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How to test if you make the cut for Oxbridge

So, You Think You're Clever?By Vikas Datta, (IANS) :

Title: So, You Think You’re Clever?; Author: John Farndon; Publisher: Icon Books Ltd; Pages: 289; Price: Rs 525

For anyone who thinks themselves smart and highly-educated, one check of their capability can be estimated from seeing how they can deal with questions posed at admission interviews to two of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities – Oxford and Cambridge themselves.

And these are applicable across all fields of study – try answering how you could market a rock band (management), if a thermostat can think (psychology), how you could organise a successful revolution (history), how you can poison someone without discovery (medicine), if Shakespeare was a rebel (English) and how his “Midsummer’s Night Dream” relates to geography.

Also try to marshal responses to if there should be laws on light bulbs (law), if statues can move (languages), on teleport machines (economics) and for good measure – sexist as it may be, not to mention having a academic twist in the tail – if you had to chose from three beautiful women, with not much in the way of apparel, standing before you, what would your choice have to do with economics?

Stumped? For these only and more like them are not intended to test how much knowledge you have, but how you can use it. And also the technique of looking at a problem or question in all possible ways – for example, in the questions of statues, appreciate that the word “move” has other meanings apart from the obvious one.

These questions are, above all, have the basic intent of the aim of education we seem to have forgotten, contends author John Farndon in this book, the second of his compilations of Oxbridge questions with some of his attempts at possible responses after “Do You Think You’re Clever?” (2010).

“Some people think these Oxbridge questions are just weird and pretentious. Or that they are designed as traps to frighten off any young students foolhardy enough to apply to those privileged pinnacles of learning – like some cabbalistic riddles or a trial of fire for budding Harry Potters.

“Of course, there probably are some dastardly tutors who do use them in this way- and I must admit that this is how I saw them at first. But the brilliant thing about them is: they make you THINK. Aggravating and provocative as they are, they set your mind racing,” he says, stressing that this makes them interesting for everyone.

And Farndon, a graduate of Cambridge himself, author of books on science, ideas and environment, as well as a playwright, composer and poet, stresses that these are not merely intellectual “trick questions”, but “seriously fiendish” ones – which explains the “Bond-villain variant” on the original title.

He also warns against taking his own responses as “definitive or even model answers”, quipping that he was sure that “some interviewers would shake their heads in disappointment and turn me down flat”.

Farndon says he instead tried to “carry on where the question leads off – and provide you the reader with food for thought”, though may mean giving background information rather than responding to the question, or even “going off on a flight of fancy”.

He also stresses that he has throughout tried to “assume academic knowledge beyond that which most intelligent readers will normally have”.

“My feeling was that interest in these questions shouldn’t be restricted to subject specialists. After all, questions about the purpose of laws, or how to deal with world poverty, or what makes poetry matter, or just what makes matter – can be fascinating for us all.”

But Farndon also tells us that answering these questions is not only being clever, which is something we all can be, or about knowledge or education only but “about bending and twisting your thoughts in all kinds of intriguing ways”, which also everyone can do.

Education now has so much become a means to an end – passing exams, getting jobs – that we seem to have lost the sight of its significant means, of learning to think more widely, of using the knowledge beyond the narrow confines of the syllabus.

This is where these books are relevant. They can also earn you a seat at Oxbridge.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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