EDITORS NOTE: Most students have speculated, at some point or another, whether it is possible to ace Harvard exams without actually studying. In 1950, The Crimson published "Beating the System," by Donald Carswell '50, which seemed to provide an answer. The piece won the Dana Reed Prize for undergraduate writing in 1951, and since then The Crimson has proudly reprinted Carwell's work as a service to its readers. In 1962, one anonymous grader was irked enough to write a lengthy 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 get definite enough to eliminate any possibilities.

There is a third method of dealing with examination questions--that is by the use of an overpowering assumption, an assumption so cosmic that it is sometimes accepted. For example, we wrote that is 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 form which to start. His 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 speak 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 June 12, 1950.

A Grader's Reply

Gentlemen: I must confess serious doubts about the efficacy--or even the integrity--of the "classic" exam period editorial, "Beating the System," you reprinted recently. I almost suspect this so-called "Donald Carswell '50" of being rather one of Us--the Bad Guys--than one of you. If your readers have been following Mr. Carswell's advice for the last 11 years, then your readers have been going down the tubes. It is time to disillusion.

He is right, of course, about the third alternative, and a very sensible one it is--working out some system of fooling the grader, although I think I should prefer the world "impressing." We admit to being impressionable, but not to being hypercredulous simps. His first two tactics for system being, his Vague Generalities and Artful Equivocation, seem to presume the latter, and are only going to convince Crimson-reading graders (there are a few and we tell our friends) that the time has come to tighten the screws just a bit more.

Think, Mr. Carswell (wherever you are), think, all of you: Imagine the situation of your grader. (Unless he is of the Wheatstone Bridge-double differential CH3C6H2(NO2)3 set. These people are mere cogs; automata; they simply feel to make sure you have punched the right holes. As they cannot think, they cannot be impressed; they are clods. The only way to beat their system is to cheat.) In the humanities and social sciences, it is well to remember, there is a man (occasionally a woman), a human type filling out your picture postcard. What does he want to read? How, in a word, can he be snowed?

Now, let me insist and insist again, by Vague Generalities. We abhor V.G.'s, we skim right past them, we start wondering what kind of C to give from the first V.G. we encounter; and as they pile up we decide C- (Harvard being Harvard, we do not give D's. Consider C- a failure). Why? Not because they are a sign the student does not know the material, or hasn't thought creatively, or any of that folly. They simply make tedious reading. "Locke is a transitional figure." "The whole thing boils down to human rights." Now I ask you, I have 92 bluebooks to read this week, and all I ask, really, is that you keep me awake. Is that so much?

Artful equivocations are even worse; lynx-eyed sly little rascals that we are, we see right through them. (Up to exam 40. Then our lynx eyes droop, and grading habits relax. Try to get on the bottom of the pile.) Again, it is not that A.E.'s are vicious or ludicrous as such; but in quantity they become sheer madness. Or induce it. "The 20th century has never recovered from the effects of Marx and Freud." (V.G.); "But whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing is difficult to say." (A.E.) Now one such might be droll enough. Buy by the dozen? This, the quantitative aspect of grading--we are, after all, getting $5 a head for you dolls and therefore pile up as many of you a piece as we can get--this is what too many of you seem to forget. "Coleridge may be said to be both a classical and a romantic, but then so may Dryden, depending on your point of view. In some respects, this statement is unquestionably true; but in others…" On through the night.

I hope my inference is clear. The A's go to people who wake us up, who talk to us, who are sparkling and different and bright. (The B's go to Radcliffe girls who memorize the text and quote it verbatim, in perfectly hooped letters with circles over the i's.) Not, I remind you, necessarily to people who have locked themselves in Lamont for a week and seminared and outlined and underlined and typed their notes and argued out all of Leibniz's fallacies with their mothers. They often get A's too, but as Mr. Carswell points out, this takes too long. There are other ways.

His third suggestion, the Overpowering Assumption, I think is best. But not for the reasons he suggests--that the assumption is so cosmic that it might be accepted. It is rarely "accepted;" we aren't here to accept or reject--we're here to be amused. The more dazzling, personal, unorthodox, paradoxic your assumptions (paradoxes are not equivocations), the more interesting an essay is likely to be. (If you have a chance to confer with the assistant in advance, of course--and we all like to be called "assistants," not "graders"--you may be able to ferret out one or two cosmic assumptions of his own; seeing them in your bluebook, he can only applaud your uncommon perception. For example, while most graders are politically unconcerned, not all are agnostic. This is an older generation, recall. Some may be tired of St. Augustine flattened by a phrase or reading about the "Xian myth.")

Carswell's further discussion of the O.A. is quite to the point--he himself realizes its superiority to any E., however A. His illustration includes one of the key "Wake Up the Grader" phrases--"It is absurd." What force! What gall! What fun! "Ridiculous," "hopeless," "nonsense," on the one hand; "doubtless," "obvious," "unquestionable," on the other, will have the same effect. A hint of nostalgic, antiacademic languor at this stage as well may match the grader's own mood: "It seems more than obvious to one entangled in the petty quibbles of contemporary Medievalists--at times, indeed, approaching the ludicrous--that smile as we may at its follies, or denounce its barbarities, the truly monumental achievements of the Middle Ages have become too vast for us to cope with or even understand; we are too small and too afraid." Let me offer this as an ideal opening sentence to any question even tangentially nudging on the Middle Ages. And now, you see, having dazzled me, won me by your personal, involved, independently-minded assertion, your only job is to keep me awake. When I sleep I give C's. How? By FACTS. Any kind, but do get them in. They are what we look for--a name, a place, an allusion, an object, a brand of deodorant, the titles of six poems in a row, even an occasional date. This, son, makes for interesting (if effortless) reading, and this is what gets A's. Underline them, capitalize them, insert them in the top, "Illustrate;" "Be specific;" etc.? They mean it. The illustrations, of course, need not be singularly relevant; but they must be there. If Vague Generalities are anathema, sparkling chips of concrete scattered throughout your bluebook will have you up for sainthood. Or at least Dean's List. Name at least the titles of every other book Hume wrote; don't just say Medieval cathedrals, name nine. Think up a few specific examples of "contemporary decadence," like Natalie Wood. If you can't come up with titles, try a few sharp metaphors of your own; they at least have the solid clink of pseudo-facts.

That's the secret, really. Don't write out "TIME!!!" in inch-high scrawl--it only brings out the sadist in us. Don't (Cliffies) write offers to come over and read aloud to us your illegible remarks--we can (officially) read anything, and we may be married. Write on both sides of the page--single bluebook finals look like less work to grade, and win points. This chic, shaded calligraphic script so many are affecting lately is handsome, and is probably worth a good extra five points if you can hack it.

But above all, keep us entertained. Keep us awake. Be bold, be personal, be witty, be chock full of facts. I'm sure you can do it all without studying if you try. We did.

Best Wishes,

A Grader

This letter first ran on January 26, 1962.

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