In his philosophical work “On Bullshit,” Harry Frankfurt famously defined the term “bullshit” as, roughly, an indifference to the truth. He also elaborated on an important difference between lying and bullshitting. Liars attempt to deceive you by representing as false what they believe to be true, or as true what they believe to be false. Hence, they have to, in a sense, care about the truth. For instance, if a liar lies to you about when Hitler was born and tells you that he was born on Christmas, the liar has to first care about the truth of the belief that Hitler was not born on Christmas. Bullshitters, on the other hand, do not care about the truth. For example, a bullshitting student who has to turn in a preposterously long paper on World War II probably does not care at all about when Hitler was born–that student only pretends to care in the hopes of receiving a high score. On Frankfurt’s view, that bullshitting entails not caring about the truth makes bullshitters more morally blameworthy than liars, who, though still morally compromised, at least care about the truth.
Besides Frankfurt, other scholars have attempted to define bullshit or clarify the moral implications of the phenomenon, most notably in the compendium Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time. There, G.A. Cohen defines bullshit as what is more or less equivalent to “nonsense.” More specifically, he argues that sufficient conditions of bullshit include “unclarifiable unclarity,” “arguments that are grossly deficient in logic or sensitivity to empirical evidence,” and “irretrievably speculative nonsense.”
However, neither Frankfurt’s nor Cohen’s definition fully captures a common and annoying species of bullshit we’ve all had to suffer: the bullshit assignment. I do not mean that the assignment is one on which the student bullshits (recall the bullshitting student writing the WWII paper); I mean that the assignment itself is bullshit. There are four kinds of bullshit assignments that I have identified. Those assignments might:
(1) imply blind obedience to the authority figure in his or her attempt to be flattered
(2) be given by an authority figure who has preconceived notions of how the assignment ought to be done, and the authority figure is not amenable to assignments that violate his preconceived notions, however reasonable the student’s work may be.
(3) not require the student to bullshit, but encourage bullshitting.
(4) serve no purpose other than to waste your time
I’ll give examples of each of the aforementioned bullshit assignments. Note that some of the examples may fall into more than one category.
Bullshit Assignment Type 1: Implying blind obedience to the authority figure in his or her attempt to be flattered
These assignments can be found almost anywhere–from grade school to undergraduate (or graduate) work to college applications as well as non-academic workplaces. For our purposes, I’ll be focusing on academic examples.
Example 1: Write an essay entitled “My Teacher.”
Usually, this kind of assignment implies that you should kiss ass. The teacher who tells you to write about “My Teacher” probably does not want you to write a paper about how unknowledgeable, inarticulate, homophobic, or boring he is, even if he is in fact unknowledgeable, inarticulate, homophobic, boring, or just downright incompetent.
Example 2: As a high school senior, you know this school better than your underclassmen. Write a letter to eleventh graders (soon-to-be twelfth graders), telling them what you think they should know about our school and about life as a senior.
I was given this very assignment in my senior year. I was also the only person who wrote about how much the academics of the school sucks and didn’t kiss ass, and the only person who received a C-. From what I remember, I gave good reasons to support my opinion and used proper grammar. Everyone else received an A regardless of how poorly argued, ungrammatical, or disorganized their letter was.
Example 3: Explain why you would like to attend our university.
This is one of the most common college application essay prompts and also one of the most salient forms of academic bullshit. I mean, c’mon. Those kids haven’t even started their college career and you’re already begging them to bullshit? Unless you’re begging to be rejected, you’ll never write, “Well, although I consider your esteemed institution to be one of my safety schools, I still believe that…” or “I heard that the girls at your school are hot, and probably just dumb enough to sleep with me.”
Bullshit Assignment Type 2: Given by an authority figure who has preconceived notions of how the assignment ought to be done, and the authority figure is not amenable to assignments that violate his preconceived notions, however reasonable the student’s work may be
Example 4: Write a biography about a well-known Hispanic person.
I was given this assignment in middle school, and I wrote about the well-known Hispanic Richard Ramirez. If you don’t know who he was, look him up. He’s very well-known, you know? I received a B+. The only comment the teacher gave was something along the lines of “Your decision to write about a serial killer is questionable.” For fuck’s sake! He’s well-known! And Hispanic!
Example 5: Find ten book titles and identify the part of speech of each word in the titles. Capitalize the words using MLA.
This assignment was given in the graduate school I’m currently enrolled in, in a class whose sole purpose is to teach you how to cite your sources (I know, I know…). I picked ten books and cited them properly using MLA, with all the right words capitalized. Results? A failing grade and a request to redo the assignment. Why? Because she wanted just the book titles.
Bullshit Assignment Type 3: Encouraging, but not necessarily requiring, bullshit
Example 6: Timed essays on standardized tests.
Timed essays on standardized tests such as TOEFL and GRE are not bullshit because they require you to bullshit; they are bullshit because they encourage you to bullshit. Say that you receive the following TOEFL prompt: “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Overall, the widespread use of the internet has a mostly positive effect on life in today’s world.” Not sure what to write? Well, fuck your actual beliefs and write the first thing that comes to mind. You wanna say that the internet has a mostly positive effect on life in today’s world? Sure. Just write some bullshit about how social media, video chat, and porn are awesome. (Okay, maybe not the porn part.) You wanna say that the internet has a mostly negative effect on life in today’s world? Sure. Write about how social media turns people into narcissists and increases cyberbullying and teenage suicide rates, how the dark web facilitates gunrunning, assassinations, and child pornography, and how WordPress sucks because you get no more than two “likes” per post and how that in turn makes you depressed. Either way, how the fuck am I supposed to not bullshit on a topic as complicated as the internet’s overall effect on society if I’m given 30 minutes to write?
Example 7: Essays with unnecessarily large minimum word counts.
Guess what most middle school kids will do when you tell them to write 1,500-word essays in two days? That’s right. They’ll bullshit. Guess what they’ll do if they’re non-native English speakers and asked to write 1,500-word English essays in two days? Yes. You’ll be swimming in a sea of brown in no time. Why any teacher would want to read that much bullshit is unfathomable to me, but I digress…
Example 8: Make a speech of at least five minutes on a wordless comic strip.
As an ESL student, how much bullshit would you have to produce if you were asked to do a five-minute speech on a wordless comic strip?
Example 9: Write an essay in which you can “find yourself.” Get your creative juices flowing!
I’ll tell you where people find themselves–smoking weed in some coffee shop in Amsterdam. Or they find themselves jerking off and producing creative juices.
Bullshit Assignment Type 4: Serving no obvious purpose other than to waste your time
Example 10: Create a logo that represents what it means to be a caring person. Explain what it means to be caring.
I know what it means to be caring. I care about old ladies who need help carrying their groceries. I care about my family. I care about the environment. I care about human trafficking. What else is there to say? And to encapsulate it all in a logo? Okay. Here you go: