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

Boss to employee: "Young man, you have risen very fast in this company. Two years ago you began as an office boy; in a couple months you were a clerk; then you became a salesman, after that assistant manager, then manager. Now you are the vice president of the company. What have you to say about all this?"

Employee: "Thanks, Dad".


This book is trying to help you do better on exams. Should you wish to do worse, The Art of Pluck (l835), written by an Oxford University student, Scriblerus Redivivus (e.k.a, Edward Caswell), offers advice on how to fail exams, with chapters on various forms of "idleness"—smoking, love, billiards, novels, rowing and drinking. Yes, I also thought that was a pretty thin list. Why don't you fill it out by writing down all the things you think you shouldn't be doing if you want to do better on exams. Don't be too hard on yourself, but don't be too easy either.


In John Guare's play, "Marco Polo Sings a Solo", a transvestite has herself impregnated with a sperm she had deposited in a sperm bank when she was a male, and has a baby to whom she is both mother and father. One person on his/her own doing it all! Here we have capitalism's ideal for solving every problem. Forget cooperation and collective effort. Let the sheriff do it. Hence, the public's fascination for super-heroes and equally super-villains, who between them account for everything important that happens.

It's a nice children's story, except it is told to adults as well as to children. Just note that the underlying message is that every individual can get what he/she wants—without the help of others—through a little imagination and a lot of hard work; consequently, that those who have already gotten what they want must have done just this; and, therefore, that they deserve what they've got. While not wishing to disparage either imagination or hard work, the question you have to answer is—Can a transvestite really impregnate herself and have a baby with some of her own sperm?—or—When can a little cooperation help?


In all Written Exams, block out your time at the start so you know roughly how long to spend on each section of the exam and, if possible, on each question. This does not mean you will spend the same amount of time on every question, or that you should, but simply that you now have a standard for judging when is "enough". In Factual Exams, harder questions may take a little more time and easy questions a little less, but that's okay, unless most questions turn out to be hard ones. In Essay Exams, your best answers are likely to take a little more time, but that's okay too—given you don't overdo it—since it is your best and worst answers that the teacher is most likely to remember when he or she picks up the grading pencil.


Recipe for the Future: Riot a la King (Rodney)

6 of more imported ethnic groups

2 or 3 domestic ethnic groups

2 cups of poverty

1/4 cup racism

1/2 cup police brutality

High crime rate and random violence to taste.

1 cup failed education system
(leave out in an area of indifference to curdle for at least one generation)

1/2 cup substandard wages
(Minimum Wage Brand is recommended for best results)

1 cup of dreams, crushed

Sift together poverty, racism, police brutality, plus crime and violence and set aside.

In a small bowl, beat together failed education system with substandard wages until they are inseparable. Set aside.

In a larger bowl, whip ethnic groups until completely agitated. Stir in mixture of failed education system and wages, alternating with poverty combination until well blended. Add crushed or ground dreams and mix thoroughly.

Dump out and pack tightly into the Los Angeles Basin. Surround edges with small clusters of unattainable wealth. Dust heavily with smog. Leave out in the hot sun, tightly covered, until a sudden increase in anger, frustration and resentment, triggered by an obvious failure of the justice system, causes it to boil over.

Serves any number of journalists and media pundits.

Recommended wine is vintage l965 Watts. Note: This recipe can be adapted for any city. Leftovers keep well.

R.F. Meyer

In Practical Exams (experiments and controlled exercises), "lay out all your tools and materials at the start. Be sure you know where everything you might need is and that it is all available in the right amount". As if you didn't know. Of, if you didn't, you shouldn't be allowed to walk the streets by yourself, let alone take exams. I only include these points to remind you what typical exam advice is like. Most instruction about our government and economic system is equally innocuous—which are two good reasons that you need this book.


Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat travelling around the United States in the l830's, witnessed American Indians driven out of their homes in the middle of winter. The old, the very young, the sick were left to die in the snow. What shocked de Tocqueville the most is that our pioneers could kill human beings without, in their own eyes, "violating a single great principle of morality". It would be impossible, he thought, to find other examples of such wanton destruction which outwardly displayed "more respect for the laws of humanity".

A decade later, the United States helped itself to a third of Mexico in a war that a later president, Ulysses S. Grant, described as the most unjust war that a strong country had ever conducted against a weak one. The ideological rationalization of this action spoke of our "manifest destiny". In l898, we started a war with Spain in order to add Cuba and the Philippines to the growing American empire, though the reason given at the time was to help these countries win their independence. In our more recent history, as Noam Chomsky, who draws together these threads, points out, "the war against Vietnam left maybe three or four million dead and three countries ruined". Yet, from Ronald Reagan to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) the war is presented as a noble cause, or at worse a tactical mistake. Like our pioneer ancestors, we destroyed these countries with the "greatest respect for the laws of humanity".

In l990, our Government used the most sophisticated weaponry in the world to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in order—so it was said—to give the medieval monarchy of Kuwait back its freedom. In l998, it was Yugoslavia's turn to be bombed into submission for mistreating some of its own subjects. And even now our dollars and "military advisers" are aiding the fascistic armies of Peru and Columbia (and, until just yesterday, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Indonesia, Chile and Brazil) to murder, torture and make disappear countless thousands of their own people to protect what we insist on calling their democracies. Apparently, when America's allies and dependents engage in actions that are far worse than what the Serbs were accused of doing to the Kosovars this does not amount to mistreating their own subjects.

In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler introduced us to the theory of the Big Lie. Everyone, he said, tells little lies, so they have no trouble recognizing them when they hear them. But few people have the audacity to tell truly Big Lies, nor enough cynicism to believe that others might. Consequently, one has a better chance of getting away with a truly Big Lie than a small one. Hitler was not alone in applying this lesson. One of the biggest and, perhaps for that reason, most successful lies in all of history is that the foreign policy of the United States Government has been directed to protecting human rights, extending democracy and defending freedom. But if these are not the aims of our rulers, what are they? What could possibly justify the grisly historical record?

An authoritative reply to these questions was offered by General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marines at an American Legion Convention back in l93l, when he said, "I was a gangster for Wall Street: I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in l9l4; I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in; I helped purify Nicaragua for the International banking house of Brown Brothers in l909-l2; I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in l9l6; and I helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruit companies in l903". This startling confession should help us understand what really motivates American foreign policy, and always has (and always will, if we allow it).

An English reporter once asked Mahatma Ghandi what he thought of Western Civilization. Ghandi answered, "I think it would be a good idea".


In Oral Exams, there is never enough time for professors to ask all their questions. Consequently, they may break into your answer before you have finished in order to get onto their next question. Usually this is a sign that you have said enough and not that they're dissatisfied, so this shouldn't bother you. However, it does mean that the brilliant conclusion that you've left for last will never be heard. So try to get to your main point(s) as quickly as possible, leaving most examples, qualifications, implications, and the like for later, if there is time. This suggestion applies to Oral Exams only.


What Did You Learn In School Today?
Song by Tom Paxton

What did you learn in school today
dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today
dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie
I learned that soldiers seldom die
I learned that everybody's free
That's what the teacher said to me
And that's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today...

I learned that policemen are my friends
I learned that justice never ends
I learned that murderers die for their crimes
even if we make a mistake sometimes
And that's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school...

I learned our government must be strong
It's always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
and we elect them again and again
And that's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school...

I learned that wars are not so bad
I learned about the great ones that we have had
We fought in Germany and in France
And someday I might get my chance
And that's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school...

In Studying for an exam, you should spend as little time as possible reading new material, but this assumes that you have already read all you were supposed to and I know this is seldom the case. Hence, there is generally a trade-off to make between getting a better grip on what you already know (sort of) and learning new material. If what you haven't read is less than a quarter of what you should have read, my advice is to devote most of your time to review, especially for Essay and Oral Exams, where there is generally a choice of questions and it is very important that you answer at least a few questions very well. In the case of Factual Exams, however, I would give a higher priority to finishing the reading you haven't done, since you can't possibly know facts that you never encountered. It is better by far, of course, to keep up with the reading, and not be caught in such a fix.


To talk about the Third World's "debt" or "balance of payments" problem rather than their imperialist exploitation problem is to take for granted the capitalists' point of view. It is like Southern racists talking about their "Black problem", or Hitler referring to his "Jewish problem".

The same thing happens in talk of the "national debt". "Debt" suggests that one has a moral as well as a legal duty to repay. But why should the large majority of Americans repay the few rich who got THEIR government to spend OUR money (and then some) serving THEIR interests while making profits for THEIR corporations? A more accurate term for these trillions that they want to squeeze out of us through additional taxes and reduced services is "tribute", which is what rulers have always exacted from those over whom they reign. The truth is that our capitalist ruling class forces the people under their sway, in the U.S. and abroad, to pay them "tribute", and then adds insult to injury by trying to fool us into viewing it as our "debt".


Make-up Exams. Because they're taken after the scheduled exam, you have more time to study for them. That's a plus. Knowing this, many teachers are likely to make them more difficult than regular exams and to be more strict in grading them. That's a big minus. It doesn't endear you to the teacher either that make-ups often involve him/her in a lot of extra work. Thus, make-up exams are to be avoided if at all possible.


A recent poll asked voters which are the areas in which the Government spends the most money. About half of them answered—foreign aid and welfare, each of which takes up about l% of the budget. Even more people are probably unaware that 70% of foreign aid is spent in the U.S., providing jobs and profits for Americans, or that many welfare recipients also have jobs, but that these don't pay enough to live on. But the real problem seems to be with the labels, which suggests that some folks are getting something for nothing, so a little bit is blown up to appear like much more than it really is. Solution: let's change the names. From now on we'll call foreign aid "export promotion" and "bail outs", and we'll call welfare "price supports" and "research grants". This will allow those who really need help to get the far greater sums that corporations are now getting under these labels, and those in the public whose main complaint is with the terms "aid" and "welfare" will be appeased.

An alternative is to call what corporations are now getting under these various labels by its proper name, which is "welfare" (more than $125 billion a year from the national government alone, according to "Time Magazine"), and then sharing the money that goes to welfare more equitably among all the groups that qualify for it.


In Essay Exams, try not to write very big. About half of the really bad papers I correct are written in very large letters. The connection is so close that I've tended to associate very large handwriting with poor and/or sloppy thinking. If it happens to me, I suspect it also happens to other teachers. Conclusion: if you have something to say, don't signal otherwise by writing too big. And if you don't have much to say, don't advertise it in this way. Also, don't doodle (yes, some students do) or leave too many ink blotches on your exam. They affect teachers in the same way.


The Kwegu and the Mursi are two tribes in Ethiopia that are involved in an unusual living arrangement. The Kwegu are the craftsmen; they build canoes, make axes, fix guns, etc. They also paddle the canoes across the swift rivers that are full of crocodiles, and they collect honey. The Mursi are farmers and herdsmen. In order to get married, a Kwegu male must give a cow as dowry to the family of his bride. This cow is provided by his Mursi patron for whom he is then obliged to do the different kinds of work mentioned above. The Kwegu, who are also discriminated against in various ways, obviously get the worse side of this bargain. Yet, they are convinced that they get as good as they give, because they believe that without the Mursi gift of a cow they couldn't pay the expected dowry. They simply can't conceive of getting married without a cow, or acquiring a cow by any other means than having the Mursi give them one. If they could, they wouldn't need the Mursi, and wouldn't accept to do all the work they do for them.

What, then, keeps the Kwegu from recognizing what all of us, I trust, would take as pretty obvious? There is, of course, the threat of force, of throwing "trouble-makers" into the crocodile infested rivers, but, over-all, the belief in the fairness of their exchange seems genuine. At the level of ideas, it appears that the Kwegu are trapped in their subservient role because they confuse and conflate historically conditioned circumstances—their need for cows in order to marry and the fact only the Mursi can provide them—with a natural function—the wish to mate.

There is a close parallel between the situation of the Kwegu and that of the workers in capitalist society. In our society, most workers have work only when capitalists, who own the means of production, distribution and exchange, hire them. As a result, many workers believe that without capitalists there would be no work. But working, or transforming nature to satisfy human needs, is a natural function of our species. It exists wherever there are people and is necessary to our collective survival. In this, it is like the Kwegus need to mate. While allowing capitalists, who are only concerned with maximizing their profits, to determine who can use the machines and factories that are needed in order to work is the historical form that work takes in our period. It is like the Mursi providing the Kwegu with the cows the latter need to marry. Unfortunately, by focusing on the moment when the capitalist hires the worker—and omitting its connection to the maldistribution of power throughout society as well as to the origins of this inequality—it would appear that the capitalists are as essential for production to go on as the workers themselves. They even appear to be doing the workers a favor—one for which they deserve to be highly rewarded—in hiring them for jobs. But as with the Kwegu and the Mursi, an aspect of the human condition has been confused with the particular form that this aspect takes in our period of history. Need I add to whose benefit this works?

People will only strive to remove the capitalist straitjacket that impedes all their movements when they can clearly distinguish what is historically necessary (that is, in this place, and at this time) from what is humanly possible, and grasp as part of this that things have been and may yet be otherwise. Our battlecry? "Kwegu of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your Mursi".


One of history's first exams is recorded in the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon's essay, "The Education of Cyrus". Cyrus, then about ten years old, was soon to become a famous king of Persia. Cyrus' teacher presented him with the following problem: suppose you have a cloak (what they wore in those days) that was too big for you, and an older boy came along who was wearing a cloak that was too small for him. What should you do? Where, the teacher asked, does justice lie in this case?

Probably thinking this was a no-brainer, Cyrus quickly replied, "Why, I would exchange cloaks with him, so that each of us had a cloak that fit". On hearing this answer, the teacher pulled out his lash (standard equipment for teachers in those days) and began to whip Cyrus with it. "Wrong", he hollered. "Your cloak belongs to you, and his cloak belongs to him. Each should keep what is his". The underlying message: Respect Private Property. The lash and the words together, repeated again and again, soon won the contest with common sense, as, indeed, they continue to do today, where more sophisticated ways of delivering the message have allowed teachers to ease up a bit on the lash.

Viewed in this way, the story of Cyrus' cloak becomes a kind of ur-exam, the paradigm for all future exams, where the main aim is not to find out what the student knows but to prepare him for life in his society in which private property and the hierarchical relations it both produces and requires constitute the core values.