Senior School Interviews

An Oppidan Event: Conspiracy Theories in the 20th Century

This article is written by Oskar Schortz, a History Teacher currently at Rugby School, who ran The Conspiracy Theories Event for Oppidan on Friday 8th May.

‘When fairytales do come true’

Conspiracy theories are supposed to be a thing of the past. They are theories and opinions from the fringes of society that explain big historical events in colourful and inventive ways. The Moon Landing was fake, the world is flat, aliens have landed, the lizards have taken over – surely we can’t be duped into these whacky theories in the 21st century?! 

Well in recent years, conspiracy theories have been found to be on the up. Fuelled by a wide range of dubious news sites online, and creative uses of photoshop and video editing, the internet has provided a new home for like-minded groups.

By looking back into history, the presence of conspiracy theories should not surprise us. Conspiracy theories have been around as long as people have been recording decisions and events. And what’s even more worrying when we look at history – many conspiracy theories have actually worked!

Looking at the big three totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century of Russia, Germany and China – the leadership of all three were able to take absolute power through the use of some rather suspect political theories. Russians were convinced that a ‘Mad Monk’ called Rasputin was taking over Russia from inside Tsar Nicholas II’s court; Germans believed Nazi ideas about being ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jews, Communists and politicians; and Chinese fear was fuelled by rumours of both an internal takeover of the country as well as dangerous foreign influences.

 Interestingly all three dictators (Hitler, Stalin and Mao) not only used conspiracy theories to great effect to achieve power but continued to spread them once their power was firmly established – as a way to help cement their strong positions.

This all seems far off from conspiracy theories that appear in popular culture nowadays, but a series of more sinister theories have been circling in the aftermath of the Brexit and Trump votes. Almost half (47%) of Trump votes believe global warming is a hoax, and according to a 2018 Cambridge university study, 60% of Britons believe in at least one conspiracy theory. This spells danger for democracy across the world because if a ruler can achieve power through the spreading of lies – doesn’t this make the whole voting process irrelevant?

From whacky explanations to meticulously described motives and connections – conspiracy theories have the power to enchant and entertain. But one thing is for sure, they aren’t going away anytime soon…

The Changing Nature of Senior-School Interviews

“Interviews are now conversations, not interrogations.”

***

Oppidan’s work in schools in February included about 700 one-on-one interviews. That’s roughly the same number of interviews Eton carries out each year.

Differentiating between that number of candidates, we have learnt, rests upon the very smallest of margins. More on that, later.

 The interviews that boys take aged 10 or 11 have, at Eton for example, historically been run by teachers; academically focused, they challenged boys to think rationally and to reason logically. The interviewer would look for specificity on the subjects a boy liked, detail on what a boy had so far achieved, and context to what they wanted to achieve on arrival. Ultimately, to quote an Eton schoolmaster, they were looking for “a fizz for learning.”

 Questions involved Current Affairs:

         “What has recently interested you in the news?”

Question involvedBooks:

         “Do you prefer non-fiction or fiction?”

Questions involved Academic Rigour:

         “What would happen if clouds didn’t exist?”

 Given the noted increase in anxiety (in both parents and children) caused by over preparation for the interviews, I believe a shift in philosophy has started to take place within the interview process for senior-school places.

For a start, housemasters alone now run the Eton interviews. Less geared towards proving what you know academically, the interviews now focus on the contributing factor you will be to your house. What can you offer away from the classroom and why is the boarding element so much an attraction to you?

 Questions might involve Family Life:

         “What do you think of your role as the youngest in the family?”

Questions might involve Extracurricular Activities:

         “What would you do on a free Sunday at home?”

This softer approach to interviews has universal appeal. Interviews for Winchester College, for example, really focus on getting to know the candidate: boys are asked to analyse poems (The Castle by Edwin Muir) and paintings (Van Gogh’s Chair), real care is taken to get to know the child’s family too (parents sit in for some of the session) and the interviews are long enough to allow a boy the time to warm up and to express himself.

At Wellington College, the process is even more participatory. From drama workshops (acting out improvised Blitz evacuees) to team-building workshops involving bamboo sticks, group maths problems to Dr Hook’s Theory of the Elastic Band, the children are assessed by both teachers and by current students. The day is, I believe, a mark of how school assessments can be positive experiences for young people.

These examples of progressive interviews do not standalone. The Consortium Group of Girls’ Schools in London have changed their assessment process to include a longer, more varied interview process, whilst up and down the country, senior schools that interview for places are appeasing the need to over prepare by a stronger focus on school reports.

Which perhaps seems contradictory given the large volume of work Oppidan does on preparing children for senior schools.

 The effect of Oppidan’s interview sessions work though, both in and outside of school, is seen in the focus we put on engaging a child to feel enthused about the process – in giving a child the confidence to say what they want and what they feel and in the familiarity of talking to somebody they don’t know. By combining the changing nature of these interviews with the softer, more rounded approach we take on preparation, the interview process can finally be something for children to look forward to.

To the acknowledgement of schools and the benefit of both children and parents alike, interviews are now conversations, not interrogations.

Walter Kerr