Beating the System

By Donald Carswell ’50

The Harvard examination system is designed, according to its promulgators, to test two specific things: knowledge of trends and knowledge of detail. Men approaching the examination problem have three choices: 1.) flunking out; 2.) doing work; or 3.) working out some system of fooling the grader. The first choice of solution is too permanent and the second takes too long.

This article is designed to explain how to achieve the third answer to this perplexing problem by the use of the vague generality, the artful equivocation and the overpowering assumption.

It seems pretty obvious that in any discussion of the various methods whereby the crafty student attempts to show the grader that he knows a lot more than he actually does, the vague generality is the key device. A generality is a vague statement that means nothing by itself, but when placed in an essay on a specific subject very well might mean something to the grader. The true master of a generality is the man who can write a 10-page essay, which means nothing at all to him, and have it mean a great deal to anyone who reads it. The generality writer banks on the knowledge possessed by the grader, hoping the marker will read things into his essay.

Every non-mathematical field in the University has its own set of vague generalities. For instance:

“Hume brought empiricism to its logical extreme.” (Philosophy)

“The whole thing boils down to government rights vs. property rights.” (Government)

“Moby Dick is written on three levels.” (English)

“The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” (History)

“Locke is a transitional figure.” (Philosophy)

“Marx turned Hegel upside down.” (General Education)

“Any theory of underconsumption and purchasing power must be grounded in the psychology of the people.” (Economics)

“Berlioz is the founder of modern orchestration.” (Music)

“Shaw’s heroes are men of moral passion.” (English)

“Differentiation and integration are fundamental to the dynamic maturation of the human organism.” (Social Relations)