On Friday, two friends from my department and I decided that we would use our post-examination freedom to explore some of Oxford’s more ancient, beautiful, and storied colleges. Most of them have rather austere exteriors, perhaps intended to ward off the legions of tourists crawling around the city, but gorgeous interiors. We walk past them every day, but for eight weeks, I haven’t made the time to go see Bill Clinton’s dorm room in Univ, Victoria’s statue in Queen’s College, or Merton’s cathedral-like chapel. None of them disappointed, even in the slightest.
By 3:20 p.m., daylight was fading fast. High on gothic beauty and winter air, we decided to finish our college crawl at All Souls College (Formally, The College of All Souls of the Faithfully Departed of Oxford) on High Street. All Souls is an all-fellows* college, and as far as I know, undergraduate and graduate students are not allowed inside, except by invitation. The main quad is guarded by a looming, golden gate, and you rarely if ever see anyone inside while walking by.
All Souls’ mystique in the minds of Oxonians is built up by its fabled admissions process. The top one or two graduates from each department each year are invited to sit for an entrance exam. Questions, apparently, often consistent of a single word. If the word is “purple”, a candidate needs to be able to discuss the religious significance of purple to the Romans, its aesthetic value in art history, and symbolism within modern social movement. Another rather broad prompt I heard of was “harmony”, with answers traversing from music theory to political science. In other years, All Souls has simply provided a Latin text, and asked to candidates to translate it into as many languages as possible. Eight different tongues is, apparently, a baseline for consideration.
This viva voce examination is, naturally, only a preliminary. Those that survive the first round are invited back to interview in front of the entire membership of the college, around sixty individuals. In the oral examination, fellows can ask anything about their own area of specialty. Since fellow are drawn from all of Oxford’s hundreds of degrees, it’s a pretty wide array of specialties. It’s actually pretty amazing that one or two people per year actually manage to get in.
If it’s not already obvious, All Souls has essentially one criterion for admission: you have to know everything. In fact, candidates are expected to study for seven years prior to taking the test, traveling the world picking up, well, all the knowledge that there is. As one friend pointed out to me, this may have actually been a realistic expectation when the college was founded in the middle ages, as the number of books and languages in the civilized, Western world was finite and manageable. It’s a bit ridiculous that the requirement of near-universal knowledge for All Souls membership remains in place in the modern era, but it’s kind of cool to think about these ultra-geniuses accumulating knowledge just for the sake of it.
We managed to make it into All Souls, rather effortlessly, in fact. Using a strategy that has helped me score countless meals in eating clubs of which I was not a member, we simply walked calmly and confidently past the porter, as if we belonged there. The quad was certainly beautiful, perhaps even the finest in Oxford. While I know I’ll never be a member of All Souls, it’s was cool to bask in the place. I don’t know why, but it helps me to see value to being in Oxford, even while I wonder what I’m doing here.
* That is, only people-with-PhDs, not only dudes.