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An Explication of 
William G. Perry Jr.'s 
"Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts:
A Study in Educational Epistemology" 
[Click here to get a copy.]
by Dr. Ed Vavra
The Reader
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC

     For more than a decade I have had my college students read this essay. I claim that it is the most important thing that they will read during their time in college. Students have trouble understanding it, and since I refer to it among the book reviews on my KISS Grammar site, I'm offering this explication. It is available on the web, so I will keep the summary to a minimum.
     The essay is based on an apparently true event. "Mr. Metzger '47" accidentally found himself in a Soc. Sci. classroom for a course that he was not enrolled in. A test was about to be given. Handed an exam book, he sat down and took the test. Whereas most of the students earned a C+ in the essay part of the exam, Mr. Metzger received an A-. This caused a scandal, but Perry's objective in "Examsmanship" is to defend Metzger's grade.
     To do so, Perry makes a distinction between "cow" and "bull":

To cow (v. intrans.) or the act of cowing:
To list data (or perform operations) without awareness of, or comment upon, the contexts, frames of reference, or points of observation which determine the origin, nature, and meaning of the data (or procedures). To write on the assumption that "a fact is a fact." To present evidence of hard work as a substitute for understanding, without any intent to deceive.

To bull (v. intrans.) or the act of bulling:
To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of data if one had any. To present evidence of an understanding of form in the hope that the reader may be deceived into supposing a familiarity with content.

Perry defends Metzger's A- because it presents a rare example of "pure" bull. As he explains, "Bull in pure form is rare; there is usually some contamination by data. The community has reason to be grateful to Mr. Metzger for having created an instance of laboratory purity, free from any adulteration by matter." This, of course, totally confuses most of my students.
     Their problem is that most students read and write for "facts," rarely ever asking any questions. Perry gives two examples, but precisely because students rarely question a text in the first place, they have not learned how to think their way through an example to see what it means.
     Perry's first example is actually fairly simple. He explores the difference in stance between cows and bulls to the statement -- "Columbus discovered America in 1492." For a cow, that is a fact. Memorize it, and be ready to repeat it on an exam. Bulls, however, question everything, and they do so in terms of "frames of reference." Historical dates are a frame of reference, so Perry notes that
College raises other questions: by whose calendar is it proper to say that Columbus discovered America in 1492? How, when and by whom was the year 1 established in this calendar? What of other calendars? 
Even for many college students, however, this goes by too fast. They don't stop to think of their own examples. Thus in class we list other calendars -- the Chinese, the Mayan, etc.
      But who established the year 1 in our calendar? Again class discussion, for most of my students had never even thought of the question. The year 1 was established centuries after Christ's birth, based on the supposed date of his birth.  (See "Calendars," by L. E. Doggett.) Many historians now argue that Christ was born within three years before or after that date. The bull, in other words, wants to know if 1492 is some absolute value, or what?
     And, as Perry states,
In view of the evidence for Leif Ericson's previous visit (and the American Indians), what historical ethnocentrism is suggested by the use of the word "discover" in this sentence? As for Leif Ericson, in accord with what assumptions do you order the evidence?
This raises more questions from students than does the calendar question. So we discuss Perry's examples -- Is it true that Columbus discovered American for the American Indians? They all agree that he did not -- that does not make sense. Did Columbus discover American for Leif Ericson and the Scandinavians? Usually there are a few students in the class who have heard of Leif Ericson. They explain to their classmates that Columbus could not have "discovered" American for the Scandinavians.
     Part of the problem here is many college students have almost no knowledge of history or geography. So at this point in the discussion, some students want to know if it is not true that Columbus discovered America in 1492. In their internet world of instant world-wide communication, they have trouble conceiving of the idea that Scandinavia did not always share what it knew with the rest of the world. Given a little history lesson, however, they understand that Western and Southern Europe did not know about the existence of continents across the ocean, so it is true that for Spain, Portugal, England, etc., Columbus truly did discover American in 1492. Whether or not a fact is true (or relevant) depends on the frame of reference within which one looks at it.

     Whereas Perry's first example explores frames of reference as tools for questioning the truth of various facts, his second implies how such frames generate "understanding" (a favorite word of Howard Gardner) which leads to new knowledge. As noted above, Mr. Metzger got an A- on a test essay, and Perry defends the grade because Metzger wrote almost pure bull. Perry does not give a lot of details. (He was writing for the faculty at Harvard.) But he does give enough for a "bull" reader to see what he means. According to Perry,

The essay question had offered a choice of two books, Margaret Mead's And Keep Your Powder Dry or Geoffrey Gorer's The American People. Metzger reported that having read neither of them, he had chosen the second "because the title gave me some notion as to what the book might be about." On the test, two critical comments were offered on each book, one favorable, one unfavorable. The students were asked to "discuss." Metzger conceded that he had played safe in throwing his lot with the more laudatory of the two comments, "but I did not forget to be balanced."
Perry explains that Metzger started with the name "Geoffrey" and assumed as a result that Gorer was Anglo-Saxon, probably English. In other words, Metzger put the name into a frame of reference -- last names as indicators of ethnicity. (Perry does not spell this out using the phrase "frame of reference," but to make the connection clear, I will do so, perhaps more than I should.)
    Perry then states that "Having heard that Margaret Mead was a social anthropologist, [Metzger] inferred that Gorer was the same. . .  ." (Frame of reference = the course) Perry's next sentence is "He then entered upon his essay, centering his inquiry upon what he supposed might be the problems inherent in an anthropologist's observation of a culture which was his own, or nearly his own." Two "frames of reference" intertwine here. Perry explains this abstractly, but in class I lead the students through a more detailed process, hypothetically suggesting the kinds of things that Metzger might have written in his essay.
     The first frame is "anthropologist's observation of a culture." What, I ask the class, do social anthropologists study? It takes a while, but we end up with a list such as family relationships, economic and political systems, education, and religion. Having this list on the board, we turn to the second frame. Perry quotes what he remembered Metzger stating in his essay: 
these observations must be understood within the context of their generation by a person only partly freed from his embeddedness in the culture he is observing, and limited in his capacity to transcend those particular tendencies and biases which he has himself developed as a personality in his interaction with this culture since his birth. 
With the two frames, we are reading to start "bulling." It is all a matter of asking questions and positing hypothetical answers. (Remember -- pure bull has no "facts," but one cannot bull very well without some general facts.)
     What, for example, would a British sociologist say about the American political system? In general, she would probably be very sympathetic -- the two systems are very close. But what about elections? The British probably think that the American system of elections is a bit crazy. If the British don't like their elected leaders, they can call for new elections and replace the leaders with new ones. Once Americans elect someone, they are stuck with them for a set number of years. We are dealing here with frames within a frame, the larger frame being the question of the observer and the observed. A good bull here can also change the observer -- what would a sociologist in a Middle Eastern dictatorship (or monarchy) probably say about American elections? The odds are that he would be very critical. (And the Middle Eastern sociologist may be right -- as I write this we are experiencing the Middle Eastern "spring." Dictatorships are being overthrown, and elections are being held, but what will be the results of those elections?)
     Once a bull gets going within frames of reference, there is literally no end to the possible questions. A British sociologist would probably be fairly sympathetic toward the American attitude toward religion, but she might well wonder about how and why in America religious denominations break apart as often as they do. On the other hand, a Saudi sociologist would condemn both the British and the American belief in the separation of church and state.
     Economics? The Brit would wonder why "socialism" is a bad word in America, especially since most Americans do not know what it means. (Many Americans also do not know what "Capitalism" means, even though many of them claim to be willing to go to war to defend it.)
     I could go on with education, family relationships, etc., but I hope the point is made. A bull orders facts by placing them in frames, contexts, systems. Some of my students have claimed that these "frames" are totally subjective, but they are not. They are the frameworks, "tools" if you wish, that scholars in various disciplines use to make sense of the world. Without such frameworks, "knowledge" becomes a chaos of unorganized "facts," if one can even call them "facts." Note that although Perry defends Metzger's A-, he believes that "knowledge itself" is a "productive wedding" of "cow" and "bull." He focuses on "bull" because so many students do not understand it.

     In my course, I offer an additional example of frames of reference. I put the two marks "| |" on the board and ask students what number that is -- "really." The almost immediate response is usually "eleven." As I accept that and continue to wait, someone offers "two" -- if we consider it a Roman number. Nice, but I still wait. Occasionally, we have a math major in the class who offers "three" -- if we are working with binary numbers. The point is that what those two marks "really" mean depends on the frame of reference from which we are considering them -- conventional base ten, Roman numbers, or the binary base two.
     An understanding of and facility with "frames of reference" underlie all good thinking. I first became aware of the idea (but not the phrase) from an essay by the historian Edward Hallett Car titled "The Historian and his Facts." Car explains that into the eighteenth century, "history" was considered to be just the collection of facts. But as the world became smaller, as historians from different cultures began to read the histories from other cultures, they began to realize that the history books almost always have a "spin" (frame of reference). For example, a British history of the war between England and Spain, not only has a different frame of reference, but because of the difference in frame, it includes different facts.) 
     If you start looking for the concept, you will see it in many of the most famous thinkers and writers. For example, How to Read a Book, by Adler and Van Doren is loaded with "frames of reference" -- different kinds of questions that can be put to any text that one is reading.
     At a somewhat simpler level, frames of reference can help students improve their writing and reading. In writing, one's intended audience is a frame of reference, as are one's thesis statement and topic sentences. Writing assignments themselves are frames of reference. I'm not the only college instructor who has noted that students often don't read the assignments -- and thus do poorly. (Even a math instructor made the same complaint.) In reading and writing about literature, the various approaches (formal, psychological, social, moral, etc.) are all frames of reference, as are critical concepts (symbolism, point-of-view, plot, characterization, etc.) Many students who do poorly do not, for example, explore a story from the frame of symbols, characterization, etc. Instead they simply retell the "facts" of the story. (And often they are upset when they get an F.)
     Last but not least (since I am writing this for the KISS Grammar site), grammatical terms could and should be "frames of reference" for studying and understanding how sentences work. The problem, as I have regularly noted elsewhere, is that the writers of textbooks do not agree on the meanings of various terms. As a result, instruction rarely ever gets beyond meaningless instruction in definitions.

      Perry ends his essay beautifully, but again many students miss it. The Administrative Board of Harvard debated what should be done about Metzger, who "stood in danger of probation." But 

one member, of a refined legalistic sensibility, observed that the rule applied  specifically to "examinations" and that the occasion had been simply an hour-test. Mr. Metzger was merely "admonished."
Metzger, in other words, was saved by a clarification of frame of reference.