Beating the System

Crimson editors over the decades have made some memorable attempts to capture exam period in newsprint. The following op-ed, “Beating the System,” won the Dana Reed Prize for undergraduate writing in 1951. The Crimson proudly ran it every reading period until 1962, when it irked one maligned and anonymous grader enough to reply.

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)

To check the operation of a vague generality under fire, take the typical example, “Hume brought empiricism to its logical extreme.” The question is asked, “Did the philosophical beliefs of Hume represent the spirit of the age in which he lived?” Our hero replies by opening his essay with, “David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, brought empiricism to its logical extreme. If these be the spirit of the age in which he lived, then he was representative of it.” This generality expert has already taken his position for the essay. Actually he has not the vaguest idea of what Hume really said, or in fact what he said it in, or in fact if he ever said anything at all. But by never bothering to define empiricism, he may write indefinitely on the issue, virtually without contradiction.

Of course, some people are naturally conservative; they avoid taking a position whenever possible. They just don’t want to have to go out on a limb when they don’t know the genus of the tree. For these people, the vague generality must be partially junked and replaced by the artful equivocation, or the art of talking around the point.

The artful equivocation is an almost impossible concept to explain, but it is easy to demonstrate. Let us begin with the question, “Did the philosophical beliefs of Hume represent the spirit of the age in which he lived?”

The equivocator would answer it in this way: “Some people believe that David Hume was not necessarily a great philosopher because his thought was merely a reflection of the conditions around him, colored by his own personality.

“Others, however, strongly support Hume’s greatness on the ground that the force of his personality definitely affected the age in which he lived. It is not a question of the cart before the horse in either case, merely a problem of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In any case, there is much to be said on both sides.”

Just exactly what the equivocator’s answer has to do with the actual question is hard to say. The equivocator writes an essay about the point, but never on it. Consequently, the grader often mentally assumes that the right answer is known by the equivocator and marks the essay as an extension of the point rather than a complete irrelevance. The artful equivocation must imply the writer knows the right answer, but it must never be definite enough to eliminate any possibilities.

There is a third method of dealing with examination questions—that is by the use of overpowering assumption, an assumption so cosmic that it is sometimes accepted. For example, we wrote that it was pretty obvious that the vague generality was the key device in any discussion of examination writing. Why is it obvious? As a matter of fact, it wasn’t obvious at all, but just an arbitrary point from which to start. This is an example of an unwarranted assumption.

In the long run the expert in the use of unwarranted assumption comes off better than the equivocator. He would deal with our question on Hume not by baffling the grader or by fencing him but like this: “It is absurd to discuss whether Hume is representative of the age in which he lived unless we note the progress of that age on all fronts. After all, Hume did not live in a vacuum.”

At this point our assumption expert proceeds to discuss anything which strikes his fancy at the moment. If he can sneak the first assumption past the grader, then the rest is clear sailing. If he fails, he still gets a fair amount of credit for his irrelevant but fact-filled discussion of scientific progress in the 18th century. And it is amazing what some graders will swallow in the name of intellectual freedom.

This op-ed first ran on June 12, 1950.