17 JUNE 1949, Page 12

Undergraduate Page


By DAVID SHEARS (St. Edmund Hall, Oxford)

THE only cheerful thing about my Schools was that I got them over quickly. Full Honours in Modern Greats entail only eight papers—two each in philosophy, politics and economics and two on special subjects. We finished early enough to have ten days of glorious idleness before the end of term and Commem. Week ; ten days in which to enjoy the delights of Oxford in the summer, without a single pang of conscience. Other people, scientists, lawyers, linguists and so forth, are less fortunate. Their exams are not yet finished. Some, in fact, have not yet started. Perhaps I may be able to help them a little by recapturing my thoughts and feelings on that fateful morning when I took my first paper.

" The Examination Schools," says the University What's What, "are built on the site of an old coaching inn and the change has been regretted by undergraduates ever since." True enough. Some two hundred of us were busy regretting it one morning about a fortnight ago. The time is just before half-past nine ; the place the entrance to the Schools. A milling mob of dejected humanity swirls around the doors and into the main hall, dressed alike in caps and gowns, dark suits and white bow ties. Among us are a few women undergraduates in equally sombre attire. How they have lost their glamour. Chalky complexions, black stockings, horrid little black hats—the general effect is reminiscent of a "Keep Death off the Road " poster.

No more of these inconsequent thoughts. I must, in a few moments' time, bend my mind to the serious business of general philosophy. Let me just compose my mind to think philosophically and to concentrate on the job in hand. What a farcical business I How on earth, in eight three-hour papers, can they possibly find out with any hope of accuracy the results of three years' work (or idleness) ? What if none of my pet subjects come up ? In that case I shall get a Fourth, which is about as much as I can hope for in any case. As a matter of fact, a Fourth has its points, I reflect. Consider how few people get one—perhaps no more than get Firsts. Ergo, to get a Fourth is as difficult as to get a First. Anybody can get a Second or Third or fail altogether. All these things are commonplace and therefore dull. But Firsts and Fourths—they are distinguished. . . .

Suddenly, interrupting these pleasant reflections, comes the riAg of an electric bell, the signal for the opening of the gates. Like condemned criminals we file through the narrow passage and up the stone stairs, as one imagines sheep-stealers to have been taken from Newgate to Tyburn. Now, indeed, our days of philandering are over. There is nothing for it but perhaps a quick prayer. This is scarcely done before one finds oneself in the South School ; a vast room full of stupid little desks. As I search for the one with my name on it the thought occurs that perhaps " they " have left me out by some mischance. Would this be a good thing ? Much to my surprise I find myself thinking that it would be an awful anti- climax. Ah, here it is, beside the window. In front of me is a friend of mine who has a foreign-sounding name which I cannot pronounce. I call him Chinwag, which is my nearest approximation. I wonder how he likes the paper. Here's mine, ready on my desk. This is the moment I have been dreading so long ; the worst moment of worst moments. I begin reading, slowly, calmly. But the first three questions are shockers and I could not touch any of them. Momentarily panic-stricken, my eye runs hastily down the page. Aba I Number eleven. I can do that. " What is an empiricist ? Was Locke one ? " Seems straightforward ; no snags. Of course I realise that what my examiners want is a list of Locxe's inconsist- encies. But luckily I think I know most of them ; at any rate I probably know as many as Chinwag. Good. Now for another. Ali yes, Leibnitz—" Is Leibnitz's theory of substance of more than historical interest ? " Three cheers for Leibnitz. All my friends said he would not come up, and that I was wasting my time revising him. But here he is, and I shall be able to talk knowledgeably of windowless monads and pre-established harmonies.

Now for a third. PosSibly number four: " When philosophers speak of sense-data what do they mean by the term ? " Here is the chance to pour out my pet theme—my attack on the majority of philosophers for what I consider to be their fundamentally mis- conceived ideas on the subject. With withering argument, remorse- less logic and merciless attack, I, a mere undergraduate, will in a few minutes of concise and brilliant writing demolish the whole traditional theory of knowledge as advanced by most leading philosophers since Descartes. My examiners are bound to find my answer at least provocative (and this is half the battle for a First—or Fourth) and at most they may even find it instructive. If the latter, they will probably write books on the subject, expounding and enlarging upon my ideas. Their books will sell like hot cakes— at least a hundred copies, which is considered good going for an academic work—and the reputations of their authors will soar to great heights. Yet I, a modest and retiring man, would not claim a copyright. Not for me the laurels and the limelight. All I would ask is a mention among the " grateful acknowledgments " in the preface. One would imagine it running like this: " Grateful acknow- ledgments are due to my wife, for reading the proofs, and to Mr. Shears, for writing them."

Enough of this. Ten minutes have gone by already. Chinwag is already writing like a beaver. Slowly and methodically I print my name and college on the first page of the "book" of 'writing- paper in which I am to inscribe my masterpieces. I decide to do Locke first. In the next moment of suspense, while pen is poised ready to assail the virgin paper, I am reminded of Mr. Churchill's story of his first attempt at painting, when the utterly bare canvas confronted him and seemed to say, " You dare." However, in a few moments, pen duly comes to paper with a definition. " An em- piricist," I declare, " is a person who holds that all knowledge is derived exclusively from the senses." A bad sentence, since "all" and "exclusively" serve merely to repeat each other. However, there is no time now to go back. Nothing now but grim concentra- tion and worried glances at the clock. Locke and Leibnitz are dis- cussed, distorted, and to a great extent destroyed, beneath my restless but misdirected pen. By the time sense-data are reached it is about eleven-thirty and my nib is red-hot. Around twelve noon the atmosphere ol the room has become noticeably more strained. A quick search of the question-paper produces one other question, making the requisite four. I do it, but very badly. So to half-past twelve and the guillotine ; saving my unfortunate examiners from having to read further trash and twaddle.

Such is our baptism of fire. Emerging, we take a deep breath, cross the High (a perilous business) and stroll through the city to our various colleges and British Restaurants for lunch. First- and second-year men, less formally clad, fall back respectfully as they see our " sub-fuse " attire, for well they know what it means. To those who have not yet taken Schools we are object lessons ; living cautionary tales. Their time will come. Perhaps, in taking their first papers, they will have the same sensations as I did.