Monthly Archives: May 2020

Generalization

"Any general statement is like
a cheque drawn on a bank."
(Ezra Pound)

To generalize is to promise specifics. If you are going to say that all swans are white, you’re going to have to produce at least one white swan, and you’re going to have to be open to examining the color of other people’s (preferably randomly chosen) swans. Your statement isn’t just about swans “in general”; it’s about every certifiable swan on the planet. Most importantly, if someone brings you a black waterbird, you had better be prepared to discuss whether it’s a swan or some kind of duck. Indeed, your statement applies to every bird of any color. If the bird is a swan, you’re saying, it’s going to be white; if it’s not white, it is not a swan. Maybe you’ve already guessed where this is going: your generalization actually applies to every blesséd thing, which, you are saying is either white or not a swan, but never not white and also a swan. “All swans are white,” that is, also depends, as so much does, upon a red wheelbarrow, which isn’t even a chicken.

Now, as it turns out, there are black swans, both literally and figuratively. (There are even ugly ducklings.) So it would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that most swans are white, or that adult mute swans (Cygnus olor) are mostly white, while adult black swans (Cygnus atratus) are indeed mostly black. If you’re familiar with Toulmin’s model of argumentation you will immediately recognize these as qualifiers that define the strength and scope of your generalization. You are making it clear exactly what your generalization means, what it can be used for, and, in fact, how useful it is likely to be be. You are gerrymandering its meaning to maximize its truth, we might say.

A pragmatist will tell you that “the truth is what works,” and this is no less true of generalizations than statements of particular fact. The interesting thing about generalizations is that they “work” in so far as they are right about those particular facts, and often ones that we haven’t yet observed. These are the specifics I said you owe your reader every time you make a general statement. You don’t have to pay your debt in full in the paper itself (and, in a sense, that isn’t even possible), but you are implicitly claiming to be able to “specify” the meaning of your generalization with reference to some unambiguous matters of fact. This is often couched in the language of “making predictions”. The general statements of your theory predict the specific statements of your hypotheses, and it should even let your readers make predictions — i.e., frame hypotheses — of their own. They theory “works” if it gets those predictions right.

Of course, we don’t submit all our generalizations to rigorous testing like this. I am just trying to make clear what we mean by general statements, namely, that a range of specific statements are true. When you say something of a general kind, you usually imply that you have access to specifics, that you have experienced the relevant particulars. You are also claiming that if counterexamples exist you would have been likely to have seen them. So make sure that you are able to construct examples as well as counterexamples of the generalities you invoke in your writing. You never know when someone will take you seriously enough to test you. You want to be ready when it happens.

The value of a general statement, said Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading, “depends on what is there to meet it. If Mr. Rockefeller draws a cheque for a million dollars it is good. If I draw one for a million it is a joke, a hoax, it has no value. If it is taken seriously, the writing of it becomes a criminal act” (p. 25). Sometimes it’s an honest mistake, of course; you thought you had enough money to cover it. But sometimes you know full well that the bank will not honor your check. In scholarship, the same thing can happen. You may have looked at a lot swans, but never gone to Australia. Or you may just be passing along what you were told as a child. Or you may be perfectly aware of the Australian black swan and just hope that your reader never goes there. Some scholars generalize based on nothing more than hearsay and gut feeling. Some scholars overgeneralize from observations that they haven’t made enough of. And some scholars simply fabricate their results, writing checks they know their data can’t cash.

I don’t think you need my moral guidance here.

Examination

"Every man has the right to have his ideas
examined one at a time." (Ezra Pound)

Even very established scholars sometimes describe themselves as “students of” their subjects. This isn’t an expression of (even false) humility; they are merely acknowledging that they “study” things. Something similar can be said of words like “test” and “examine”, which can be applied both to people and to ideas. At first pass, these seem to be radically different senses of “student” and “examine”, but I think it’s worth noting their connections. Students and scholars are, after all, engaged in the same cultural activity, namely, “learning.” Though here, again, we’re tempted to say that the word is used in two very different senses, I think it’s important to keep in mind that, not only is our instruction based on our scholarship, we are, in part, instructing our students in the craft of scholarship. Examination is an integral part of academic life, even when it’s not part of the process of assigning a grade.

That said, I sometimes suspect that scholars resent the exam-like conditions of, for example, the peer-review process. While it makes sense to want to put “school” behind you, that desire is easier for people who leave the university for one of the professions (or the arts or anything else) to declare than for academics to wanly announce. In fact, academics ideally chose their career path because they genuinely respect the exam situation. We might say that the university ought to attract people who, precisely, don’t resent examination, i.e., people who see the value of testing the knowledge of someone whose job it is to know things. The deepest way of addressing this problem, then, is to explain why no one, not even a student, should resent being examined.

Why are exams a good thing?

We can begin with the easy cases. We want our doctors to know what they’re doing. We want them to get very good educations, and we want their licenses to practice medicine to depend on this education. We’re not satisfied with their merely getting into, or even dutifully attending, medical school. We want to know that they actually learned what their teachers were trying to teach them. So we expect those teachers to examine our future doctors’ understanding of the current state of medical knowledge. These days, many of us are discovering (some of us, to our surprise) the depth of our respect for medicine and this implies a respect for the institutions that train our medical professionals. We believe that they’ve done a good job of ensuring that the people who treat us when we are ill know what they’re doing.

This is why I don’t like it when established academics side with students who “hate school” (allegedly out of their “love of learning”). It’s perfectly legitimate, and often no doubt reasonable, to dislike going to school. All social institutions are imperfect, and none can fulfill its mission entirely without some residual nuisance and boredom, but higher education is for people who have actively put up with those imperfections for the sake of a greater goal, indeed, a higher purpose.

Testing a student is merely a somewhat artificial instance of testing ideas. Ezra Pound invoked his “right” to have his ideas tested (he had his reasons), but there is also, among academics in any case, a duty to let them be tested. At the limit, we might posit a Socratic duty to oneself to examine one’s own ideas, lest one’s own life be not worth living. But, as I reminded us above, the unexamined doctor is certainly not worthy of a medical practice. Highly educated professionals deserve our respect because they once allowed themselves to be examined by people who were qualified to tell them they were wrong. Academics, I never tire of saying, are people who are permanently committed to this regime of “testing” by their peers.