About the Fundamentals Examination
The Fundamentals Examination is the defining experience for students in the Committee on
Social Thought. Preparation for the examination is a kind of liberal education on the graduate
level meant to help students relate their specific concerns to broader themes and diverse
modes of addressing fundamental questions. In consultation with the faculty of the Committee,
each student selects for in-depth study twelve to fifteen seminal texts of the highest quality.
Students' lists should include several works from each of the following broad areas:
• Imaginative Literature
• Philosophy, Religion, and Theology
• History and Social Theory
At least one work is to be read in the original foreign language. Lists should include at least four
pre-modern and at least four modern texts, taking 1500 as the rough division point between
the two. Students are encouraged to include non-Western texts. Lists may include a film or
group of related films as one text, along with the screenplay and a statement explaining its
thematic coherence with other texts on their lists.
Students are expected to present their Fundamentals lists for discussion and approval to every
active faculty member of the Committee. This process often takes some months and involves
some negotiation; it should begin at least six months before taking the Fundamentals
Examination to allow faculty to suggest additional works. The list should be finalized by the end
of the spring quarter of the student's second year and should include a definitive edition or
one or more translations for each work. Students are encouraged to attach to the list a brief
statement highlighting common themes or explaining their reasons for selecting their texts.
Students should aim to sit the Fundamentals Exam no later than the third week of the spring
quarter of their third year. They should announce their intentions regarding when they will sit
the Exam by the seventh week of the preceding quarter (with the spring quarter counted as
preceding the fall). Students should present the copy of their Fundamentals list, signed by every
active faculty member of the Committee, to the Department Administrator, who will schedule
the Examination. Students should bear in mind that the earlier they take the Fundamentals
Examination the more funded quarters they will have left to prepare the doctoral dissertation
proposal, begin work on the dissertation, and obtain dissertation fellowship support.
Taking the Exam
The Fundamentals Exam consists of six questions. There will be two questions pertaining to
each of the three broad topic areas listed above.
Students must choose one (and only one) question from each topic area. They are given a total
of five days to write three substantial essays. Each essay must demonstrate detailed mastery of the works, a strong understanding of their intellectual contexts, and proficiency in writing. Students should respond to the questions asked and not submit previously prepared work. Students are free to consult notes, books, and internet resources, but may not consult anyone else about the exam or particular answers during the exam period. The word limit for each answer is 5000 words. Anything more than 5000 words will not be reviewed by faculty.
The Committee faculty evaluates Fundamentals Examinations during their regularly scheduled faculty meetings. Students may pass, pass with distinction, or fail with or without an option to retake part or all of the examination or a requirement to do some additional work. Students who do not have an M.A. from the University of Chicago may receive an M.A. after taking the Fundamentals Examination.