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When I set my “ exam paper from the future” at the beginning of September, I did not expect to receive such a large number of replies. Persuading busy Financial Times readers to sit down and write a complex 900-word essay, with no financial reward and little prospect of recognition, seemed like a big ask.
But I had clearly underestimated the intellectual energy of the FT readership. By the time the competition closed on September 20, we had received 170 essays — and I had more than 153,000 words to read. Fortunately, two long round-trip flights — from London to Beijing and back; and then a similar trip to Tokyo and back — gave me plenty of time to read.
I had set 39 questions on everything from neoliberalism to North Korea. In the event, there were only five questions that nobody chose to answer. Surprisingly (and tellingly), the questions on Syria and the Israel-Palestine conflict failed to elicit any responses. The other three to have no takers were the questions on neoconservatism, the International Criminal Court and the legacy of 1989.
The most popular question, by some way, which elicited 17 essays, was “Donald Trump was not an accident, but the logical culmination of long-term trends in politics and society”. The three most popular questions after that were those on the “end of history”, Brexit and American “decline” in the age of Barack Obama.
The conceit of the exam paper was that it was meant to be answered by students writing in 2066 — so essays could also imaginatively refer to events that “happened” after 2016. Reading through my pile of essays, I found that many of those that worked particularly well cleverly wove together the past and the future.
I also discovered the truth of something that I had been told as a student. Your first paragraph really matters. If you get off to a dull or confusing start, the “examiner” has a bad impression. By contrast, a clear and lively beginning to an article or essay cheers up the marker. And if you can say something original, or make the reader laugh, even better.
Weeding through the pile was a harder job than I’d anticipated because the standard of entries was so high. By the time I had returned from Tokyo, I had got it down to 18 frontrunners. I then passed these on to Jonathan Derbyshire, my colleague on the comment desk, for a second opinion. Together, Jonathan and I have come up with five “winners”, whose articles are now being published online.
Originally, we promised to publish the top three entries. The fact that we have chosen instead to publish five partly reflects the number and quality of the essays we received. It also reflects the fact that two of the winning entries are by “pros”, who have written for the FT’s op-ed pages before: Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. They have written respectively on Mr Trump and on “the end of history”. The other three winners are Phillipp Keller from Switzerland, Sam Wilkin, a journalist based in Dubai, and Paul Knott, who is also based in Switzerland. (Something in the Alpine air?) Since all five are excellent in different ways, we have decided not to declare an overall winner and instead to publish them in alphabetical order.
There were many other essays that I enjoyed a lot. Five authors that particularly deserve an honourable mention include Paul Drexler in Seattle, who wrote a fine essay on Angela Merkel. I liked his observation that: “After two attempts at European hegemony, when Germany suddenly found hegemony thrust in its lap, it had no idea what to do with it.”
Maxime Calligaro wrote the best of several essays on the French obsession with national decline, observing that: “As the decline grew steeper, the debate about the country’s identity grew fiercer.”
Morenibayo Bankole provided the most interesting response to a much-answered question on whether Mr Obama’s foreign policy amounted to the “orderly management of decline”. He also deserves recognition for a particularly elegant first sentence: “To describe the Obama administration’s foreign policy as the orderly management of decline requires one to agree that it was at once managed and orderly.”
Michalis Trepas was the only author to attempt the question on neoliberalism, and made the interesting point that many of its most influential policymaking proponents once worked for François Mitterrand. Amanda Harris wrote a particularly good piece on social media and added, charmingly: “This is the first history essay I have ever written — it required looking up how to do it.”
As “chief examiner”, I have found the whole exercise fun and stimulating. It took me back to my days as a student, writing exams in some draughty gymnasium — and to the stomach-churning phrase, “Please turn over your papers now”. But it also allowed me to indulge my professorial fantasies. The entries have given me plenty of new ideas that will inform my own work in the months and years ahead.