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How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World - Chapter I < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World
Chapter I

There are four main kinds of examinations: factual (including true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, short answer), essay, oral, and practical (experiment and other controlled exercises). In what follows, you will find helpful hints for all of them as well as on how to study for an exam.

Actual radio transcript released by the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (Oct. l0, l995):

"Station One: Please divert your course l5 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.
Station Two: Recommend you divert your course l5 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Station One: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
Station Two: No, I say again, you divert your course.
Station One: This is the aircraft carrier Enterprise. We are a large warship of the U.S. Navy. Divert your course now.
Station Two: This is the Puget Sound Lighthouse. It's your call".

Well, is it the U.S.S. Enterprise that is heading for the rocks, or the "free" enterprise system of the U.S.? This book is intended to help you find out. And when you do, just remember, on this one, "It's YOUR call".

A friend once asked the American humorist, James Thurber, "How is your wife?". "As compared to what?", he replied. In Essay and Oral Exams, you will probably be asked to make judgments of various kinds. Most judgments of size, goodness, strength, beauty, etc. make use of a comparison, whether stated or implied. "As compared to what (or whom, or when)?", is a question you should often ask yourself. Making your object of comparison explicit and explaining why it is the relevant one in this case is a crucial though often neglected step in clarifying judgments and convincing others of them.

A young reporter asked a leading businessman how he made his first million. "It was really quite easy", answered the businessman. "I had five cents, and with it I bought an apple. I spend the evening polishing it, and the next day I sold it for ten cents. With that I bought two apples. I spent the evening polishing them, and the next day I sold them for twenty cents. With that I bought four apples. I spent the evening polishing them, and the next day I sold them for forty cents". And he continued in this way until he got to $l2.80, at which point he added—"And it was then that my wife's father died and left us a million dollars".

It was said of George Bush (senior) that he was born on third base and thought he'd hit a triple. Forget the computer nerds who made it big in Silicon Valley—they are the exceptions. George Bush is the rule.

True/False Exams: for those occasions where you don't have a clue as to the right answer, here are some statistics that may help in your guessing. A study by H.E. Hawkes, E.F. Lindquist, and C.R. Mann found that in statements containing the word "all", four out of five were false; in statements containing the word "none", four out of five were false; and in statements containing the word "always", three out of four were false. Whereas, in statements containing the word "some", four out of five were true; and in statements containing the word "generally", three out of four were true. They also found that the longer the statement, the more likely it is to be true.

Assuming that the readers of this book are typical of the mass of students in our capitalist world, there are some among you who in the years to come are going to commit suicide, or become drug addicts and alcoholics, or spend years as derelicts or in prison, and others, the luckier ones, will just lose your jobs and homes, or never get a good job or a decent home, and take your anger and frustration out in bouts of depression or in violence against your spouses and children. I'm going to tell you something that could save you from these horrible fates. Listen closely. YOU ARE NOT GUILTY. The conditions that are responsible for most of your suffering are not your fault; nor is it a matter of God's will, or of bad luck. Instead, most of what may one day drive you over the edge is due to this simple fact—The Game is Rigged! You never had a fair, let along equal, chance, and you won't. "Equality of Opportunity" is only a designer's label on the Emperor's new clothes. This is capitalism's dirty little secret. Once you know this secret and understand where and how it has been hidden, you can stop punishing yourself and your loved ones, and join in the struggle to change the rules of the game.

In Essay Exams, it is generally wise to tackle your second best question first. If you answer the question you know most about first, there is a danger that you will write too long and not leave enough time for other questions. Also, it takes a little while to warm up in an essay exam, and leaving the question you know most about for second increases the likelihood of doing your best on it. One of the worst answers I wrote on any exam was on the very question that I had been hoping would be there. I pounced on it immediately, but because I had so much to say it was very hard to finish. Then, noticing how little time I had left for the rest of the exam, I began to panic, and botched up the conclusion. I still have nightmares about this one.

After struggling and sacrificing through four or more years of university, you are ready to start a "career". Welcome to the world of part-time, temporary, "flexible", low paying, no benefit jobs, assuming you're lucky enough to find any job at all. It is estimated that over 30% of the work force is now part-time, but a majority of the new jobs created are now part-time and/or temporary. The owner of one agency that supplies temps and part-timers for businesses unashamedly admits we are creating a "new American sweat shop" made up of "disposable and throw-away workers". (New York Times, Mar. l3, l993) Is this what you've been preparing for?

In Bombay, India, recently, the city government decided to do a major clean up and advertised for seventy jobs as rat catcher. There were 40,000 applicants, of whom half were college graduates. Just another piece of Third World exotica? Or a chilling glimpse of what life in New York (and Toronto, and London) will be like five to ten years down the road?

In Oral Exams, most questions are composed on the spot, which means that they can be very vague and even contradictory. An otherwise brilliant professor with whom I often worked needed two or three verbal whacks at what he was thinking before anyone knew what he was talking about. Yet, again and again, students, who were too respectful of authority, assumed his first words had to make sense, and fell all over themselves trying to respond. The other professors present always felt very sorry for the poor student, whose self-confidence would begin to disintegrate right before our eyes, but there was nothing we could do. So, in an oral exam, don't assume that when a question is unusually difficult the fault is yours. Ask for a clarification. Be sure you know exactly what is being asked before you start to answer.


Courtesy of the London "Economist"
"Take the bosses of the world's l,000 largest companies, accounting for 4/5 of the world's industrial output, and 33 national leaders, including the president of the United States. Assemble them in a secluded Swiss ski resort, and then surround them with gun-toting police. Is it any wonder that the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week has become, to some, a sign that there is a global economic conspiracy perpetuated by the white men in dark suits who run the world's multi-national corporations? Many people—and not just the folk with ponytails and placards who disrupted last December's meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle—now think of multi-nationals as more powerful than national states, and see them as bent on destroying livelihoods, the environment, left-wing political opposition and anything else that stands in the way of their profits". ("Economist", Jan. 29, 2000)

The otherwise respectable "Economist" is quick to deny that this is true—chiefly by claiming that multi-nationals are a force for good—but the cat has been let out of the bag.

What's called "education" has taken many different forms over the centuries, just as its content has varied from A to Z, depending not only on what was known at the time but on the skills and personal qualities the rulers of each society wished to inculcate into their subjects. So in ancient Athens, for example, rhetoric occupied the central place on the curriculum. While teachers in Sparta were more likely to give practical instruction in swordsmanship and lectures on military valor. In medieval Europe, it was theology that received most of the attention. Yet, students everywhere probably believed that the kind of education they got is what "learning" is and has to be.

But once education is relativized in this way, two questions arise: l) why do those who have power in our modern capitalist society want you to learn what you do and in the way(s) you do it? Given our special concern in this book, this translates into—Why so many exams? And 2) starting from your own needs and interests, what would you like to learn and how would you like to learn it? Here are a couple of Life-Exam questions worth taking a few days/weeks/years to mull over. Helping you answer them would be my idea of a "good education".

Between l983-l997, the productivity of American workers went up l7%, while their share of the wealth they produced went down 3.l%. They made more, but got less. Have you ever wondered what is fueling the rapid rise of values in the stock market? According to the English newspaper, "The Observer", you need look no further: "The market is not rising on a bubble of fictions but on the rock-hard foundations of the spoils of class war". (Jan. 2, 2000) Of this new wealth, 85.5% has gone to the richest l% of the population (268 of whom are billionaires), because they own 88% of all U.S. stocks and bonds. It appears that the well publicized increase in the number of people who own a few shares, either directly or through their pension funds, has had very little effect on the distribution of wealth in the country.

The same thing is happening in other capitalist countries. In England, for example, the wealth of the richest 200 people has doubled in the last ten years. Moving to a still more select circle, according to a U.N. Report, the richest 200 people in the world have doubled their wealth in the last four years. We also learn here that if this super-rich donated only l% of their wealth, we could provide free primary education to every child in the world.

In Multiple Choice Exams, when forced to guess, you can usually pass up choices that are very much alike, since no teacher wants to face a dozen angry students who can't understand why the answer they gave is wrong if it sounds—to them, at least—just like the answer said to be the correct one. On the other hand, if two answers are exact opposites, it is generally an indication that one of them is right, since few teachers would bother to think up the opposite to a wrong answer that is also wrong.

Despite popular myth, the U.S. does not do anything like as well providing for its ordinary citizens as it does in creating billionaires. Though it still produces far more wealth than any other country, the U.S. has fallen out of the top twenty on the U.N.'s Quality of Life Index, which includes such things as literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, social services, and average income. A recent World Health Organization study (June, 2000) that graded countries on how well they met the health needs of their populations placed the United States 37th—yes, 37th!

There are,of course, many things where the U.S. is Number One in the world. Here's a short list: homicides (among young men, its twenty times higher than in Western Europe), military expenditures, drug consumption, prison population, financial bailouts for failing capitalists, and national debt. When was the last time you took an exam when one of these facts was the right answer? Yet, there can't be too many things that are more important for students to know, that is if we are to set our social house in order. You might want to keep track of how many of the facts and ideas in this book have ever found their way into your exams on any subject.

In Studying for an exam, you are a little in the position of the cook in a restaurant who is waiting to receive an order from a customer. You can't prepare the order ahead of time because you don't know what it will be (you don't know the exact questions that will be asked). So the best you can do is to stock up on the ingredients required by the dishes that are on the menu, taking special care not to run short of those that are used in several dishes. In essay and oral exams, no ingredient is likely to prove more important in developing good answers for a variety of questions than brief, sharp definitions of the key concepts in the field. Like the cook, you must make sure that there is enough of this particular ingredient on hand to meet all requests.

What the Minister Says What He Means
Not for him the easy way of retirement President of the company long after he became senile
Not everyone had the good fortune to be admitted to his company of friends... Everyone hated him
Never let family ties stand in the way of public duties Even his family hated him
...a man of strong loyalties Prejudiced
He retained the uncompromising blunt honesty of his Northern stock Racist
He gave special consideration to his women employees' needs Notorious for sexual harassment
...by no means oblivious to convivial aspects of life Drank like a fish
He possessed a fund of genial anecdotes Bored everybody with tired jokes
...devoted a long career to unostentatious service Even the management forgot he existed
He's not paying my salary anymore This is neither the time nor place to speak of his many accomplishments
Paul Buhl, with apologies to Max Shulman

Now you try it. Your newspapers and textbooks, and perhaps even your professor's lectures, are full of statements just begging for such deconstruction.

In True/False Exams, there are usually more true than false statements if only because it takes extra time and imagination to come up with statements that are both credible and false. Teachers are very rushed, and never more so than when making up and marking exams. Thus, they are prone to take short-cuts. Knowing what these are likely to be puts you one up on the odds.

Idealism, American style (now percolating out to the rest of the globe), is the belief that it is possible to go into a Chinese restaurant, order pizza, and actually get it. For most of our compatriots, it is only a matter of wanting it badly enough, believing you'll succeed, willing it—banging the table, if need be—and refusing to take "no" for an answer. Whatever we get (or don't get), it's all up to us as individuals. Isn't that what we're taught?

Save your breath. You can hang around a Chinese restaurant all week, and be as obnoxious as you like, but they still won't bring you a pizza. Why? Because pizza is not on the menu. Society, too, offers each of us a menu, and the choices we have in any area of life are restricted to what's on that menu. One can never choose what is not there to be chosen. Marxism, at its simplest, can be viewed as the "science of menus", analyzing the different menus available to different social classes (you didn't think they eat what you do?), how these menus get drawn up and how they change, and what we can do—but only together—if we don't like the "diet" to which we have been condemned. Pizza anyone?

If you were studying a military dictatorship, in Myanmar for example, and discovered that almost all of the members of the boards of trustees of their universities were generals, would you be justified in drawing certain conclusions about the nature of education in that country? You'd be dumb not to, right? Well, in the United States, it's businessmen, generally big businessmen and their lawyers, who dominate university boards of trustees. Are these the most learned people in our society? The most public spirited? Because, in most cases, they aren't even paid for their services. Well, what are they doing there? What's in it for them, and how does that affect your education, even your exams? Perhaps there are students in Myanmar who have never asked themselves this kind of question, but somehow I doubt it.

The Hollywood producer, Samuel Goldwyn, said, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made". One of the actors who worked for him learned this lesson so well that he went on to become President of the United States.

"Have we gone beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty?" (C.I.A. in a memo made available in General Westmoreland's libel suit relating to the Viet Nam War)

Henry Luce, founder of "Time" magazine, ordered his "The March of Time" newsreel company to use "fakery in allegiance to the truth whenever necessary".

"Bull permeates everything". (Lee Atwater, former GOP Chairman) He would know.


Hold everything. Before you go any further, I have a little test for you. It's a game I call "Mind Gulag", and it's meant to determine how much of your mind is already under enemy occupation. Prizes will be awarded at the end.

Answer True or False to the Following:
  1. Human beings are basically greedy and selfish.

  2. The rich deserve what they have, because they earned it.

  3. The poor also deserve what they have, because they haven't tried hard enough to improve their lot.

  4. There have always been rich and poor, and there always will be.

  5. For democracy to exist, it is enough that two parties contest in elections, and that people are not coerced to vote for either one of them.

  6. We are free as long as the state does not restrain us from doing what we want to do.

  7. The American Government has been a major force promoting freedom and democracy around the world.

  8. Most Americans are middle class.

  9. Most workers are satisfied with their conditions and would never go on strike if not stirred up by outside agitators.

  10. Socialism is what they had in the Soviet Union.

Now give yourself ten points for every time you answered "True". Add up the total. Here are your prizes. Those who scored 0-30 win an Albert Einstein Medal for Critical thinking. If you have a score of 40-70, you receive a Tiresias Pin (with points on both ends) indicating you can go either way. While those who racked up a count of 80-l00 win a Ronald Reagan Gulag of the Mind Banner, which doubles as a blindfold, painted in red, white and blue. All prizes will be given out along with your college degree when you graduate. After all, who has done more to help you win your prize than your teachers?

P.S. There is also a little test waiting for you at the end of this book (no peeking). I'll take full responsibility for how well/badly you do on that one.

Everyone understands that in tough neighborhoods one has to become street-wise in order to survive. The university environment contains its own set of dangers. To help you overcome the worst of them I am trying to make you exam-wise, which is but the version of street-wise adapted to the perilous institution in which you are persuing your degree. The traps may differ from one sector of life to the next, but the need for a cool appraisal of the dangers, knowing how those in charge think, sensing the options, and, above all, good timing never does, not if you want to survive.

In letting you in on the secret of exams, I have also tried to make you street-wise about our system as a whole, because it isn't smart to put all your efforts into gaining access to a building that is even now falling down about your ears. The trick is to balance what you have to do well now, inside the parameters in which you find yourself, with a struggle to expand these parameters to take in all your human needs. There is no need to settle for mediocrity either inside or outside the class room. Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a fashionable Bible among college youth a generation ago, How to Take an Exam... and Remake the World offers tips for all of life, except the underlying theme of my book is RESIGNATION SUCKS. So get hip, get smart, get street-smart, watch out for open manhole covers, and let's get down to cases.