A memorable 1970’s philosophy exam leads me to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and deep thoughts about epistemology, whatever that is.
Write what you know.
I stare at the paper as if at a snake. Yikes. What now?
It’s coming up hard on Christmas, 1970, and I just sat down to write my take-home midterm exam in my introductory political philosophy class. On the last day of this term’s classes, our Ontario-bred and Oxford-trained professor had handed out a single sheet of paper with the instructions on one side and the exam on the other. The large-print instructions were as clear and precise as the man himself:
Set aside one hour only to write the exam.
DO NOT turn the paper over until you sit down to write the exam.
After a lifetime of following instructions at home and at school, it’s no big surprise that I have done just that here as well. Now I’m sitting at the small wooden desk in my room, wondering what the hell I’m going to do with just an hour.
I had been prepared for survey questions covering what we’d studied this fall term, testing my absorption of the course content: Who wouldn’t be? I had been ready, less happily, for essay questions on the various themes we’d covered, testing my integration of that content: Why shouldn’t I be? But I had not even been thinking about an exam testing my adoption of the critical thinking processes we had been exposed to: How could I have been?
My academic career to this point has been a cloth woven pretty loosely from two primary threads. The warp or basis for the whole has been about learning facts without necessarily appreciating their significance: the Commonwealth countries, their capitals and exports; the order of the periodic table and England’s royal succession; the parts of an internal combustion engine, a plant, a sentence; the correct spelling of big words, like ‘marmalade’, and hard words, like ‘could’. The weft, weaving over and under these lengthwise threads, has been about learning defined procedures without necessarily appreciating their application: conjugating French verbs and declining Latin nouns; multiplying fractions and integrating functions; cooking tapioca and dissecting frogs (two dramatically different procedures that each produce an unappetizing result). Not surprisingly, the exams have mostly been about regurgitating facts and executing procedures to order.
Write what you know.
Yikes is le mot juste. It’s obvious he’s not asking for a recital of the things I know for exams—the facts isolated from my experience, the procedures disconnected from my daily life–but, rather, for what I really know, whatever that means. I can spell ‘epistemology’, but I am not even remotely prepared to tackle an actual epistemological question. To sort through my jumble of feelings, suppositions, beliefs and opinions, for reliable-seeming nuggets. To dig—fast!—for the bedrock under my feet.
An hour later I get up, having Done Something. What exactly, at this remove in time, I don’t know. I do know, however, that my professor marked up the internal inconsistencies in my stream-of-consciousness ramble rather gently. The ramble itself was mostly platitudes, I expect: about what you’d expect from the not-very-examined life of an eighteen-year-old.
Write what you know.
It’s been more than forty years since that most memorable of all my university exams (Where does the time go? I sure don’t know!), and it isn’t just the absence of an exam on my desk that makes me a little less concerned today about my ongoing inability to articulate what I know. Today, not to go all paradoxical, I know that what I think I know isn’t necessarily so.
As Someone said, It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so. It would of course be the case that we don’t know who said this. Well, many people think they know, but their differing answers are each unsupported by, you know, evidence. Maybe it was Mark Twain; maybe it was Will Rogers; maybe it was Someone Else entirely.
Or as Another Someone Else said, in a movie about a secret organization managing Earth’s resident space aliens—aliens almost too numerous to count, too varied to even catalogue—Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
Indeed. Just imagine. Some parts of what I know tomorrow will even be so. If only I knew which ones, I could write them down.