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

A joke goes around about a girl who asks her father, "Why is it so cold in the house?". "We don't have any coal", he says. "But why is there no coal?" she was to know. "Because I lost my job in the coal mine", he replies. Still unsatisfied, she asks one more time, "And why did you lose your job?" To which he answers, "Because there is too much coal". Except it's no joke. That's exactly why her father and maybe yours as well lost their jobs in the mines and in the factories and on the farms and in the offices. There is "too much". But "too much" for whom? Surely not for all the people who still need these products and services, often to the point of desperation. And not "too much" for the workers who want to continue making and providing them. Something is seriously out of whack here. Of course, if you're comfortable with this "paradox"—which is what our mass media insist on calling such nuttiness—just turn on a sitcom and tune me out. Otherwise, read on.

On Factual Exams, it's almost always better to stick with your first answer unless you are sure it is wrong. This is because at some deep level people know more than they are fully conscious of. Hence, your initial answer, no matter how hesitant, is more likely to be right than your later correction. Wait. I'm beginning to have second thoughts. Have I overstated this point? No, I'll take my own advice, and stick with what I said first.

It often seems that what's called "politics" in our society consists of deciding what kind of diet to go on, exploring different self-help therapies, calling into the talk show of your choice, and voting for interchangeable politicians every few years. A similar approach to solving problems can be seen in society's treatment of the common cold. In l990, the producers of cold and cough remedies introduced 48 new products that came in 85 different colors and sizes. The real differences between them ranged from slight to non-existent, and colds and coughs continue to plague us as before. But no matter, in our system, it's having a choice, any choice, even if it's between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (or is it especially if it's between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?) that counts.

People apparently feel that their problem is being addressed if they have a lot of solutions to choose from. This way if one doesn't work, they can move on to another. But if they are all versions of the same thing, and none of them work, then flooding us with choices is a way of hiding the fact that we really don't have any choice at all. The truth is that we're stuck—stuck with the same hamburgers under a dozen different labels, stuck with the same boring, stressful and low paying jobs no matter the employer, stuck with the same pap and drivel dispensed by all the main media outlets, stuck with the same cough syrup in a variety of oddly shaped bottles, and stuck with virtually identical politicians who serve the same business interests.

The "New York Times" (Aug. 22, l994) ran a story on the "paradox" (still another one) that many major corporations give large sums of money to both the Democrats and the Republicans. In way of explanation, Ken Dickerson, a vice president of the Arco Oil Company, said, they "regularly give to both parties, regardless of who is in power, as a matter of principle". Now you know what principle he means. In this situation, our only real choice is to get rid of the system, capitalism, which has been so successful in fooling people that they have lots of choices.

Are you being forced to learn too many useless facts? The German philosopher, Nietzsche, said, "Knowledge taken in excess without hunger, even contrary to need, no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to action". And maybe that's what it's all about. After all, a lot of the facts you learn help you to make choices, which—as we saw—offer no choice at all. Lenin said that 9/l0 of what we learn is intended to leave no time for coming to grips with the l/l0 that is really important. If this is so, where does that leave all these exams?

Everyone seems to be against pollution, and we know what causes most of it. So why is there still so much pollution taking place? The writer and social activist, Jim Hightower, suggests the answer in his account of what happened when the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines were caught recently dumping its garbage in the ocean. To show up in court on their behalf, they hired "two former heads of the U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section, two former U.S. Attorneys General, two former federal prosecutors, a handful of former Government officials, a law professor, and (count them) four retired admirals. Then they spent a fortune painting themselves green—buying ads during the Super Bowl... hiring ex-Environmental Protection Agency officials to be on their board, and writing large checks to environmental groups". ("Lowdown", Mar., 2000) If this is what a corporation does when it gets caught, what do you think it does not to get caught, starting with securing laws that allow it to do what it wishes in the first place?

In Studying for an Exam, if you are scared by all you have to do and this interferes with getting started, consider "chunking". This involves setting aside l0% or even less of what you have to do, and treating it as your immediate target. When this much is done, increase the percentage and repeat the exercise. Having made a start, which for many is the most difficult thing to do, you will not only feel more relaxed but your own momentum is likely to carry you beyond your original target. You're now on your way. If this sounds like a recipe for fooling yourself, it is because that is exactly what it is. But it's all in a good cause.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner of Toledo once suggested that the problem of noise pollution at the local airport could be resolved if we allowed only deaf people to live in the surrounding area. An equally bright idea is to turn the "right to pollute" into a commodity and allow the companies that pollute more than the law allows to buy the rights or "credits" of companies that pollute very little if at all. This way the big polluter is happy, because it can now pollute to its heart's content. The other companies are happy, because they've just made money for not doing what they didn't do anyway. And only the public is unhappy, because... (cough, cough, cough!). Be ready for a lot more of this scam.

Yes, as you can see, there are some anti-pollution laws, but how do they work? According to Nikki Roy, a former Environmental Protection Agency (A.P.A.) regulator, a lot of the money that is spent on avoiding pollution goes into "toxic shell games". ("Daily Yomiuri", Tokyo, Aug. ll, l994) Until recently, for example, steel plants were forbidden to dispose of waste water that contained certain toxic agents into rivers or lakes, but they were allowed to use such water to cool coke as it came out of their ovens. The result was that many of these same toxic agents were vaporized and became part of the air breathed by workers and the local communities.

Meanwhile the problems connected with the diminishing supply of fresh air and fresh water, deforestation, the growing hole in the ozone layer, rising sea level, desertification, global warming, vanishing species and increasingly erratic weather conditions get progressively worse. Caring for nature, it seems, costs too much money, cutting into the profits of companies whose only concern is with making profits. The clock is ticking for this poor planet of ours. Can you hear it?

Old Kenyan proverb: "Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents, but loaned to you by your children".

In Essay Exams, be sure to leave time for both introductions and conclusions. Most teachers devote more attention to the beginnings and ends of answers than to what fills up the space in between. Generally speaking, a good introduction interprets the question, defines a key term or two, and indicates how one is going to proceed. Generally speaking, a good conclusion offers no new information or arguments but simply summarizes and shows the relevance of what came before. It should also explicitly answer the question, adding whatever qualifications are necessary.

You already know, of course, that people of color suffer more from unemployment, slum housing, poor medical care, substandard schools and urban violence than the general population, but did you know that they are also the main victims of pollution? No fewer than half of the Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. live in neighborhoods where there are hazardous waste dumps. The largest toxic waste dump in the country is in Emelle, Alabama, a city that is 80% Black, and no city has as many toxic dumps as Chicago's south side. Diseases caused by pollution are similarly maldistributed. Pollution related asthma, for example, hits five times as many Blacks as Whites. The danger of lead poisoning that comes from pealing paint and old lead pipes is particularly acute, with 44% of urban Black children at risk. Eight million children, mostly poor, mostly Black, are already suffering from lead poisoning and the mental retardation that accompanies it.

The Talmud says, "Who can protest an injustice and does not is an accomplice in the act". Tell that to Vice President Lieberman.

What role does confidence play in producing good exam results? There is, of course, the confidence based on ignorance, where a student knows so little that he has no clue about all he doesn't know. The Bible speaks of this as "pride before a fall" and the fall (read: "fail") is certain. On the other extreme, there is the confidence that comes from being perfectly at home in your subject, but, in this case, it is what you know and not your confidence that is mainly responsible for your good grade. In between, which I take to be the typical case, where you know a good deal about the subject but nowhere near enough, confidence that you can ace the exam contributes to the clarity and forcefulness with which you express your views and becomes an important factor in your success.

By giving you exam tactics that work, by letting you peek into the minds of teachers as they make up and grade exams, and by explaining how the entire exam situation fits into the life processes of our capitalist society, my aim has been to increase your self-confidence, to give you that warm feeling that you are now ready—well—to take exams and remake the world.

Am I being objective? To the extent that "objective" means neutral, clearly not. But it is impossible to be neutral on the big social and political questions of the day, and those who claim to be are either unaware of the relation of their values to what they say, how they say it and what they emphasize, and even what they choose to study, or they are lying. To the extent that "objective" means being honest, open to hearing other points of view, and fair with those who disagree with me, then I claim to be more objective than most of my colleagues, who often use the term "objective" to hide their lack of neutrality.

Am I being objective? To the extent that "objective" means dry and unemotional, again the answer is "no". But how can one remain unmoved by the horrors, mostly unnecessary, mostly correctable, with which we are surrounded? Yet, misled by an overly restrictive notion of "objective", most professors try to do just that. What the American novelist, Jack London, said about our universities in l906, unfortunately, still applies: "I found the university ... clean and noble, but I did not find the university alive. I found the American university had this ideal as phrased by a professor from the University of Chicago: 'The passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence'—clean and noble, I grant you, but not alive enough... And in the reflection of this university ideal I find the conservatism and unconcern of the American people toward those who are suffering, who are in want".

Should you be objective? Of course. But that shouldn't mean avoiding to take a strong position when the facts and arguments you've assembled call for it, or repressing the emotions they evoke, or refusing to act or urging others to act when doing so may make a difference.

In True/False Exams: remember, if any part of a statement is false, the whole statement is false. Some teachers try to trick students by packing a statement with a lot of true information only to spoil it with a minor fact that is false. Watch out.

Student taking a True/False test is observed flipping a coin. "What are you doing?", asked the teacher. "I'm working out answers", he replies. At the end of the hour, the teacher notices that the student is flipping his coin furiously, and asks, "Now what are you doing?". "I'm checking my answers".

Societies all possess a set of rules for the game of life that their citizens are forced to play. In our society, the game is called "Capitalism". And, like any game, it identifies players, sets out a series of moves, determines what is meant by winning and losing, provides rewards and punishments, Chance Cards, and even a "currency"—real money—that players accumulate (or try to), which allows each one to see how well he's doing. All games are invented. Except where societies are concerned, those who invented the game are given the title of "Founding Fathers". If you look closely at the rules of the game of any society, you'll find them clearly biased in favor of the class or classes to which its Founding Fathers belonged. They just wanted to make sure that they and their kind kept on winning.

The rules of our Capitalist Game? They were nicely summarized by one of my students who said—Our society seems to assume that the rich never have enough money, and that the poor always have too much. Which is how Henry Ford could say in the midst of the Great Depression, "These really are good times, but only a few know it". Anybody ready for a new game?

In Essay Exams, don't "dis" the teacher. We're a poorly paid lot, and all many teachers have going for them is the certainty (okay, so it's only a hope) that what they're doing deserves respect, at least from their students. So when you disagree with what a teacher has said in class, do so in a way that doesn't leave him/her feeling like a blithering idiot, or feeling that you think he/she is one. Thus, in introducing what the teacher said or what you know him/her to believe, it is best to begin by admitting what part of it is true, under what special conditions it applies, or why someone might believe it, before offering your criticism and finally your own views on this subject.

In general, it is wise to take cognizance of other people's views, to the extent that you know them, before presenting your own. This way, at least, you have a better chance that they will read or listen to you without "putting their tongue in their ear" (old Chinese expression for missing what another is saying because one is too busy preparing a reply).

The last exam hint is to be handled carefully, because one of the deadliest poisons produced by our educational system at all levels is—respect. I have no quarrel with respecting someone who has a batting average of .300, or who excels as a ballet dancer or physicist, or who is a dedicated teacher. What I object to is the respect that is demanded of us because of whom the person is, because of the superior position he or she holds in one of the hierarchies to which we belong—school, work, state, church and even family—rather than because of what that person has done. This is simply an underhanded way to get us to put our reason and judgment aside and to accept the legitimacy of the hierarchy as such as well as the purpose it serves, and even to grant automatic approval to whatever it does. Those who encourage us to develop this kind of respect know this, which is reason enough not to respect them and to begin to look more critically at the various hierarchies they represent.

In Multiple Choice Exams, the longest answer is frequently the correct one, because its very length can be a sign that the teacher has tried to avoid ambiguity. It would be unusually perverse to dress fictions up in much more flowery attire than the facts... but then you know your teacher much better than I.

By Bertolt Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed,
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese Wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song,
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the
The night the sea rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet
Was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War. Who
Triumphed with him?

Each page a victory,
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Real intelligence often shows more clearly in the kind of questions one asks than in the answers one gives. Few things impress me about someone as much as the quality of his/her questions. The educator, Neil Postman, considers question asking the basis of all knowledge and our most important educational tool. Unfortunately, for most people curiosity generally peaks between the ages of four to six. This is not because after that they know all the answers, but because in most cases their questions have not received the respectful hearing that they deserve. It is important, however, that you don't give up, that you continue to ask questions of everyone (and especially of yourself), and that you persist until your world "makes sense". This comment can double as an exam hint: good essay answers can be organized around a series of related questions and can even end with a question, a new and, hopefully, more important question raised by the answer you have provided.

Because questions often have a harder bite than answers, I also believe that the radical movement would be much further along if its members wrote fewer leaflets with answers to questions that people are not yet asking and spent more time just adding question marks to the mind numbing slogans that surround us on all sides: "Vote for Gore?", "Jesus Saves?", "You Can Count on Geritol?"... Get the idea?