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Comprehensive Exam

The final step of the Memoria College master’s degree pulls together all the threads of reading and discussion that students have followed throughout their course of study. Students must first respond in writing to a selection of questions that engage central issues in the Great Books tradition, arguing from the primary sources that they have engaged with during our program. While some of these questions lean more toward the philosophical and others lean more toward the literary or scientific, successful students must draw upon the whole tradition to answer any of these questions well. Next, students must defend their written answers orally before a panel of Memoria College faculty in a live virtual defense.

You can find the instructions for this comprehensive exam below:

I. Written Exam

Please select any three of the following questions and prepare a written essay of no less than 2,000 words in response to each (for a total minimum of 6,000 words). Each essay must explicitly draw upon at least two different texts in the Great Books curriculum (for a total of six). Answers will be evaluated for the strength of the argument, use of the primary sources, and academic style.

  1. What defines the liberal arts? What does “liberal” mean? What value do the liberal arts have in a classical education?
  2. What changes in Western thought occurred during the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution? What benefits and dangers came with these changes?
  3. Describe some of the major approaches to thinking about the being and nature of God in the Western philosophical and theological tradition. How do these various approaches interface with other aspects of thought such as literature, ethics, or scientific theory?
  4. What tensions do we find in the tradition of Western political philosophy? How have the various theories in our authors attempted to both describe these tensions and prescribe resolutions to them? How successfully have concrete forms of government negotiated these tensions?
  5. What is meant by a “right” in Western legal thinking? How have our authors sought to ground rights? Which rights do they think we possess?
  6. What virtues characterize the heroes we find in the tradition of ancient epic poetry? How do these virtues compare to the ideals we find in later literature?
  7. What understanding of the human condition do we find in classical Greek tragedy? Why do Greek tragedies take the shape that they do? How do these features compare to the tragedies of Shakespeare?
  8. How do characters in the novels of the Great Books tradition develop virtue or fall into vice? What role does the narrative structure of the novel play in the portrayal of character change?
  9. Describe the major approaches to the question “What is truth?” that we find in the Western tradition. How does an author’s approach to this question interact with his approach to literature or ethics?

II. Oral Defense

The defense will last approximately half an hour, during which you should expect to be asked challenging questions about the written answers you have submitted. It would be a good idea to have at your disposal a copy of your written answers, your notes, and any primary source material you have drawn upon. You are responsible for any text that you cite, so expect to answer questions about authors that you rely on even when these questions go beyond the material you directly quote in your essays.