That Controversial Eton Exam Question is Worth Defending

A couple of days ago a friend of mine commented on something on Facebook, resulting in it being on my news feed.    The person was expressing horror at a question on an exam paper from several years ago set by Eton College for its prestigious King’s Scholarship (Boris Johnson being a former recipient).   By the end of the day I noticed it had been picked up by HuffPost Students UK, which focussed on some of the outrage expressed on twitter.

The question, taken somewhat out of context, suggested a hypothetical situation:

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 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.

This came after other questions centred on a passage from Machiavelli’s The Prince, where he argues it is better to be feared than loved (if you have to pick one).   Candidates were asked both to summarise the argument and explain why it is unappealing.

As for the offending part – I can see why there was some horror on reading this.   The question asks 13 year olds to justify the killing of civilians by the police.  ‘Necessary and moral’; it seems a bit heavy duty.     However, once I had gotten over the innate tendency we all share of being either outraged or infatuated with anything shared widely online I realised what an interesting question this is, as part of a series of extremely interesting and often perplexing questions.    If you have the time I absolutely would check the other questions on the paper.

There are short, snappy questions designed (I believe) to test lateral thinking, such as determining the time on a partially functioning digital clock.  There is a code that needs breaking; these are engaging questions.   Another asks student to consider a passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra; challenging material, dealing with a genuinely interesting question, that of respect for teachers.    It’s actually one of the most stimulating exam papers I can remember reading.  Puzzles that draw you in and test your reasoning, not your recall.    My overriding memory of most exams I did at that age, Key Stage 3, is that they were never this engaging.  In the Eton paper you even have to translate from a made up language based on reoccurring phrases.  This is exactly what an aptitude exam should be, and critics would do well to think about the rest of the exam before launching into a tirade about it.

That said, context only gets you so far, and if the question was really that offensive then no amount of praise for the rest of the paper will change your mind.  It’s my view however, that it is misguided to criticise a hypothetical question designed to test and assess someone’s critical faculties.   Challenging questions are asked of students all the time, at all levels, and are essential to developing reasoning and critical thinking.  Taking these questions and assuming they represent some sort of internal bias can amount to a short-sightedness and is often foolish.  In 2011 then Labour MP Denis MacShane accused an LSE professor of “filling the minds of our young students with the most poisonous drivel” after quoting an exam question which asked students to explore the question of why, if we can hire women as poorly paid cleaners is it not legitimate to hire them as prostitutes?   This prompted, in true British style, a strongly worded letter from a number of academics (including my old supervisor Martin O’Neill at the University of York), denouncing the claim, and supporting the academic in question.  They contend an essay problem is not an assertion of belief.

Whilst an A-Level student of Economics my classmates and I had to give speeches on the privatisation of the NHS; I think it was an off-syllabus activity, but one of the more interesting ones I did in that class.   I was assigned the position of opposing privatisation, and had to argue in a speech against it and defend the current NHS under questioning.   Is that inappropriate?  Does my being assigned a position remove my ability to think for myself about a challenging issue?  Of course not.

The question set is a difficult one.  It would challenge any school pupil.  Unsurprising, as it is for a scholarship exam to one of the most prestigious schools in the world.   It is not however, horrifying, terrible or immoral to ask students to take a hypothetical position, even on such a divisive topic.   It’s one of the most interesting questions I’ve seen for pupils at that age.