PPE Examinations at Oxford

As indicated in my discussion of “reading” PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford,[1] the examinations were given at the end of a student’s time at the University. For me, that was early June 1963.

Examination Schools Building

For the examinations, University statutes required the students to wear sub-fusc (Latin: dark/dusky color) clothing. For men, this meant dark suit and socks; black shoes; white shirt and collar; white bow tie; and academic gown and cap. Riding my bicycle to the exams with all of this regalia made me feel special, for most of the people you passed knew from your garb that you were “taking Schools.” The examinations were given in a late 19th century University building called The Examination Schools on High Street in the city. Thus, the exams colloquially were called “Schools.”

The examinations were prepared, and evaluated, by a university-wide committee, and if one of your tutors happened to be on the committee, he or she was barred from grading your answers.

For PPE there were eight three-hour exams given over two weeks. Six of them were in the required subjects. The other two exams were in the student’s optional papers.

Each of the examinations had the same format. You had to answer four questions on a printed sheet of 13 to 16 questions. At the time, I thought they were the fairest exams I had ever encountered because they eliminated the chance that even though you knew the subject and had engaged in diligent preparation, you would be hit with a question for which you were not prepared. As I look back on the experience 48 years later, I could see how this format could be nerve-racking and force a student into wasting a lot of time figuring out which four questions to answer. This, however, was not my plight. I believe that I quickly read the complete list of questions and first picked the question for which I was most prepared and answered that one. Then I looked at the remaining questions and picked another question for which I was prepared and answered that one until I had answered four questions. As I reflect now on that experience, I can see a tactical problem of pacing yourself so that you did not spend too much time answering the questions for which you were best prepared.

Here is a sample of the 32 questions that I answered on the PPE examinations in June of 1963:

  • General Philosophy (from Descartes to the present): “Is there anything wrong with Hume’s definition of cause?”
  • Moral and Political Philosophy: “Is a retributive theory of punishment the only safeguard against condoning the punishment of the innocent?”
  • Theory and Working of Political Institutions: “Has the British Parliament anything to learn from the U.S. Congress?”
  • British Political and Constitutional History Since 1830: “Why was the second Parliament Act so much like the first?”
  • Principles of Economics: “‘Monetary and fiscal policies should always work in the same direction.’ Should they?”
  • Economic Organization: “How would you judge whether there is a world liquidity shortage?”
  • Public Finance: “Compare the merits of an annual capital tax and an expenditure tax.”
  • Currency and Credit: “‘Debt management is monetary policy.’ Discuss.”

(I do not remember what my answers were and could not intelligently answer these or the other 24 questions today.)

After I had finished the written exams, I told my philosophy tutor what I had done. On the Political Institutions paper, I said I had written about the U.S. and the U.K. In response, the tutor said, “Krohnke, you should expect to be called back for a ‘viva‘ [viva voce or oral examination] to establish ‘spread’ or breadth. So get out the Political Institutions examination paper and develop an answer about France or the Soviet Union.”

This was an example of how your tutors were also your coaches. That relationship was celebrated when Worcester College’s PPE tutors gave a dinner for their students who were “taking Schools” that term in one of the College’s senior common rooms.

In any event, I did as my tutor suggested and prepared an answer about France or the Soviet Union for the Political Institutions examination. It was time well spent for indeed I was called back for a viva by the full examination committee of six or so dons. It took place in a large room in the Examination Schools building. The dons were wearing full academic gear (robes, caps, etc.), and again I was in sub-fusc clothing. The chair of the committee said, “Mr. Krohnke, please tell us something about France or the Soviet Union.” I said something like, “Question No. 4” and then delivered my memorized answer. The committee chair then said, “Thank you very much,” and I left the room.

Sometime in July the examination results were posted on the University bulletin boards and published in The Times of London. I was greatly surprised and pleased to discover that I had obtained a First, which was awarded to the top 7.5 % of the 240 taking the exams.

Sheldonian Theater

All that was left was to obtain the B.A. degree in a ceremony in the Christopher Wren-designed Sheldonian Theater. The entire degree ceremony was conducted in Latin by the Classics (Greek and Latin) don from my college, who held the University position of Public Orator. Although I did not understand what he was saying, it was difficult to keep a straight face because the university newspaper that term had referred to him as “the Pubic Orator.”

[1] Post: Reading PPE at Oxford (June 6, 2011).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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