happen it really shakes things up – and vice versa?
109) Imagine a world where nothing is there by chance….
110) When an individual kills another, we call it murder. When a group outside our own group kills another group, we call it genocide. When our own group kills another group, we call it war. Can the same be said of madness, the infidel and religion?
111) ‘Religions are like fireflies. They require darkness in order to shine.’ (Attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer). How could this be true in a good way?
112) What is the difference between nakedness, nudity, and being undressed?
113) ‘If at first an idea isn’t absurd there is no hope for it.’ (Albert Einstein). Whether or not this idea is also absurd, is it true?
114) Why have ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ been so successful for so long, and for so many different peoples?
115) Children are monkeys, and adults are children. And it is very often said that Men are just little boys. So what are grown-ups?
116) Science holds the only hope of changing the parameters of the human condition. What does this mean?
117) Why do so many games and sports employ balls?
118) The physical sciences have their father in Newton, whilst the biological sciences have their father in Darwin. But the social sciences will always be an orphan. Discuss.
119) Why are some things made of plastic, some of metal, and some of wood?
120) Death Row is there to make us forget that, ultimately, we are all on death row. Just how true might this be?
121) Science makes poor magic. Magic makes poor science. So what’s the difference, and are both true?
122) Is maths a language, and are languages mathematical?
123) How can weapons truly be beautiful when they wreak such destruction on the world and human lives?
124) Morality is about good and bad; government about right and wrong; science about true and false; business about profit and loss, and the arts about beauty and the beast. Account for the ubiquity of binary oppositions such as these in our language.
125) And can Invention can be the mother of Necessity?
126) What is the difference between an animal call, and a human word, and why are they both made of sound rather than light?
127) How do words notch up the pace of change, especially in comparison with genes, as a form of transmission? And how does language set the imagination free?
128) Will it ever make sense to talk about a ‘DNA’ of human meaning?
129) What is the ‘Joy of the Inexplicable’?
130) What is the artistic imagination, and what are its powers?
131) If science is the cartography of the universe, then are the arts its decorative flourishes?
132) Humans look up to their ideals, and then fall far short of them, rather as flowers reach up to the light, but get no nearer to the sun. So how far is far?
133) What limitations might the wetware of the human brain impose upon our thoughts and feelings?
134) Might makes Right. Right makes Might. Real politik versus Wishful thinking?
135) The Universe cares nought for Human Meaning. To what extent does HM care for the Universe?
136) We look at the world sideways. Why is this, and where does it lead us?
137) The biggest puzzle of all is why we like them in the first place. Discuss.
138) Why do the infinite possibilities of Magic pose a real problem to the writer and screenwriter?
139) ‘All’s Fair in Love and War’. Why do we want things to be fair, and why are there exceptions?
140) ‘Copy Tech’ is now at the point where it threatens the creation of the Originals it copies. Explain and Comment.
141) Surely, the sword is mightier than the word? (SWORDSWORDSWORDSWORDS)
142) Everything is Geography.
143) What might be the outcomes in the New Virtual World envisaged by some, where minds are free to walk in virtual worlds, descending in the physical form of avatars to enjoy the real world when desired?
144) Heroes and Villains are our Values personified. How else are Values carried by a culture?
145) Which should we blame the most for all the problems in this world? Human Ignorance or Human Intelligence?
146) The greatest problem facing all human Life is Death. Or is it Life?
147) Death is the full stop at the end of our life sentence. So which poses the greatest challenge to the imagination – getting to grips with the idea of non existence, or with the idea of continued existence through for example a download to a virtual reality where life becomes effectively immortal?
148) What is the distance between a monkey and the word for a monkey, and the words that make up this question?
149) Is it conceivable that the ‘Might’ of ‘Might is Right’ might itself turn out to depend on what really is right and wrong?
150) ‘The Brain evolved, but Meaning develops’. Where might the difference lie, and how important is the breakpoint?
151) The important thing is not that I will be dead to my family, but that my family will be dead to me. Or are neither that important?
152) If the ‘son of god’ returned to our planet, and decided to live for a time in a modern and sophisticated society without letting on about his daddy, how would he fare?
153) ‘What could be?’ and ‘What should be?’ During the emergence of intelligent thought, which question came first, and how did it lead to the other?
154) Has science imbued our world with new and fresher meanings, or merely removed a number of the old ones?
155) Religion is just fiction that is so good, we all want to believe in it. So is that why we do believe it, when we do?
156) Tribal culture is living archaelogy. To what extent do you think this might be so?
157) Religions Suck (because they don’t tell us the truth), and Science Sucks (because it does). So, we are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Does this mean life itself sucks?
158) Which is best? Questions I can’t answer, or answers I can’t question?
159) Before language, there was nothing to say. Is there something to say about that?
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