Oral Exams

At the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante is subjected to an oral exam by saints Peter, James, and John, on the topics of faith, hope, and love respectively.  By this point in the Comedy Dante has learned not only the definitions of the three theological virtues but also how they work out in the choices made by the soul, and so, of course, he triumphs in the examination, and wins the prize awaiting those who are well versed in the virtues: a vision of God.

I have been conducting oral exams this week.  Unfortunately, I cannot offer visions of the end of human existence, our ultimate telos, as the prize for the end of the exam.  I suppose part of the goal is to teach them what they do and do not know, so they can move towards their telos (whatever it may be in their estimation) afterwards.

What I find fascinating is how clear the examining process is.  I am sure there is an art to asking good questions, which I am still learning; some of them are the keys to unlock the student’s knowledge, others seem to block them in a mist of terror and blank-mindedness.  Learning to ask the right questions seems to be the most important part of education, both on the part of the student and the teacher.  It took me quite some time to come up with a good question for my dissertation; I’m still working on good questions for my students on Plato, More, Machiavelli, William of Ockham, ancient Egypt.

You ask a question: and the student starts to speak: and suddenly you can tell (perhaps with a few subsidiary questions to develop lines of thought or possibilities of knowledge) whether the student read the book, understood it, simply went to lecture, made a list of bullet points, realises half-way through something he’d not thought about before, read half the book . . . all of it becomes clear in fifteen minutes of interrogation.

This is how it was done in the medieval university, oral examining I mean.  It persists in the modern university in doctoral (and some master’s-level) examinations — in my case, the major fields and the final defense were both two-hour oral exams.  As a student I certainly learned from the questions asked, some of which I’d never asked myself of the texts.  The examinations I’m conducting this week are for first-year undergraduates on a wide range of texts, and I think it’s one of the good aspects of the programme that it involves some.

We’re not asking for information, but knowledge and thought.  It’s a very clear distinction in practice.

Why is justice important to Plato?  What does Machiavelli mean by virtu?  What are the three theological virtues? What do you know?  What do you think?

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