Beating the System

Of course, some people are naturally conservative; they 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 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 take our earlier typical examination question, "Did the philosphical 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 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 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 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 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 isn't obvious at all, but 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 equivocator. He would deal with our question on Hume not by baffling the grader or by fencing with 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 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 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 piece first ran on Jun 12, 1950