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Friday, May 8, 2015
On the Absurdity of Final Exams
A Selection of Final Exams for Your Perusal:
Public Speaking: Thirty-eight riot-crazed aborigines will storm the classroom in three minutes. Calm them. You may use any ancient language, except Latin or Greek.
Music: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and bongos. You will find a piano under your seat.
Biology: Create life. Estimate the difference in subsequent human cultures if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier. Give special attention to its probable effect on the English Parliamentary System. Prove your thesis.
Engineering: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes, a hungry and irritated Bengal Tiger will be admitted to the classroom. Take whatever action you feel appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.
English: Using a formalistic or Machiavellian perspective, compare and contrast Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with the “The Patriot Act” (107th Congress) and the Bush-Cheney Doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Draw your own intelligent generalizations based on the content and development of the English language and Double-speak based upon the aforementioned texts.
History: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present, concentrating especially but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, South and North America. Be brief, concise, and specific.
Political Science: There is a red telephone on the desk beside you. Start World War III. Report at length its socio-political effects, if any.
Economics: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Annual Darwin Awards, and the wave theory of light. Outline a method for preventing these effects. Criticize this method from all possible points of view.
Sociology: Estimate the sociological problems which might accompany the end of the world. Construct an experiment to test your theory.
Psychology: Based upon your knowledge of their effects on the world, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Vladimir the Impaler, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-il, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. Support your evaluation through use of a priori and a posteriori data and synthetic reasoning.
Epistemology: Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your position without reference to Cartesian doubt.
Medicine: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch: remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have 40 minutes.
Decades ago, I passed a Not-So-Humorous Comprehensive Exam in English & American Literature. The instructions for this real absurdity:
“The exam contains two parts, each a session of two hours, administered on successive days. In the first session, candidates are examined on a standard reading list which is given below. Questions will ask you to demonstrate a good knowledge of the listed texts and an ability to draw intelligent generalizations on the content and development of English and American literature based on those texts. The second day’s session will consist of intensive questions on a specific text or texts to be announced approximately five weeks before the exam dates. In this session you are asked to demonstrate competence in critical reading apart from historical considerations.”
The Reading List:
Chaucer: Knight’s Tale, Miller’s Tale, Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Second Shepherds’ Play (Towneley Cycle)
Sidney: An Apology for Poetry
Spenser: The Faerie Queene, Book 1
Marlowe: Dr. Faustus
Shakespeare: King Lear
Jonson: The Alchemist (or) Volpone
Donne: Satire III, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “Love’s Alchemy,” “Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward”
King James Bible: Ecclesiastes
Milton: Paradise Lost, Books I, III and IX; Areopagitica
Marvell: “The Garden,” “To His Coy Mistress,” “An Horatian Ode”
Dryden: Preface to Fables, “Alexander’s Feast,” “Mac Flecknoe”
Congreve: The Way of the World
Swift: Gulliver’s Travels
Pope: The Rape of the Lock
Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare, Life of Cowley, Life of Milton
Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Blake: Songs from Innocence: “The Lamb,” The Divine Image,” The Chimney Sweeper,” “The Little Black Boy”; Songs of Experience: “The Tyger,” “The Chimney Sweeper,” “London”
Wordsworth: The Prelude, Books I & II; “Tintern Abbey”; Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads
Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Autumn”
Dickens: Great Expectations (or) Bleak House
Browning: “My Last Duchess,” “Fra Lippo Lippi”
Arnold: “the Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” “Wordsworth,” “The Study of Poetry”
Shaw: Arms and the Man
Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Among School Children,” “Byzantium”
Conrad: Lord Jim
Lawrence: Women in Love
Joyce: “Araby,” “The Dead”
Beckett: Waiting for Godot
E. Taylor: “Meditation One,” Meditation Eight,” “Huswifery”
Hawthorne: The Scarlett Letter (or) The Blithedale Romance
Melville: Moby Dick
Emerson: Nature, “The American Scholar,” “Experience”
Thoreau: Walden, “Civil Disobedience”
Whitman: “Song of Myself,” “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed,” “Democratic Vistas”
Dickinson: “There’s a certain slant of light,” “The soul selects,” “A bird came down the walk,” “After great pain,” “I died for beauty,” “I cannot live with you,” “Pink, small, and punctual”
Twain: Huckleberry Finn
James: The American (or) The Ambassadors (or) The Portrait of a Lady
O’Neill: The Iceman Cometh
Frost: “Home Burial,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “West-Running Brook”
Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Burnt Norton,” “Tradition and Individual Talent”
Faulkner: The Bear
Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (or) “The Killers,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” & “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Stevens: “Sunday Morning,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Anecdote of the Jar”
Miller: Death of a Salesman
Ellison: Invisible Man
Plath: “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” “Morning Song,” “The Rival”
The second part of the exam was on Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man. I would have preferred Major Barbara.