The Eton Scholarship Exam Paper
An exam paper has been making the rounds on social media - the scholarship exam paper for Eton. It has generated some notable Twitter buzz, equal parts curiosity and controversy.
The focus is on question 1C, which follows an excerpt from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’:
“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 protestors 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 protestors was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.”
Eton has educated 19 British Prime Ministers. There were sustained riots on the streets of London the year before last. As such, the question does not seem as hypothetical as it might. Instead it holds a kind of allure, that of an accidentally far-too-candid view backstage into the mechanics of “how things really work”; that is, the methods by which the elite trains its young to hold power.
Read more on hautepop.net. where I explore why this question matters; the social media reaction; and what kind of social object the exam paper became.
So! A content strategy of sorts - long form pieces on hautepop.net, and shorter and more experimental ideas on hautepop.tumblr.com.
In that vein, two quick thoughts here:
1. People seem to like it when I blog about social class - or social media uproar. Which one of the two?
This essay spread around the adland plannersphere quite healthily this morning - nice to wake up to some Twitter shares from people saying they liked it. I wrote a similar essay on social class and social media in October last year - on the supermarket Waitrose, middle class identity and a Twitter competition fuck-up. That did well with a similar crowd too.
2. The essay plays the game it is deconstructing
I wrote about the Eton scholarship exam because it’s a topic that has some level of personal resonance. The school I attended occupies very much the same position in the league tables, and I held its academic scholarship at 11 and 16. Now, my school didn’t share Eton’s culture much beyond a general sense of privilege; it’s a girls’ school, a day school, and while offering a very good education overall there was little of the Etonian training in rhetoric and slippery debate.
Nonetheless, somewhere between A-level and university I picked up some similar tricks. The tone of my essays became arch, even flippant. Controversy for the sake of it; sarcastic understatement; blithely presuming “we”; running a metaphor a step too far so that it becomes funny. Taking a pleasure in pinpointing the weakness in a writer’s argument. Having the confidence to do so, and having the confidence to feel you don’t need to play it straight - that’s the Eton-style privilege about it.
It’s exactly a “clever adolescent” way to write, and to be honest at 27 I have not grown out of it as much as I should. The problem is that these tricks work - they get you Firsts, attention, retweets. It’s hard to step away from that. While I can basically write, I write as a hack not an artist.
As such, when writing about an Eton scholarship exam it seemed amusing to make knowing recourse to the tropes that the Etonian style of education teaches. A preference for abstraction. Pretentiously quoting Aristotle. Building an argument off the nature of the rhetorical figure of “synecdoche”, which is also pretentious. And there must always be a final paragraph twist, in this case a rather crude and sentimental one about a presumed “us” experiencing “longing” for people we might have been. Alliteration, three-part lists - it goes on.
Hah! Outlining it now I am disgusted. Nonetheless, something intangible but satisfying in having this parallel between object and critique…
So the question should be asked, “To what extent is the medium the message?” To what extent does adopting the stylistics of power make the writer complicit in it and shape the impact of her argument? Can you use the master’s tools against him? Or does writing like an Etonian only affirm the institution’s power and the primacy of that kind of “clever-clever” argumentative thinking?
I’m not exactly sure.
Not that my essay was a critique of Eton - only an observation of its cultural role in British society. I dislike the social inequality it perpetuates but respect it too; I seek no more change than a few (a lot) more bursaries. Like my writing, I am indeed complicit, a petite bourgeoise hoping for scraps from the table…