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


Do You Keep Falling Asleep in Classes? Here is a Way to Change All That

How to play: Check off each block when you hear the word during a class. When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically or diagonally, stand up and shout BULLSHIT!

ParadoxCompassionate ConservativeDownsizingDepartment of DefenseThere Is No Alternative (T.I.N.A.)
Democratic CapitalismOut of the LoopEquality of OpportunityDidn't InhaleIt's Only Human Nature

Reverse DiscriminationFree TradeCorporate ResponsibilityNational InterestAll Things Being Equal...

Flexible WorkWin-WinConsumer SovereigntyMiddle ClassEnvironmental Protection Agency

Testimonials from satisfied players:
"What a gas. School will never be the same for me after my first win". David D., Florida

"The atmosphere was tense in the last political science class as fourteen of us waited for the fifth box". Catherine L., Atlanta

"The professor was stunned as eight of us screamed 'BULLSHIT' for the third time in two hours". Jack W., Boston

With thanks to Kampferer

In Essay and Oral Exams, radical students face a unique problem. It is not only that most teachers will disagree with the content of your answers, but they will have a lot of difficulty understanding what you have to say. The problem lies chiefly in the assumptions made and the language used by radicals (or, conversely, by your non-radical teacher, but then it's you taking the exam). The stopgap solution is to make as few assumptions as possible and to avoid using distinctively radical language unless absolutely necessary, and only then after carefully defining the term(s). It is simply that an exam is not the ideal occasion for laying out one's world view. If one follows some of the suggestions made in this book, however, it should be possible for radical students to do well on most exams while remaining true to their convictions. Admittedly, my experience at N.Y.U., which is smack in the middle of America's most cosmopolitan city, may have made me more optimistic in this regard than I would be if I were teaching elsewhere.

The recent earthquake in Los Angeles has proven a boon to that city's economy. How can that be? Didn't the quake destroy billions of dollars in property and disrupt thousands of busnesses as well as kill and maim hundreds of people? Of course it did, but it also led to public and private investment of over $l5 billion for rebuilding what was destroyed, and that provided jobs and incomes for many people who had neither before. Welcome to one of the miracles of capitalism: destruction pays.

Wars used to provide the boost our economy needs, but, given the current size of the economy, little wars are too small, and, with the weapons available, really big ones like World War II might prove too much for the planet. Earthquakes, on the other hand, seem to be just about right in their degree of destructiveness. Now if we could only arrange to spread them out more equitably over the whole country. It's just not fair for California to get all the big ones. Alternatively, we could look for another way to unlock the stored wealth of our society. Unless, of course, you think there is something natural, or rational, or ethical to wait for more and bigger earthquakes to help solve the country's social problems.

In All Exams, the Golden Rule is to write as clearly as possible. With a large pile of exams to correct, nothing is more annoying than having to read the paper of someone who takes him/herself for a M.D. writing prescriptions. There is also the connection many teachers make between sloppy writing and sloppy thinking. The cost to the student is almost always a lower grade. On the other hand, in high school, I had a friend who would write indecipherably whenever he didn't know the answer. Since the teacher couldn't understand what he was saying, he figured he had a 50/50 chance of getting a better grade than he would have otherwise. I don't think the odds are that high, but it seems to have worked for my friend, who is now writing undecipherable prescriptions as a real doctor.

The popular media are full of stories about capitalists, but you'll notice that the term "capitalist" is hardly ever used. Instead, the owners of industry are referred to as "entrepreneurs", "businessmen", "industrialists" (or "industry") and "employers" (never "unemployers", though they also unemploy workers). In Holland, the same people are called "work givers" and "social partners". All these names hide the real basis of the capitalists' power, which is ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the purpose for which they are used, which is making a profit, in sum all that makes capitalists different from other ruling classes in earlier periods of history.

Apparently, the term "capitalist", with its focus on owning, a passive state, and on maximizing profits, with all its anti-social implications, cuts too close to the bone for comfort. So a perfectly good technical term is left to radicals (simply uttering the term "capitalist" is enough to have oneself labelled a radical in some circles) and, interestingly enough, to capitalists themselves when talking to each other. The business press, for example, is full of references to "capitalist". The capitalists, it appears, are not afraid of calling a spade a spade in private, but they would just as soon have the rest of us think of them as people who do something a bit more useful.

In Essay Exams, given the limited amount of time, it is very helpful if you can suggest that you know more than you're able to say. While name dropping may be socially unacceptable, it does have a place in exams, and the same holds for books and even lines of argument that you don't have time to pursue. My colleague Mark Roelofs has just reminded me of the Tom Lehrer song that says if stealing from one book is called plagiarism, stealing from twelve is considered research. But be careful not to over-do it. Don't allow these "asides" to become the main body of your answer. If an oral exam follows the written one, there is a good chance that you will be asked to comment on some of the people and books that you mentioned, so only bring them in if you really know them.

But aren't we all "middle class"? The idea of the middle class is so much sand thrown in our eyes to keep us from seeing the most important division in society, which is between the capitalists (those who own the means of production, distribution and exchange—and who make up the bulk of the very rich, along with the occasional sports hero and movie star) and the workers (those who work for them). They can't be more than a couple of percent of the population. To disguise the obscenity of so few people having so much wealth and power, and also their vulnerability in a society where all their workers have the vote, it is they who have manufactured the myth of a largely middle class America, in which life styles and attitudes become the main factors determining social class. As part of this, the capitalists also want desparately that workers who wear white collars to work think of themselves as "employees", "technicians", "assistants", "staff", "junior executives", indeed anything but workers.

Yet, if workers are people who are hired and fired by others, who also set their tasks, wages/salaries and work conditions, then there are more workers today than ever before. Whereas self-employed professionals and entrepreneurs made up 40% of the economically active population in the U.S. a century ago, they account for less than l0% today. Most of those engaged in similar activities are now employed by others, which makes them part of the working class, broadly construed, whether they know it or not. The fact that the number of workers in industry in the U.S. is at an all time low of 23.8% of the labor force has been used to mask the great increase in the number of wage and salary workers of all kinds. As of l999, they account for 89.6% of the active labor force, which puts us in the lead among advanced capitalist countries, all of which have experienced the same decline in the number of industrial workers and a growth in the working class overall.

After graduation, the great majority of students will find themselves in this working class, if they are not there already in virtue of their summer or part-time job, or as members of families whose breadwinners are workers. Therefore, it is in your interests—your class interests—that you recognize that the often repeated claim that the working class in America is in the process of disappearing is a myth promoted by those who can't afford—that is, politically can't afford—having a growing number of people think of themselves as workers.

How subjective is the grading process? In l9l2, Daniel Stark and Edward Elliot sent two English essays to 200 high school teachers for grading. They got back l42 grades. For one paper, the grades ranged from 50 to 99; for the other, the grades went from 64 to 99. But English is not an "objective" subject, you say. Well, they then did the same thing for an essay answer in mathematics and got back grades ranging from 28 to 95. Though most of the grades they received in both cases fell into the middle ground, it was evident that a good part of any grade was the result of who marked the exam and not of who took it.

Perhaps even more problematic, other studies have shown that the same teacher tends to grade differently depending on how he/she is feeling, the time of the day, how good or bad was the paper just before yours (following a really excellent paper generally results in a lower grade than you would have received otherwise), and whether yours is the first or last paper to be corrected. With so much of one's grade dependent on the whims, moods and fancies, both conscious and unconscious—to which one must then add biases—of your teacher, it may seem that exam strategies have little to do with the outcome. On the contrary, it is just because of the high subjective content in the grading process that the way in which you present your answer can have such an impact. It is widely understood that when looking for certain jobs, it is necessary to wear the "right" kind of clothers. Looking for a good grade on exams often demands as much.

No one should conclude from the above that the short answer test is necessarily more objective that the essay exam. This may apply to the correction process, but the biases of your teacher have already found their way into the exam through the very choice of questions, their phrasing, and—where it applies—in the number and kind of possible answers offered. By choosing a short answer exam over an essay exam, the teacher has also revealed his/her bias in favor of uniformity and against creativity and variety. In sum, once you take up your pen, there is no way to escape the world constructed by your examiners, but there are ways to maximize your chances of being a winner in that world.


This notice was found in the ruins of a London office building. It was dated l852:

  1. This firm has reduced the hours of work, and the clerical staff will only have to be present between the hours of 6:00 A.M. and 7:00 P.M. weekdays.
  2. Clothing must be of a sober nature. The clerical staff will not disport themselves in raiment of bright colors, nor will they wear hose unless in good repair.
  3. Overshoes and topcoats may not be worn in the office, but neck scarves and headwear may be worn in inclement weather.
  4. A stove is provided for the benefit of the clerical staff. Coal and wood must be kept in the locker. It is recommended that each member of the clerical staff bring four pounds of coal each day during the cold weather.
  5. No member of the clerical staff may leave the room without permission from the supervisor.
  6. No talking is allowed during business hours.
  7. The craving for tobacco, wine or spirits is a human weakness, and as such is forbidden to all members of the clerical staff.
  8. Now that the hours of business have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between ll:30 A.M. and noon, but work will not on any account cease!
  9. Members of the clerical staff will provide their own pens. A new sharpener is available on application to the supervisor.
  10. The supervisor will nominate a senior clerk to be responsible for the cleanliness of the main office and the supervisor's private office. All boys and juniors will report to him 40 minutes before prayers and will remain after closing hours for similar work. Brushes, broom, scrubbers and soap are provided by the owners.
  11. The owners recognize the wisdom of the new labor laws, but will expect a great rise in output to compensate for these near Utopian conditions.
The first thing that strikes us on reading this office memo from l852 is how much capitalism has changed. The second thing that strikes us on reading this memo is just how little has changed. Check your own experience for both. We will return to this crucial question later in the book.

In Multiple Choice Exams, such loaded expressions as "stupid", "nonsensical", "ugly", etc. are unlikely to be part of the right answer. Technical terms that the teacher never used in class are also generally a good indication to avoid choosing sentences in which they appear. Similarly, funny answers are unlikely to be the right ones. Teachers often waste alternative answers to display their sense of humor. For teachers, it can be a way to retain their sanity while making up exams, and, perhaps, unconsciously, a reach for solidarity with the suffering student.

On Sept. 29, l991, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran twenty four pages of ads for expensive fur coats. It was that moment in the year to let those who could afford them know where they could be found—mink, chichilla, sable, fox. "Quintessentially chic, undeniably fabulous... If a woman wants a fur, it's her right... all the luxury you've longed for". Without any transition, or sense of shame, the very next article in the magazine presented a six page spread on poverty in New York, in which photos taken one hundred years ago were compared with those taken today. The conclusion of the article was that along with new complications added by guns, drugs and race, poverty today is both "deeper and more ubiquitous" than the poverty of an earlier time. For example, half of the children born that year [and this year too] will find themselves on welfare at one time or another before they turn eighteen.

In Essay Exams, when you make an important generalization, it is good form to accompany it with at least one exception (assuming there are some). This is usually taken as a sign that you know the subject very well. If you can then explain—briefly—how that exception came about, that's a slam dunk answer.

"Tonto, Tonto, we're surrounded by Indians". Do you remember this one? And Tonto's response—"Who's 'we', Lone Ranger?". I'm reminded of this exchange every time someone trots out an increase in the Gross National Product (G.N.P.) as evidence that life is getting better for everyone. However, the figures given for the G.N.P. just tells us how much wealth has been produced, not what it is made of (much of it is junk or worse—armaments, prisons, advertising) and not who gets it. It is also estimated that 45% of our G.N.P. goes to "transaction costs"—banking, insurance, wholesale and retail trade, and accountants. This is much more than for any other country, and a huge 20% increase over what such groups took from the national pie one hundred years ago.

An increase in the G.N.P., which is the economic accomplishment that the Government boasts about more than any other, is perfectly compatible with large numbers of people and even a majority getting less than they did before. Faced with just that situation in Mexico and the public cynicism that it bred, an economic advisor to the President of Mexico was forced to admit, "Our challenge is to convince the people that the economy is as good as the numbers say". But people's lives tell them otherwise.

The next time one of our leaders (sic) or his economist sidekick uses the latest G.N.P. figures to convince you how well the country is doing, you can answer—"Who's 'we', Lone Ranger?". Our rallying cry—"Take 'Con' Out of 'Economics'".

In Essay and Oral Exams, be careful not to begin more than a couple of answers with the same words. There are formulae that are useful in helping us to learn, but don't give your teacher the impression that without a particular word order you would be lost. Anything that makes you sound like a programmed android is to be avoided, since the best grades are reserved for humans.

Official unemployment statistics, as bad as they are—hovering around 5% in the U.S.—regularly understate the truth, because they don't count various categories of people who would like to have a regular full time job. They don't include part-time or temporary workers (working an hour a week or having a contract for a week's work are considered being employed); they don't include people who are so discouraged that they have given up looking for a job, or people, especially among the young, who are so pessimistic that they haven't started looking for one yet; they don't include people on training courses that go nowhere or pedlars, consultants, apprentices, independent contractors, and failing farmers and small business-people who would like to have the security of a full time job; they don't include many housewives and househusbands and people with various handicaps who would like jobs if provisions were made to deal with their special concerns; they don't include the early retired, soldiers, prisoners, bums and some students who would prefer a full time job to what they're doing.

So how many people are unemployed? Obviously many times the number that we're given. We get some idea of what the number might be whenever there is a war with its open-ended call for more workers, at which point millions of people turn up for work who were never counted among the unemployed. They were always unemployed and after the war will be again, even though, once again, the official statistics will appear to deny it. For the Government, it is simply politically inadvisable—dangerous?—to admit that our system functions with so much waste, wasted labor, wasted wealth that such labor could create, and wasted lives of the people who are forced to go without both. Life Exam Question: if capitalism is so efficient, then why is it so wasteful?

A similar misuse of statistics occurs in counting the number of poor people in America. The deceptive techniques include setting the poverty line at a ridiculously low level ($l7,050 for a family of four, which gives us only 35 million poor, including one out of every five children in the country—a more realistic figure of $25,000 would double the number of poor and, of course, the number of poor children); not taking adequate account of inflation, particularly as it effects basic necessities (which means that whatever money poor people have buys them less than it once did); and discounting the steady erosion of social services (which deprives many poor people of the medical, housing, educational, counselling, legal and child care benefits that may have eased their plight just a few years earlier). And should you believe that poverty is a condition reserved for those who don't have jobs, you should know that of the approximately two million people who experience homelessness in the U.S. every year, that is among the desparately poor, 25-40% are employed but don't earn enough to afford a home. Life Exam Question: who benefits from grossly underestimating the number of poor people in America?

When your head is in the freezer and your feet are on the stove, the "average" is what tells you that the temperature of your stomach is just right. Got it? It was probably someone with a frozen head or burned feet who, based on his experience, first declared that there are three kinds of lies: simple lies, damned lies and statistics. Statistics are the worse lies, because they seem so, well, objective. Yet, it is relatively easy to use statistics (and charts and graphs) to derive grossly distorted conclusions from basically accurate data. It all depends on what aspect of the situation one chooses to focus on, all that one takes as given ("All things being equal..."), how one determines averages, the definitions one accepts for key terms, what one presents as the base year (the time at which the process under examination is said to begin), how the figures are gathered, what are treated as relevant comparisons, and there are still other considerations.

Teachers are often less aware of the resulting limitations on what is claimed than they should be. Of this, too, you should be aware. In commenting on statistics used in an exam question, or quoting your own statistics in an answer, you should try to add at least something about its bias and one-sidedness as well as what it does not reveal (perhaps cannot reveal).

"When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist". Brazilian Bishop, Dom Helder Camara.
Jesus condemned the rich just for being rich when there was so much poverty around, and said, "It is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle". The early Church fathers frequently attacked the rich and their claims to be the legitimate owners of what they possessed. According to Saint Basil, "The rich are like people who occupy a place in a theater and don't allow others to enter, treating as their own what was designed to be used by everybody. Because they are now in possession of what are common goods, they take these goods as their own".

Saint Jerome claimed, "The common opinion seems to be very true: the rich man is unjust, or the heir of an unjust one. Opulence is always the result of theft, if not committed by the actual possessor, then by his predecessor". Saint Augustine, himself, pointed out, "The superfluidities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. Those who possess superfluidities, therefore, posses the goods of others".

Except for the Liberation Theology Movement within the Catholic Church (no thanks to this Pope) and a smaller fringe among Protestants (most of them Black, like Martin Luther King), most Christians today are unaware of these teachings. Otherwise, it is hard to see how they could accept the capitalist order and still consider themselves Christians.

Was Martin Luther King being Christian, or socialist, or just logical and common-sensical (or all of the above) when he said, "Why are there forty million poor people in America? When you begin to ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy... one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring"? I hate to agree with J. Edgar Hoover, the long-time head of the F.B.I., on anything, but he may have been right in considering King the most dangerous "communist" in America.

And just in case you think such sentiments are limited to Christianity, here is the Dalai Lama: "Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with only gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes—that is the majority—as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need; and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For these reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair... The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me, not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I think of myself as half-Marxist and half-Buddhist".

In Oral Exams, professors know that students are nervous, and that this often leads to a proliferation of whatever verbal ticks the examinee already has, such as "you know", "like, I mean", "okay", "right", etc. While professors generally try not be affected by the constant repetition of these meaningless expressions, you should know that students who talk like this sound a lot less smart than they really are. So if you have one of these speech impediments (what else is it?), try to get rid of it—before the oral. At the exam, it helps to take a moment before answering any question—don't be afraid of the silence—since these expressions are often used to fill up time while one tries to think of something to say. It's rapid talkers who suffer most from this problem, so slowing down your delivery may also help.

Letter to the New York Times—unpublished
To the Editor:

What a wonderful idea to have sports franchises owned by the communities in which they are located (Op-Ed, Oct. l, l986). Green Bay (football) and Toledo (baseball) have already shown us it can be done. But if a baseball team is too important for the well being of a community to be left to the money making interests of present owners, what of other economic enterprises? Surely, people suffer more when their factory moves to another, often foreign, city than when their baseball team does. Unfortunately, not all arguments for socialism are as obvious and convincing as this one or we would have had community own factories—and baseball teams—a long time ago.


Prof. Bertell Ollman

Dept. of Politics, N.Y.U.
For Short Answer Exams, you are usually expected to give the exact name/word/or phrase, but if you can't remember it, put down the general idea in your own words. Teachers will often give at least partial credit for this.

Who said the following: "The bourgeoisie... has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades". Surprisingly, it's Karl Marx. No one surpasses Marx in his admiration for all the positive achievements of capitalism. Constantly reinvesting its surplus to produce still larger surpluses (unlike earlier civiliations where the ruling class consumed most of the surplus product), capitalism has created unheard of riches, with levels of science and technology to match. It has also helped to spread the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy across the globe, and, as compared to feudalism, made substantial progress in embodying one or another version of these ideas in its institutions. For all this, and more, capitalism deservs enormous credit.

Yet, four questions cry out for answers: l) What is the price in human suffering and in material destruction, including the despoilation of nature, that humanity has paid (and continues to pay) for these achievements? 2) Which groups—nations, races, genders and classes—have been forced to pay most of this price? 3) In resolving certain problems set by feudalism (like the need to industrialize) has capitalism created new problems (like growing inequality, industry produced unemployment, economic exploitation, social alienation, urban degradation, ecological devastation, etc.) for which it has no solutions? and 4) Can we do better, that is with the help of all the industry, wealth, skills and knowledge that capitalism itself has provided, can we organize society in a more rational manner in order to solve these very problems?

There is no contradiction, in other words, in believing, as Marx does, that capitalism helped humanity solve earlier problems, but that the problems which have arisen or gotten worse as a necessary part of its own development require another kind of solution.

The same two-sided approach can be applied to exams. Compared to feudalism, where all the prized posts in society were distributed on the basis of "blood", the introductions of exams, which accompanied the rise of capitalism, marked a significant improvement. Where there was no equality of opportunity before, now there was some. The questions that remain to be answered, however, are:

  1. How does the current system of exams reflect the power relations in capitalist society, where inequality and not equality is the rule?
  2. What is the real contribution of exams, especially so many exams, to education?
  3. Are exams mainly a way of choosing society's winners, or of preparing its far more numerous losers to accept uncomplainingly the harsh fate that awaits them? And,
  4. Can we do better, in other words—what would education without exams look like, and what other changes would have to occur to make such a reform possible?
Before trying to answer all these questions about exams and capitalism, take a moment to reflect on the words of that genuine American hero, Tom Paine:
"Let them call me a rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I shall suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul."