05 November 2014

Oxford admission interview: underlying motivation

Will Durant (1885-1981),
author of
Outlines of Philosophy
When I applied to Somerville College, Oxford for my undergraduate degree, I took the entrance examination in maths. I was then called up for an interview although, as I later realised, it was with the candidates who might be accepted as commoners but not as scholars.

Actually the interviews were very brief and only consisted of meeting the Principal. People went to her office at an appointed time and stood in a short queue outside the door. On entry, one walked across her large room and took one’s place on a sofa facing another sofa on which the Principal was sitting. The interview consisted only of reviewing the most basic facts about one. Somewhat on the lines of: ‘So your name is XYZ, and you are applying in such a subject. You went to such and such a school from a certain date to a more recent date. Your hobbies are so and so. You play such and such games. Well, goodbye. We will be considering your application and will let you know very soon.’

All that such an interview could be said to show was that the candidate did not become completely inarticulate, or fall to the floor in a faint, in intimidating circumstances. I would not myself think that those who passed such a test would necessarily be the most suited to academic studies.

Although Somerville did not seem to be finding out anything much about me, I was, so far as I know, the only person from this first interview who was, a week or so later, invited to go to Somerville again, this time with people who were being considered as potential scholarship candidates. So far as I could find out, none of the people I was now with had attended any previous interview at Oxford.

On the second visit I was not interviewed by anyone specialising in maths, who might have been a future tutor. This may have been because the college’s leading maths tutor had been absent from Oxford for a year or so, supposedly in consequence of her need to recover from the tragic death of her husband. Instead I was interviewed by some sort of senior tutor, as were the other people who were being considered for scholarships.

It is difficult to believe that reports about my educational past contained no hint of my predominant preference for physics, or of the fact that I had taken the entrance exam to Somerville in maths only because I had been forced against my will into spending a year doing first-year maths at Queen Mary College, London.

The senior tutor said in the interview that I had written about philosophy in my entrance exam papers, so would I like to change to philosophy instead of maths? No, I said, because I wanted to do research in physics, for which philosophy would not be regarded as a preparation.

The senior tutor took no interest in what had led up to my taking the entrance exam in maths, rather than in the subject in which I said I wanted to make a career. Apart from whatever may have been said in reports to Somerville from my local education authority, I had made no secret of my position, and had spoken about it freely to fellow candidates.

My wishing to do research in physics was disregarded. Although reference was made to the content of my essay papers in the entrance examination, it seems unlikely that a senior academic would not realise, as I did myself, that being good at old-fashioned philosophy did not make it particularly likely that one could be successful in a modern university philosophy course. So proposing that I should change to such a subject was tantamount to steering me in the direction of a degree course which would leave me with no way ahead into a university career in any subject, let alone in the one which I wanted to have.

There was no sense in which my essays had revealed what interested me, so that I might wish to pursue it further, whether or not it led to a university appointment. I had read Will Durant’s Outlines of Philosophy, and some other books, as a deliberate preparation for the essay papers. University applicants were advised by their schools to prepare for the essay papers by taking an interest in current affairs, reading broadsheets and so on. I found these things uninteresting, so I had concentrated instead on classical philosophy.

* * *

It seems likely, in retrospect, that the senior academics involved in admissions to Oxford were motivated to steer me in a direction which could not lead to the sort of career which I said I wanted to have, but might well leave me exiled for life from the academic world with no usable qualifications.

This, in fact, they succeeded in doing by leaving me working for a degree in maths, which had never been my choice, and at what was for me an unnaturally late age, while refusing to consider anything I could say about the difficulties to which this gave rise, or conceding any of the changes in arrangements which I said would be of help to me.

* * *

When I ask my associates why people seem to be so irritated, and made angry, by my attempting to bring to light the motivation underlying the way I have been treated at crucial stages of my life, they may suggest either that the irritated people were once themselves treated badly but suppressed any analysis or complaint about it, or that the irritated people feel that they themselves would also act in the relevant ways towards anyone who happened to be in their power.

However, it is practically impossible to reach the point of realising that there is anything to complain of in what is happening to one; I certainly did not, at least not at the time. It was only in retrospect, as one noted constantly recurring elements in the ways people reacted, that one started to draw inferences about possible underlying motivation.

It seemed to me that the underlying motivation, although virtually universal, was too subconscious for people to talk to one another about it. I do not suppose that Dame Janet (the Principal) said to the other Somerville dons, ‘as we want to make her uncertain whether her maths is good enough, let us call her up for interview with the common entrants in the first place, and only after that with those who are in the running for scholarship.’

People do not consider the motivation of agents of the collective involved in education, such as teachers or tutors, or if they do, they seldom see it as grounds for complaint or rectification. A case in point is that of Christine Fulcher’s maltreatment by her primary school headmaster. I was present at a conversation with her uncle about this in which he seemed to accept that the headmaster’s treatment of her had been unjustified. ‘But why did he do that?’ he asked, as if her account of what had happened could not be admitted unless accompanied by an acceptable explanation. ‘He did not like girls, and when I was no longer there to come top of the form, his own son did so’, Christine suggested.

Her uncle seemed to find a dislike of girls an acceptable explanation, and to think that it contributed what is nowadays called ‘closure’ to the situation. If you have ‘closure’, you accept that the situation was the way it was, and give up on attempts to rectify it.

It seemed that a dislike of girls was an acceptable motive to ascribe to someone, even if it had resulted in ruining a particular girl’s academic career and prospects. Neither Christine’s uncle, nor anyone else, seems to have considered the possibility that Christine’s headmaster was specifically motivated to ruin her life.

Of my associates, several, as well as myself, entered university at what was, for them, an unnaturally late age. I was feeling very bad when I applied to Somerville College much later than I felt I should have done, on account of the age restrictions against my taking of exams, so I thought that I had no chance of a scholarship and was applying merely to get into Oxford, which it was necessary for me to do. When I was awarded a scholarship, in fact the top scholarship, I felt that I was only getting what I should have got at a much earlier age, which was a relief, but solved no problems.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.