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

Ramsay MacDonald, one-time leader of the British Labour Party, posed the question—If men were free but their hands belonged to a class of masters, would they really be free? His answer was "No", because people need their hands in order to work and live. Well, our hands belong to us, but—as MacDonald points out—all the machines, factories, office buildings and raw materials we use in our work, in sum everything we need in order to do the tasks that enable us to live, belong to someone else. These necessary extensions of our hands, without which we can do little more than scratch ourselves, belong to another class of masters, though we don't call them that. So, are we really free?

In Essay and Oral Exams, how careful must one be in qualifying one's conclusions? Very careful. A common error is for students to offer evidence or arguments that support a conclusion limited as to number, kind, time or area, but to make it seem that it applies to everyone, everywhere, always. Also, when your conclusion is—and can only be—tentative, likely or uncertain, say so. Also, it may sometimes be the case that you can't come to a conclusion, or that there are two possible conclusions. If this is what the "facts" call for, say so explicitly. Assuming the facts justify it, carefully qualified conclusions usually go over very big with examiners.

Counterfeit money and counterfeit words have a lot in common. Both seem to be what they are not, and neither really delivers, value in one case, sense in the other; but they often fool people, and, of course, they are produced with this in mind. While not very serious if it is a matter of $l and $5 bills, it becomes immensely more so when the denominations reach $l00 and $l,000. The same is true of words.

"Freedom" is a $l,000,000 word, and the one in general circulation today is counterfeit. It doesn't enable us to understand the full sense of what it points to. As most people in the U.S. use "freedom", it simply means the absence of restraints. That is, if no one is holding a gun to your head and there are no bars in front of your face, you are said to be free, which makes the poorest bum in the park as free as the richest capitalist. The fact that some people possess the means to take advantage of not being restrained to do what they want, and others don't, makes freedom in the case of the latter a cruel joke or worse. Freedom to be left alone to starve, to freeze, to remain ignorant can't really be freedom. For freedom to be worthy of all the sacrifices made in its name, it must include something of the real life conditions that enable people to do what they want as well as the fact that no one is actively keeping them from doing it. But let's not forget the counterfeit term, if only to learn who benefits from this deception and how they have managed to fool us for so long.

Here is a good place to start: Dick Armey, a G.O.P. Congressman from Texas, advised his fellow Republican lawmakers, "No matter what cause you advocate, you must sell it in the language of freedom".

On Factual Exams, another aid to guessing is suggested by the fact that teachers who offer several possibilities, as in "Choose between A, B, C, and D", like to spread the correct answer around a bit. So, if most of the answers you know to be correct, fall under A and B, it is very likely that most of the answers you are not sure of fall under C and D.

"The law in all its majesty forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges and stealing bread". It is over one hundred years since the French novelist, Anatole France, penned these words, and we are still waiting for the first rich person to be arrested for sleeping under a bridge or stealing bread. Apparently, economic inequality is enough to render most forms of legal equality null and void. Worse, whenever people suffering from unequal conditions are given formal equality, i.e. possess the same legal rights and duties, the result is generally a worsening of real inequality, because those who are already favored will use the level playing field to increase their already sizeable advantages.

Our capitalist society is without a peer in giving out legal rights with one hand and taking them back with the other. For example, each of us has the right to say what he or she wants—it's called "freedom of speech". It's just hard, without the kind of money to buy space in the major media, to get others to hear what you have to say. "Sure the press is free", as one of our guys put it, "for those who can afford to own one".

In an Essay Exam, if you can give two versions of the answer, what two different thinkers or schools have written on this subject, so much the better. This is considered a sophisticated answer.

Spying, at least inside the U.S., is something only foreigners do, right? Wrong. Americans are spied on legally and illegally by a host of federal, state and local agencies. In the l960's, for example, the Chicago Police Dept. admitted to having secret dossiers on ll7,000 local citizens, l4l,000 out-of-towners and l4,000 organizations. No one knows how much of this is still going on.

Have you put in a request for your F.B.I. file yet (something you have a legal right to see)? I haven't broken any law, but my l00 page file placed me in cities where I have never been, indicated that my wife and I had been followed in Milwaukee (on a visit to my parents) when we went to a store to buy milk for our baby, and quoted an unnamed informer who said, "Ollman is a communist just like his sister". I have no sister, and I wasn't a communist—then. I was also constantly referred to in the report as "BERTELL OLLMAN a.k.a. BERTEL OLLMAN" (pretty clever of me to operate with a pseudonym that no one would recognize). Unfortunately, stupidity never made any cop less dangerous.

There used to be a time, I'm told, when exams were mainly used to serve the needs of teaching (as a means of helping students learn), and, no doubt, here and there this still occurs. More and more, however, this relationship has been turned around, so that today most teaching is exam driven (has become a means to help students pass their exams). Here, it is not so much what one has learned that is important, but the evidence—the exam and, especially, the grade received—that one has learned it. In the process, most professors function more (or more often) as exam coaches and trainers than as teachers. (With this book, of course, I have accepted to march in step with my peers, but only so I can alert you as to what is happening, and to explore whether together we can find a better way.)

The key to understanding this turn-around is to see that exams play a role in the world of work as well as in the world of education, and to those who have power over both the first is far more important. While most of education is aimed at giving you the knowledge, skills and attitudes toward work and hierarchy required by your future—probably corporate—employer, exams (and the grades received in them) cap this process by helping your employer match the individual to the job. Exam results inform him much better, he believes, than you can (or would) as to what you can do and how well you can do it.

Before the spread of higher education in our country, whatever training, socialization and sorting out of its work force a company required, it had to do on its own and at its own expense. Now universities and colleges perform these functions—they have become a combination of training centers, finishing schools, employment agencies and warehouses for temporarily unneeded workers—all at public (meaning "non-corporate") expense. In the process, education in America (and the other capitalist countries are quickly following suite) has become an extension of work, and of the needs and interests—social and political as well as technological and organizational—of those who control our work. To ensure that all this runs smoothly, the ruling class itself, together with a few of its more trusted hirelings, occupies the commanding heights of the educational system. Do you recall the question I raised earlier about why the boards of trustees of most of our universities are dominated by big businessman and their lawyers? Well, here's one mystery solved.

"Free enterprise"—this is where the enterprises with power, which comes from the amount of wealth they control, are free to use it as they wish against workers, consumers and small business-people alike. "Free trade" is when the strongest enterprises are given a green light to clobber their weaker foreign competitors as well. Businesses and our business oriented Government are for trade unbounded by political restrictions whenever it benefits them, and against it when it doesn't. Brazil has recently complained that the U.S. Government is interfering in one way or another with the export of over eighty different items from that country, all the while extolling the virtues of free trade. The truth is that no one actually believes in the "principle" of free trade except, perhaps, a few of my more naive colleagues in the academy.

"Free market" refers to a system in which everyone has a choice to buy and sell whatever they want (including labor power) at a price they find acceptable. On this model, people have no one to blame but themselves and the bad choices they've made for all the outcomes they don't like. But can poor people choose to buy goods they can't afford? Or can workers choose to sell their labor power for a decent wage to employers who don't want it or are only willing to pay half that amount to get it? Rather than focusing on the moment of choice, it is the unequal conditions in which people make their choices and which narrowly prescribe what can be chosen that should get our attention. Only then can the free market be seen for what it really is, a way for the strong to obtain what they want from the weak precisely by ignoring—and getting the weak to ignore—the conditions that underlie the vast disparities in their power.

In Oral Exams, if you don't know something, don't try to fake it. This is the path to perdition. Your professors are likely to recognize what you are doing and ask more questions on this same point. The result is that something that should have taken no more than a minute has now occupied an important chunk of the exam and become a major element in their evaluation of your performance. On the other hand, if you think you know the answer but are not sure of it, don't hesitate to give it, adding only that you are uncertain.

It is very common for people in universities to think that practically everyone else is brainwashed by advertising but that they're not. Forget it. We all are, and much more than we realize. How could it be otherwise? American businesses spend over a trillion dollars a year (that's about l/6 of the Gross Domestic Product) on advertising and public relations. These industries employ l50,000 people, which is about 20,000 more than the number of reporters in the country, and produce or influence about 40% of everything we see, read and hear. Most of what you're wearing and eating and planning to do this weekend—to say nothing of your political predilections—is evidence for how well all this spinning and smiling and downright lying has done its job.

To counter all this advertising we would need to have a lot of information that even in this "age of information" is not readily available. The Canadian philosopher, John McMurtry, points out that "what is genetically modified or not, what bears criminally exploited labor or not, what is pollutive in its manufacture and distribution or not, what destroys species and fellow mammals or not, what is carcinogenic or not, what pays profits to genocidal regimes or not" are all things we are prohibited from learning by new trade laws that consider such information as "discrimination against the process of production". In sum, the capitalists don't want you to have the facts you need to make informed choices as a consumer. Nor is it easy, given capitalist control of the media, to acquire the information we need to make informed choices as voters and citizens. If the talk is all about freedom of choice, reality presents a picture of thorough-going manipulation with advertising, public relations, news broadcasts, entertainment and—dare I say it?—"education" playing the major roles.

In Essay Exams, pay careful attention to the key verb that instructs you on what to do. "Discuss", for example, allows more leeway and offers more opportunities for embroidery than "compare", which, in turn, is more open ended than "explain" or "evaluate". Try to become sensitive to the nuances of meaning that set these verbs apart from one another and from other verbs that occasionally take their place: "trace", "describe", "defend", "criticize", etc. A lot of the irrelevance I warned against earlier is the result of flattening out the differences between these verbs. Note, too, that you are never asked to say all that you know about a subject, so be sure that your answer doesn't make it appear this is what you are doing.

As Jesse Jackson points out, "Poor folks steal, rich folks embezzle... poor folks lie, rich folks prevaricate". A century ago, the radical humorist, T-Bone Slim, also reminded us—"Only the poor break the laws—the rich evade them". Capitalist reality is disguised not only by specialized language (each academic discipline has one), legal language, bureaucratic language and just plain unintelligible jargon, but also by euphemisms (Jackson's examples), treating what is dead as if it were alive ("The market is tired") and heavy use of passive constructions ("Benefits are being reduced"), which keep people from seeing who has done it and what the alternatives might have been. The Pentagon, for whom civilian casualties have become "collateral damage", is but the most obvious offender and therefore less dangerous than the rest of the Establishment, whose linguistic manipulations are more difficult to recognize.

The degree to which such manipulation is conscious was recently brought to the fore by a booklet entitled, "Language: a Key Mechanism of Control", given to Republican candidates for office by GOPAC, a conservative political action committee headed by Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In it, candidates are told that when speaking of themselves they should use words like "environment, peace, freedom, fair, flag, we-us-our family and humane". While the expressions they were encouraged to use when speaking of their opponents were—"betray, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, hypocrisy, permissive attitude and self-serving".

With verbal traps waiting for us at every turn, the struggle to make sense of the world demands our constant attention, a keen, critical outlook that takes nothing for granted, the courage to question authority, and just enough anger at being fooled so often to make it all come together.

Just how biased can tests be? Well, in l9l2, Henry Goddard, a distinguished psychologist, administered what he claimed were "culture free" I.Q. tests to new immigrants on Ellis Island, and found that 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, 79% of Italians, and 87% of Russians were "feebleminded", adding that "all feebleminded are at least potential criminals".

Yes, I.Q. tests have gotten a little better since then, but you can still find the following: "Q.—What is the essential difference between work and play? High I.Q. answer: Work is energy used for something useful and play is just wasted energy. Low I.Q. answer: You'd rather play than work". Or, here's another: "Q.—Why do we elect (or need to have) Senators and Congressmen? High I.Q. answer: Electing Senators makes Government responsible to the people. Low I.Q. answer: Senators help control people in the U.S.". I guess I must have a very low I.Q.

While it is unlikely that most of the tests you take are so slanted, neither should you assume that all biases have been removed or even could be removed, given the character of the testing process, the attitudes of those who make up the test and who correct it, and the variety of people—coming from so many different backgrounds—who take it. Life Exam Question: consider the last few exams that you've taken. From what biases, if any, did you suffer?