The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Marxist Theory   ~   Dialectics   ~   Alienation   ~   Class Consciousness
Ideology   ~   Class Struggle   ~   Communism   ~   Political Science (sic)
Socialist Pedagogy   ~   Radical Humor
Home Books Articles Interviews Letters
to the Editor
Class Struggle
Board Game

Printable version of this page

Search articles and book chapters

Latest book
Latest book -
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method

Reviews of Ollman's Books

Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives

Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech

Video: Marxism and Progress

Marxism (the cartoon version)

From Theory to Practice

Radical Jokes


Recommended Web Sites

NYU Course Bibliographies


ETF Site


Not To Dare
Butcher Shop




Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations

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

The one thing that everyone can buy enough of these days is lies. The air is full of them, since the going currency is gullibility, and we all have enough of that. Looking for a philosophy of education that will help you survive in this situation? Try these on for size:

"Doubt everything". (René Descartes, but also Karl Marx)

"Seek simplicity, but distrust it". (Alfred North Whitehead, English philosopher)

"Education is a crap detector". (Ernest Hemmingway) [It usually isn't, of course, but it should be]

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" (Mark Twain)
One study of people who did poorly on exams found that they shared the following characteristics: "l) they run through directions and sometimes skip them altogether; 2) resort to one-shot thinking; 3) put little faith in reasoning as a way of solving problems; 4) ... if they don't perceive an answer immediately, they feel lost; 5) operate on feelings and hunches; and 6) rarely go back and reread or clarify". If you recognize any of this in your own approach to exams, we have serious work to do. Hopefully, this book will provide an effective antidote to all this.

Astronomers reported a few years back that they had just discovered one of the largest concentration of galaxies and other matter ever found. It is being described as a "continent of galaxies". They are calling it the "Great Attractor", because it attracts matter very far from it. The mystery is why something so big and having such an important effect on our galaxy (and therefore on our solar system, and finally on our own planet) was not seen before. Astronomers generally focus on small segments of the sky, so when one astronomer was asked why no one had noticed the Great Attractor, his answer was that it is just because of its large size. "With this one, we could not see the forest for the trees... It was literally so big, covered so much of the sky that no one looked for it".

Capitalism is a similar kind of object. It exercises a strong effect on everything that goes on inside it, but like the Great Attractor, it's too big for most people to see. They are so busy focusing on the parts—inequality, biased government, power of money, feelings of alienation, etc.—that they never look to see what they are parts of. And our schools haven't offered much help. The article on the Great Attractor goes on to say that astronomers now realize that the size of objects that make up our universe is much larger than they had thought, and that our theories must be adjusted to take this into account. The same kind of readjustment is required as soon as we realize that the great variety of events and conditions that make up life in our society all reflect to one degree or another some truth about capitalist civilization.

But though some adjustment in our way of thinking is required, it is not always easy or comfortable to make. One astronomer is quoted as saying that the discovery of the Great Attractor is a "thorn in the side" of current theories, and that many of their defenders "were hoping it would go away". (New York Times, Jan. 2, l990) Defenders of mainstream theories that deal with existing social inequalities have adopted a similar stance toward the capitalist system in which these inequalities are found. But capitalism, like the Great Attractor, won't simply go away, so we need to adjust our thinking in order to better understand how this system effects our daily lives, our past and our possible futures. And for this, we need—for a starter—to bring capitalism into clearer view, as Marxism tries to do, and make it a major object of study.

Complaining about exams may be most students' first truly informed criticism of the society in which they live, informed because they are its victims and know from experience how exams work. Students know, for example, that exams don't only involve reading questions and writing answers. They also involve forced isolation from other students, prohibition on talking and walking around and going to the bathroom, writing a lot faster than usual, physical discomfort, worry, fear, anxiety (lots of that) and often guilt. From their experience, many students are also aware that most education has become preparation for exams, that exams do a poor job of testing what students actually know, and that the correction and grading process is highly subjective and done by professors with whom they've had only minimal contact.

What student hasn't griped about at least some of these things? But it is just here that their criticism runs into a brick wall, because most students don't know enough about society to understand the role that exams—especially taking so many exams—play in preparing them to take their place in it.

Have you noticed how our vocabulary for cow changes when it is meat at the butcher's? The parts have names—"steak", "cutlet", etc.—which keeps us from recognizing what they are parts of. This enables us to forget the cow and eat the meat. Something very similar happens with the vocabulary that is applied to the different parts of society. With the larger picture safely out of sight, the part can be treated in ways that would not be possible if people were fully aware of its place and role, and therefore too meaning and importance, in the whole. It is this which sets up the landlord, for example, to charge a rent for what he calls his "property", and to dismiss its function as a home, a necessary condition of life, for those who live in it; referring to human beings as "employees" makes it easier for capitalists to fire them, since the personal and family relations of these people are temporarily blocked out; while labeling people "consumers" allows many to dismiss their lives as workers along with their need to earn enough money to be good consumers.

Like Humpty Dumpty, capitalism has been broken into so many pieces that it is almost impossible to see what they are pieces of. It's like hearing only a few sentences or only one side in a telephone conversation. What sense can we make of what's being said? This practise finds an echo in the universities, where knowledge itself is divided up and apportioned to different and often competing disciplines, each with its distinctive vocabulary and own set of methods. The result is widespread confusion over the nature of the whole. Yet, without a fix on the whole—and this applies as much to capitalism as to cows—it is impossible to grasp the place and function, and with them the greater meaning and importance, of any of the parts.

In Multiple Choice Exams, note the different psychologies that underlie the answers, "All of the above" and "None of the above". I would expect the former to be favored by teachers who view the exam situation as but another chance to convey information on their subject. If I ever gave this kind of exam—which I don't—this would be the right answer more often than not. While "None of the above", since it usually follows choices that are almost right, strikes me as something that is more likely to be used by teachers who enjoy setting traps for students. So, if forced to guess, take a couple of seconds to decide which of these descriptions best fits your teacher.

The l9th century French socialist, Charles Fourier, detected something terribly perverse operating in our society "in which portions of the whole are in conflict and acting against the whole. We see each class", he said, "desire, from interest, the misfortunes of other classes, placing in every way individual interest in opposition to public good. The lawyer wishes litigations and suits, particularly among the rich; monopolists and forestallers want famine, to double or treble the price of grain; the architect, the carpenter, the mason want conflagrations that will burn down a hundred houses to give activity to their branch of business". He didn't mention undertakers, but you know what they want. In a system that gives each person a monetary interest in the misfortunes that befall others, many actually hope for such misfortunes, paying a price in guilt perhaps for what they can't help feeling. Is this a rational, ethical and psychologically healthy way in which to order our lives together? Or, you could write it off as just one of the many "paradoxes"—like earthquakes that bring prosperity—of which our society seems so blessed. A headline in the International Herald Tribune yesterday read—"Rise in Unemployment Delights the Market". (June 3, 2000)

In an Oral Exam, don't be afraid to say, "I don't know", even a few times. This is par for the course, and generally accepted as such. The danger is to let such an admission throw you into a panic and start a downward spiral. No one there expects you to be able to answer every question, even for a top grade. And don't apologize and offer excuses—sounds too defensive. (Same applies to written exams) Just say you don't know or can't remember. You can add a "But...", and try to introduce what you do know that is related to what is being asked, though this tactic seldom works.

l9,000 people are murdered in the United States every year, but 56,000 are killed at work, far more than in any other industrial country. Yet, the media is full of accounts of murders, but devotes very little space/time to work related deaths and injuries. Is it any wonder that the U.S. is the only developed country that does not publish mortality statistics by class?

The problem is not that American workplaces are inherently more dangerous than those in other countries. Rather, our laws protecting workers' health are much too weak; government inspectors, who are supposed to check on whether these laws are kept, are far too few (there are about ten times as many inspectors working for the Fish and Wildlife Service as there are for OSHA, the agency that investigates workplaces); and the penalties for employers who break the law are ridiculously small. When 500 coal companies were caught tampering with the tests used to determine the amount of coal dust in their mines (Black Lung Disease kills and disables thousands of miners every year), they were given a citation accompanied by a $l,000 fine for every violation. For the companies caught, fines averaged about $l0,000, which doesn't come close to the amount of profit each company made by breaking the law. Rather than receiving a fine, it sounds more like these companies were buying a license to kill and maim their workers in order to make a little more profit.

A colleague told me of an outstanding student who gave a picture perfect account of Rousseau's theory of the social contract on an exam that he gave. Except the question that he asked was—"What were Rousseau's other contributions to politics besides the theory of the social contract?". She got an "F". Many students treat the beginning of an exam like the beginning of a foot race, and are off and running/writing as soon as they hear the starter's gun. But being quick off the mark is no assurance that one is proceeding in the right direction. Without doubt, the most common error students make in exams is that they answer a question other than the one the teacher asked.

While one of the biggest dangers is straying from the point, it is sometimes possible to affect what that point is, which is to say that sometimes you can interpret the question in a way that allows you to give the strong answer that you've prepared beforehand. "If we take freedom to mean...". It's a trick that usually involves redefining a key word or two in a way that the teacher did not expect but is hard put to reject. You may well fall on your face, but if you succeed the rewards are great. Recommended for superior students only, and then only in courses given by open-minded teachers.

Capitalists don't only kill and maim their workers. They also kill and maim many of their customers, also unnecessarily, also in pursuit of higher profit. A New York Times headline (Nov. 7, l992) declaimed, "Data Shows General Motors Knew For Years Risk In Pickup Truck's Design". The toll here was over 300 deaths from l983, when the fault was first recognized, to l988, when—after many law suits and threats—G.M. agreed to correct it. Dow Corning knew for years that the silicon gel it implanted in the breasts of over one million women could be hazardous, but kept this information secret; Upjohn withheld equally disturbing data on it's sleeping pill, Halcion; Bolar, another pharmaceutical giant mislabeled and adulterated eight of its drugs. And we haven't even arrived at the tobacco, firearms and tire industries.

How far will capitalists go to maximize their profits? Well, it depends on how much profit there is to be made. As Marx already pointed out l50 years ago, "With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain l0% will ensure its employment anywhere; 20% certain will produce eagerness; 50% positive audacity; l00% will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300% and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both".

Question: "What is the difference between an apple and an elephant?". Answer: "I don't know". Punch line: "Well, I sure as hell won't send you to the store to buy apples". Yes, I know you've heard this joke before, but there is an important piece of exam wisdom to be extracted from it. By responding "I don't know", the person to whom the question is directed lays him/herself open to the insulting retort. But why does he answer in this way? Of course, he knows the difference between apples and elephants, but the question, he reasons, could not possibly be asking what it seems to. That would be too simple. It has to be a trick question. Some questions, in other words, are so easy that it's hard to believe they are not hiding something more complex and difficult.

A much less funny version of this joke is replayed time and again in Oral Exams, especially at the start. A sympathetic professor asks a ridiculously easy question, hoping in this way to relax the candidate. But the student can't believe that the question really means what it seems to. That would be too simple. There must be a trick. So the student sets out to look for it, falling all over himself and ruining his self-confidence in the process. Meanwhile, a couple of professors are thinking to themselves, "He doesn't even know THAT". All of this could easily be avoided if students just realized that the first questions in an Oral Exam are likely to be as simple as they sound. So always start with the obvious answer. If the professor wants to take you into deeper water, he/she will do so.

Who said the following: "Bolshevism is knocking at our gates. We can't afford to let it in. We have got to organize ourselves against it, and put our shoulders together and hold fast. We must keep the worker away from red literature and red ruses; we must see that his mind remains healthy"? It's the same person who said, "The American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it". Cat got your tongue? The great defender of capitalism turns out to be America's most famous gangster, Al Capone. (Liberty magazine, l929)
Do you think the ancient Greeks were trying to tell us something when they made Hermes the God of both businessmen and thieves?

Are you ready for Exams Corrected by Machines? Well, you will be in just a moment. For it seems that machine corrected exams are not just coming—they have already arrived. And I'm talking about essay exams no less. Already two essay questions on the Graduate Management Admissions Test taken by about 200,000 business school applicants have been corrected by a machine, and you can be sure this is just the beginning. So what is the machine, which is called the "E-rater", looking for? Obviously—and admittedly—not for creative thinking. A spokesman for the company administering the test speaks about "the organization of ideas and syntactical structure", which the Kaplan Educational Center (a major test preparation company) has already translated into—l) start with a clear outline (sign of an organized answer), 2) use a lot of transitional phrases like "therefore", "since", and "for example" (sign of a structured answer), and 3) don't hold back on the synonyms (sign of a strong vocabulary). (New York Times, Jan. 27, l999) Are you pleased that you are finally going to be graded "objectively" (sign that you may well deserve what you're about to get)?

"THE MONTHLY RENT" (l9th century poem)
By Bolton Hall
"God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb", said the deacon.

"I will shut the gate to the field, so as to keep him warm", said the philanthropist.

"The lambs we have always with us", said the wool broker.

"Lambs must be shorn", said the businessman. "Hand me the shears".

"We should leave him enough wool to make him a coat", said the profit sharer.

"His condition is improving", said the land owner, "for his fleece will be longer next year".

"We should prohibit cutting his flesh when we shear", said the legislator.

"But I intend", said the radical, "to stop this shearing".

The others united to throw him out. Then they divided the wool.

How do you think tigers are trained to jump through hoops at the circus? A little bit of whipping here, when they do it wrong, a little bit of raw steak there, when they do it right, and eventually they get it. Students too have to be trained to jump through hoops. It doesn't come natural or easy to them either.

Exams, lots of them, with curt, crisp orders that can't be questioned, and loaded down with threats of all sorts—an "F" and expulsion from school—that's the whip. A high grade and a good recommendation from the teacher—that's the raw steak. After a youth misspent playing such sadistic games, most students are ready to jump through any hoop held up by their future employer.

The French philosopher, Pascal, said if you make children get on their knees every day to pray, whatever they may start out thinking, they will end up believing in God. What applies to praying applies to taking exams. If you make students take so many exams, they will end up believing _________? You fill in the blank (my answer will come later). Just remember, we not only learn from what we read (books) and hear (lectures) but from what we do and what is done to us, from our experiences. Of these, our experiences are the most important, because they usually combine activity with perception and a stronger dose of emotions than accompanies just reading and listening on their own. Consequently, the form of education—in this case, frequent exams and our experience in taking them and studying for them—can be more influential on our thinking and feeling than the content of what is taught. What Marshal McLuhan said of T.V.—to wit, "The medium is the message"—also applies to exams. It is in this sense that exams, repeated exams, teach us far more than they test us.