My Oral Exam and Me – Of Utilitarianism and Philosophy of Religion in 2021

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My oral exam: I have high ambitions

LIFE STORIES Four weeks after my written examinations, my oral exam in ethics was coming up. It was a strange four weeks full of philosophical theories, study stress and free afternoons. I was looking forward to the exam day with excitement. Would my efforts pay off and be rewarded with a great point average?

Here’s the start of my graduation phase: my last semester at school and the written exams.

22 June 2021: Dear diary,
I can’t believe I’ll never have to study for school again! This morning was my oral exam – and God, was I excited yesterday. I felt kind of sick all day. And then – kaboom! – I was already standing in the exam room at 7:20 a.m. and drew exam topic 2: Utilitarianism. I had a mask on, so the teachers couldn’t see how excited I was …

Alienation from school

I am a person who always has to have something to do. I couldn’t just sit out the weeks before the oral exam and then start studying one week before. So right after the written exams, I started digging out my old ethics binders and compiling all the topics into one big overview. The 26 pages that came out took me about a week with 15 hours of work, but I was happy with the end result. The next step was to memorise those 26 pages – a messy task, because anyone who knows me knows: I hate memorisation. To my amazement I actually managed to complete this task in just one week.

Soon the first consultation appointment was upon us. In awe, I entered the school building I hadn’t seen for a fortnight and marvelled at the walls as if I were in a national museum. Much to my regret, Mrs Lind, our ethics teacher, had not yet been able to tell us the date of the examination. So the feeling of not knowing, which I didn’t like at all but had accompanied me the whole COVID-19 time, remained for a while longer.

I used the two weeks until the next consultation date for school on a half-day basis. All the topics were worked through again one by one. I watched videos (I especially recommend the philosophy explanations by Dr. Christian Weilmeier …) and wrote articles for my blog including philosophical theories and examples. I have already published the first one on epistemologies, the others will follow.

What exactly I did in the afternoons, I can’t even list here. In retrospect, my memories of them become blurred. It must have been a mix of doctor’s appointments, meetings with friends and bike rides. I also met up with Luca, who would also be taking his ethics exam. Again, this went on for several weeks. It’s funny to think how much my life had changed in the last few months. (Not to mention how it will change when I start university in the autumn…)

Exam results

Sternstraße Wittenberg – here is always a lot of traffic …

And then, at some point, came 16th June 2021. On that day, I had as much bad luck in traffic as one can have: halfway down the road, I had a tractor (travelling at 25 mph) and two trucks in front of me, a bunch of red lights and the typical stress on Sternstraße (that’s a street) in Wittenberg, which is much used by pedestrians, cyclists and cars. I reached the school 3 minutes late and sprinted through the corridors, greeting my old history teacher on the way and finally reaching the biology room where my class and tutor were already waiting for me.

No, there was no biology class coming up. Rather, we were getting the results of our written exams back. But first, a Corona quick test had to be done (all were negative), I kept the list at the book drop of our borrowed textbooks and we were lectured on the oral exams. Only now did something like excitement begin to stir in my stomach. In fact, I had been so busy with other things in my head beforehand that I had hardly cared about my grade points.

I was almost the last to receive the piece of paper with my school-leaving point average so far. There were so many numbers that I had to ask Luca where to find the results. When I finally saw them, I had to suppress a laugh – and not because they were so exceptionally good. I simply had the same score in all four exams… Afterwards, rumours circulated in the year that my examination grades had been very good. Well, very good is relative after all. When I was asked about my results, I only answered: I am satisfied. And that was true. I was satisfied with my 12 grade points (which is a B+) across the board.

Exam date

After the tutoring session, we happened to meet Mrs Lind. She informed us that our exam was already six days away – and that I was the first one on that day. Our last consultation appointment had been cancelled due to the tutoring session, but since we had no specific questions, we agreed not to make it up. We would be able to ask questions by email to Mrs Lind personally.

I left the school with Luca. At his house, we wanted to think up questions for each other to play through the oral exam at least once beforehand. We quickly found suitable texts in the ethics books and thought up tasks for them. Then we had 20 minutes to answer the questions in bullet points. Luca had chosen the topic of utilitarianism for me. The text was easy to understand and I gained confidence that I would master the presentation well.

Excitement mounts

A little confused, I then presented my solutions. The time allocation was more difficult than I had thought, so that I had to stretch out more on the last task in order to fill the 10 minutes. But Luca seemed quite satisfied with me. He also mastered his part of the speech well under the circumstances and seemed much more self-confident than I would ever be.

We both had little desire for the question session after the lunch break, but we had resolved to play through the whole exam and we did. I had already compiled exam questions from all sorts of sources, and we now asked each other for 10 minutes each. I quickly noticed that the concrete questions were much easier for me than the lecture. This at least gave me some relief.

The last days before the exam were strange. I tried to cram in as much knowledge as possible and watched numerous videos so that I would have enough practical examples at hand for the exam. On Monday I felt strange almost the whole day. Could it be the excitement before tomorrow?

Day of days

Yes, I have set myself an ambitious goal. But it is possible.

The 22nd June came. Actually a bad day for an exam, because the day before had been summer solstice and I had actually wanted to celebrate the shortest night of the year with a night hike. Instead, I went to bed early to get up around 5:30am on Tuesday. Just get through the next three hours and then it’s all done, I tried to calm my nerves that morning – semi-successfully.

Of course, I was stressing myself out because the exam result would decide one decimal place of my point average. I had no doubt that I would achieve over 10 grade points. That meant I was sure to get an average of 1.3. What I hadn’t told my family, however, was that with 14 or 15 points I could still achieve a 1.2. An ambitious goal, but if you didn’t reach for the stars, you could never hold them in your hands, could you?

I left home on time and met Philip in front of the school. He had his exam at the same time, 7:20 a.m., and was as excited as I had rarely seen him. Together we headed towards the exam room and then wished each other luck. For the next five minutes, I waited alone outside the examination room until Mr Paulus, the examination leader, came to pick me up and showed me where I could put my things.

I entered the examination room and also greeted my ethics teacher Mrs Lind (my examiner today) and Mrs Mast, whom I knew from previous school years. I was asked to draw one of two exam topics. Top or bottom? Top or bottom? I knew the topic could greatly influence the outcome of this exam. I opened the top envelope and said, “Subject 2”. Ms Lind then handed me two sheets of paper. On the first I saw the topic: Examine Moral Principles. Utilitarianism. I had to laugh inside. A very nice coincidence.

The shortest 40 minutes of my life

In the preparation room I met Philip. He was already working. We exchanged glances briefly. Then I set to work. Although Mrs Lind had said that there would be an unknown text in the assignments, the text seemed more than familiar to me. I had already looked at precisely this text by Gilbert Harman during the preparations. Again I smiled inwardly.

No sooner had I read through the tasks than the 20 minutes were up and Mr Paulus escorted me into the examination room again. It was getting serious. While I stood in front of the three ethics teachers and presented my results, I knew right away that I was talking too much. There were so many bullet points in my head that all wanted to be said. Mrs Lind tapped her watch several times to show me: You should move on to the next task. So I continued talking all the faster.

The question time was coming up. I sat down. “The topic of your question time is philosophy of religion,” Ms Lind began. Uhh, philosophy of religion was an easy topic! Conscientiously (and probably again too thoroughly) I answered all the questions. They were purely learning questions, from functions of religions to proofs of God and criticism of religion, so that even these ten minutes felt more like three.

And suddenly it was done

Outside in the corridor, the teachers were discussing my result, I met Luca. “How did it go?” he asked me. “Very well, I think.” Then he added, “I wished you good luck, but by then it was too late.” For a few minutes I had to wait. All sense of time had left me. Finally, Mr Paulus called me into the examination room again. And my preliminary examination result was: 14 grade points! “Are you pleased?” asked Mrs Lind. Yes, of course! 1.2. 1.2. 1.2. “With that you have fulfilled my high expectations of you,” my ethics teacher continued.

It must have been a glorious picture: three happy ethics teachers and one happy pupil in a semicircle. In response to a question from Mrs Mast, I briefly told her about my plan to study physics. Her astonished eyes were no surprise to me. In the meantime, I found the faces of other people, some of them expressing incomprehension, more amusing than anything else when they heard about my studying physics as a girl. “Well, ethics is also very important in science,” Mrs Lind said. Yes, I liked ethics. And I liked Mrs Lind. But now it was time to say goodbye. I was wished all the best and left the examination room.

“And?”, Luca asked. “14 points,” I replied with a smile, “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you too.” I sent Philip a message asking how his exam had gone and headed for home. Now I would pay my family a visit – and after that? Well, school was definitely not on the schedule for the next few weeks. I was free. I could just enjoy life for the next three months until I went to university. But how would I keep myself busy all the time?

Now I have enough time to travel … But where should I go?

In the next and last article in this series, you’ll find out whether I’m satisfied with my A-levels and what my balance sheet looks like after the last two school years. Click here.

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