Coming to the End of the Quest for Justice
As I sit to type, it’s been exactly 49 minutes since I finished my senior comprehensive examination. After three hours last night and three hours this morning, I still feel like I’m in that room, nervously checking the clock between paragraphs, wishing I’d started studying over winter break like I’d promised myself, wanting both to finish the exam and to have an extra hour to write. Halfway through the second session, I noticed my nose was bleeding, and I comforted myself by popping into my mouth the mint I’d used, like a deck of cards underneath a table, to prop up the unbalanced keyboard. I furrow my brow, check the prompt against what I’ve written and smile when I remember a joke Professor Baumann once told me about Thomas Hobbes (here, you can see my mid-exam doodle of Hobbes’ “Leviathan”).
“Comps,” as we call them at Kenyon, are a rite of passage, a trial by fire through which every senior must pass before they graduate. The exercise requires that we reflect on our major and distill what we’ve learned over four years. Every department does comps differently, but the political science examination has been essentially unchanged since time immemorial: six hours evenly divided between philosophy and practice. Before winter break, we receive 10 questions, five for each category, that we must prepare to answer. On test day we receive two of those questions from each section, and we choose which of each to answer. Thus, we’re compelled to recognize our weaknesses and seek help from others’ strengths in group study during the weeks before exam day.
In line for an omelette before the exam, I stood behind an alumnus who’d returned to campus for a volunteering weekend. He still remembers the questions, and he asked me how I felt (I was quite nervous). He gave me some advice: the students who perform best aren’t the ones who memorize, but the ones who learn. I’d add that the challenge isn’t to summarize four years in six hours; the challenge is to avoid doing so. Instead, as Professor Rowe says, we have to actually answer the question. The format of the exam charges us to identify what ideas matter most to us, to reflect upon America’s place in philosophy and history, and to demonstrate that we know why these questions have been argued for so long.
Political science at Kenyon isn’t about memorizing what Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche say about justice. It isn’t about memorizing exactly what Professor Leibowitz says about the classics, what Professor Pyle says about the Federalist Papers, or what Professor Camerra-Rowe says about modern democratic governments. We do know what they say, but the point is to know why they say so. Comps asks us to put the thinkers into conversation with each other, and with practical research, to demonstrate that we understand the fundamental trade-offs of politics and life itself. What’s more, comps asks us to study together, and in talking about virtue and justice, we live out the classical understanding of human happiness.
My frantic outline from the theory section.
Comps are pass/fail, but for the last several years, I desperately wanted to receive Distinction. I love our inquiry for its own sake, but I told myself that because of my passion, when comps came, I would deserve honors. I planned to shut myself away for weeks, rereading the books and practicing the questions. Thankfully, I didn’t have the time to do so, as in these past few weeks I’ve confronted assignments for my other classes ranging from a fellowship interview in Russian, multiple French épreuves, a statistics presentation about the Dodgers’ batting order and a music paper on the intriguing composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. I was forced to reconcile myself to just trying not to fail.
I ended up getting Distinction anyway. It was an honor, and I’m glad I wasn’t able to study single-mindedly. Not only would that have been out of step with the Kenyon ethos, but my life is also richer because I committed to the fullness of education possible at a liberal arts college. The best tribute I can pay to Kenyon is to learn about classical music, read Montaigne in an independent study and take time to play Russian card games, all in the same two days before exams. The best tribute I can pay to my department is to demonstrate that I love the subject, and the proper means for doing so isn’t to fixate on the result of an exam, but to practice what the classics preached, and care for the good things in life.