Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Are Exams Getting You Down?

Try the 'Vague Generality'


( It has sometimes been said that the aim of most Harvard undergraduates is to spend four years in Cambridge as little encumbered with work as possible. With this in mind, the CRIMSON here presents an article by Donald Carswell '50, written some years ago and reprinted from time to time. )

The Harvard examination system is designed, according to its promulgators, to test two specific things: knowledge of trends and knowledge of details. Men approaching the examination system have three choices: 1. flunking out. 2. doing the work. 3. working out some system of fooling the grader. The first choice of solution is too permanent; 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. It is a vague statement that means nothing by itself, but when placed in an essay on a specific subject might mean something to a grader. The true master of the generality is the man who can write a ten-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 generalities. For instance:

"Hume brought empiricism to its logical extreme." (Philosophy).

"The whole thing boils down to human rights." (Government).

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

"Locke is a transitional figure." (Philosophy).

"Marx turned Hegel upside down." (Gen Ed).

"Differentiation and intergraduation are fundamental to the dynamic maturation of the human organism." (Social Relations).

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

Of course, some people are naturally conservative: they prefer to avoid taking a position whenever possible. They just don't believe in going out on a limb when they don't know the genus of the tree. For these people, the vague generality must be junked and replaced with the artful equivocation, or the art of talking around a point.

The artful equivocation is an almost impossible concept to explain, but it is easy to demonstrate. Let us take our earlier examination question, "Did the philosophical beliefs of Hume represent the age he lived in?" The equivocator would answer it this way: "Some people believe that David Hume was not necessarily a great philosopher, because his thoughts was merely a reflection of conditions around him colored by his own personality. Others, however, strongly support Hume's greatness on the grounds that 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 the old 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 our equivocator's answer has to do with the original question is hard to say. The equivocator writes an essay about the point but never on it. Consequently, the grader often mentally assumes the right answer is known by the equivocator and marks his answer as an extension of the point rather than as a complete irrelevance. The artful equivocation must imply the writer knows the right answer, but it must never get definite enough to eliminate any possibilities.

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

In the long run the expert in the use of unwarranted assumptions comes off better than the equivator. He would deal with our question on Hume not by baffling the grader or fencing with him, but like this: "It is absurd to discuss whether Hume is representative of the age in which he lived unless we first note the progress of that age on all intellectual 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 certain 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.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.