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The Jesuit final exam

I wasn’t lucky enough to know Reverend Anderson Bakewell, S. J. (Society of Jesus) before he died in 1999 at age 86. But my friend Steve Bodio knew him well and hunted with him.

Hunted? Yes—Bakewell was not your ordinary priest, even for a Jesuit. In the 1930s he collected reptiles and amphibians in Mexico and South America for the St. Louis Zoo (and had several of them named after him). In 1941 he climbed Mt. Wood in the St. Elias Range, at that time the highest unclimbed peak in North America. He went on to be the youngest member of H.W. Tilman’s attempt on Mt. Everest in 1950, the first from the south, which would prove Hillary’s and Norgay’s successful route three years later. In the meantime he earned a bachelor’s degree and did graduate work in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Oh, and in 1942 he entered the Society of Jesus and did missionary work in India (where he helped prepare antivenom for snake bite treatment) and Alaska (where his parish comprised 35,000 square miles). And became a member of the Explorers Club along the way. And compiled a modest arsenal of fine weapons, including a .416 Rigby which a British officer friend got for him for $75 (they go for $20,000 today).

Bakewell in his Santa Fe home

Recently Bakewell’s biographer sent Steve a (presumably tongue-in-cheek) clip from a mid-80s Jesuit newsletter in his effects, titled “Jesuit Final Exam.” If you’re familiar with Heinlein’s classic “Specialization is for insects” quote from Time Enough for Love, this will strike you as sort of the same concept . . . on crack. Steve wonders whether, especially given the rifle reference, Bakewell might have had a heavy hand in concocting this.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read each question carefully. Answer all questions. Time limit: four hours. Begin immediately.

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific.

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Storming the classroom are 2500 riot-crazed aborigines. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

BIOLOGY: Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English parliamentary system. Prove your thesis.

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum. (You will find a piano under your seat).

PSYCHOLOGY: Estimate the sociological problems which might accompany the end of the world. Construct an experiment to test your theory.

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In ten minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: cubism, the Donatist controversy, the wave theory of light. Outline a method for preventing these effects. Criticize this method from all possible points of view, as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: There is a red telephone on the desk beside you. Start World War III. Report at length on its socio-political effects, if any.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Take a position for or against the truth. Prove the validity of your position.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought; estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

I’ve occasionally mused on how many of Heinlein’s human skills I could claim (at last count I think I was pretty sure about 16, not counting of course “die gallantly,” which no one can claim until it actually happens). But the Jesuit list? Um . . . I could certainly assemble the rifle, even without the instructions. I have a rough concept of the development of human thought, and some pretty good theories as to the sociological problems that would accompany the end of the world.

And that’s about it.

Steve Bodio, left, and a 75-year-old Anderson Bakewell in Magdalena, New Mexico, in 1988


  1. Well done! Will doubtless have more after weekend...

  2. I'm looking forward to the complete biography of Bakewell, Steve. You should have written it!

  3. Actually Anne, who knew him rather longer, is an even better choice, with a combination of knowledge, loyalty and slight irreverence. Re the first, she was the first in a line of St John's students who took care of his house, and as a "Johnnie" she is familiar with research and the whole western intellectual tradition. As to the second, she tells me she drank champagne at breakfast and rode in the green Mustang with the polar bear license plates and shot the .416...


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