Saturday, 20 October 2012

Reflections on Oxford Admissions

Many Catholic Families who courageously home educate will have to make the delicate decision of sending their child to University. Many families completely reject this option and the children will either continue to study at home (Open University being a viable alternative or vocational type courses) or they send their child to one of the Catholic American Universities. 
For others, braving the UK Universities is sometimes the only choice. So what do Universities look for in their candidates?

This following article was written by Dr Joseph Shaw (a home educator and Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet's Hall) and he has been involved with the College admissions for years.

Reflections on Oxford Admissions

People always want to know what we look for in a candidate, in interviews, but it is no secret. In some subjects there are skills which candidates must have to start the course—language skills, for example, or mathematical ones. These ought to be tested by their exams. The real use of an interview is to test corrigibility—whether the candidate can be taught. You see if he can follow an argument, respond to criticisms, think of examples, things like that. When you are teaching him in the course itself, in a lecture or a tutorial, will he get the point? And it is in this, as well as in teaching school children how to read and write or add up, that the modern British educational system is failing spectacularly. For it is painfully clear that it is possible to get every accolade the school system can bestow and still be incorrigible—indeed, in many cases the approach to answering questions in which pupils are drilled to get the best marks is an education in incorrigibility. It actually makes them less teachable than they would otherwise have been.

(Dr Shaw takes as an example a candidate, 'Frank', who has eight A*s and one A at GCSE, and is predicated four A's at A level).

His application form was a sight to behold. Judging from his references, a place in Oxford was almost beside the point—the boy deserved a Nobel Prize at least. He was no exam-taking machine: he had all sorts of outside interests, showing everything from heroic compassion to Churchillian leadership qualities. In class he was always the one with the incisive question and the grasp of the topic. He was logical, enquiring, and broad-minded. So into the interview he came, quietly confident, determined to strut his stuff.

So what, for a good school or an A Level examiner today, does being incisive, logical and all the rest actually mean? It turns out it means the ability to drivel both for and against on the hot-button issues of the hour: euthanasia, abortion, war, vegetarianism. Whatever question he was asked, Frank determined the ‘hot topic’ which must be at issue, and he would start to drivel, stating the case ‘for’ in a couple of minutes and then changing tack to the ‘against’ side. He clearly had the A Levels on toast. The questions are highly predictable, and examiners have boxes to tick as candidates make specified points, for and against a position. In Religious Studies and Philosophy A Level, these tend to be on the ‘hot topics’—English Literature and other subjects do their best to cover them as well—and these naturally come up a lot in class discussion. Until he came into my interview room, Frank had never been expected to provide any analysis of a claim, to respond to unanticipated criticisms, or to think about basic moral principles and how they work. On the contrary, he had been patted on the back for his ability to recapitulate show-case arguments for and against on each topic, which were never expected to lead anywhere or be resolved in any way.

My approach in interviews is to try to get the candidate to see that what he is inclined to say about one case doesn’t cohere with what any sensible person would say about another. I move the discussion away from the hot topics in order to get clearer about the moral principles which apply to them; it is easier to see the principles at work in uncontroversial examples.

When I tried to do this with Frank, he practically refused to follow my lead. I would ask him to consider an example, and he would start talking about a superficially similar example back on hot-topic territory. Asking what he thought about anything produced the for-and-against spiel which, inevitably, wasn’t a coherent position, and could not readily be criticised or analysed. When I asked him for an example (of a moral right, say, or a widely accepted moral prohibition), he was paralysed.

He was the most extreme example, but the phenomenon was widespread. School pupils have been turned into machines for spewing out pre-prepared opinions, carefully balanced, on the controversial issues of the day, and the gaining of this faculty actually makes it harder for them to address the fundamental questions upon which those issues really depend, or indeed to think, in a real sense, at all. It is pleasant to see some candidates, not necessarily the ones with the most flawless marks, beginning to see what I wanted of them and responding with interest to a genuine intellectual task—seeing that they had got themselves into a muddle, trying different options to escape, applying a principle grasped in one case to another, and so on. At the end of the day we were able to find enough candidates we would be happy to teach to fill the places we had available, but the superabundance of candidates with three or more A grades at A Level by no means translates into a superabundance of candidates capable of benefiting from an Oxford education.

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