Beating the System


THE HARVARD examination system is designed, according to its promulgators, to test two specific things, knowledge of trends and knowledge of details. People approaching the examination question have three choices: 1) flunking out, 2) doing the work, or 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 a key device. A generality is a vague statement that means nothing by itself, but when placed in an essay on a specific subject, might very well mean something to the grader. The true master of the generality is the student who can write a ten page essay that means nothing at all to the writer, 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 the exam.

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 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 the essay with: "David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher brought empiricism to its logical extreme. If this be the spirit of the age in which he lived then he was repersentative 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. 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 prefer to avoid taking a position wherever possible. They just don't believe in going out on a limb, when they don't even know the genus of the tree. For these people the vague generality must be junked and replaced by 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 take our earlier typical examination question, "Did the philosophical beliefs of Hume represent the spirit of the age in which he lived?" The equivocator would answer it this way: "Some people believe that David Hume was not necessarily a great philosopher because his thought was merely a reflection of 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 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 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 get definite enough to eliminate any possibilities.

There is a third method of dealing with examination questions--that is, by the 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 obvious? As a matter of fact, it isn't obvious at all, but just an arbitrary point from which to start. That is an example of an unwarrented assumption.

In the long run the expert in the use of unwarranted assumptions comes off better than the equivocator. He would deal with our question of 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.

This piece by Donald Carswell '50, winner of the Dana Reed Prize, first appeared in The Crimson June 14, 1950. Plus ca change...