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

Number of walls the size of the Vietnam Memorial it would take to list all the Vietnamese who died in that war: 69

Number of courses on the Vietnam War required for graduation from West Point: 0

"If my soldiers were to begin to reflect, not one of them would remain in the ranks". Frederick the "Great" of Prussia.

First Prize for the best exam of the decade goes to the architecture professor who asked his students to design a better electric chair. Everyone who completed the exam was then failed. Now here is an exam that made a real contribution to the students' education.

In North Adams, Mass., one small businessman expressed frustration that at 65 he was too old to go to Saudi Arabia to fight in the war against Iraq. "Let the wimps step aside", he said. "I'll go in their place". Mr. D'Amico called himself a "strong supporter of our stand in the Persian Gulf". But, when pressed, he acknowledged that he was unsure just what that stand was. "That's something I would like to know", he said. "What are we fighting about?". ("New York Times", Nov. l5, l990)

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-l950's, the American Legion started a campaign against the university library for containing too many books that were critical of the "American way of life". Intrigued, I wrote to the Legion asking what they meant by this expression, and received a reply from their State Chairman for Americanism (yes, he exists), who said he really didn't know what the "American way of life" is, but of one thing I could be sure, and that is that he was ready to give his life for it. It seems there are always some people who are ready to kill and be killed, or send others off to the slaughtering house, without knowing why. These are called "patriots".

In Essay and Oral Exams, should you adopt the teacher's point of view on the subject? This is a tough one. It is my experience that it is more important to show that you know what the teacher thinks than to share his/her views. The real danger is to make it appear that you didn't read the materials that present the teacher's position or didn't listen to what he/she had to say in its defense. So if you disagree with the teacher on an important matter, indicate briefly what his/her position is and why you disagree before going on to develop your own view. This should work with all but the most biased and insecure teachers. Okay, okay, so there are more than a few out there.

"Nationalism" is often defined as a love of one's country and people, but it is better understood as the contempt felt for neighboring countries and peoples, and a shared misunderstanding of one's origins.

"Patriotism" is, largely, the way we speak about our nationalism. While "love of country" is the blind attachment many people feel for the empty symbols—flags, anthem, clichés, etc.—with which this emotion comes dressed. No patriot loves his fellow citizens, for too many of them pray in the wrong church, or come in the wrong color, or speak with the wrong accent. Instead, patriotism offers a lumpy stew of ghosts and other fantasies for the human ties between real people that capitalist competition and the insecurities it generates makes impossible. It is also a sop thrown to our isolation and feelings of loneliness. By encouraging us to live vicariously all the successes of the very class that despoils us, patriotism also keeps us from developing the rational hostility toward this class that they deserve. And always and everywhere, patriotism is a blank check we give to our rulers to spend our blood as they wish.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". Samuel Johnson, l8th century English critic.

"What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?" Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher. That's probably the nicest thing that can be said of it.

In Essay Exams, how should one deal with a half remembered answer? It's best, of course, to choose another question. But if that is not possible, you can try to interpret the question in a way that makes what you do recall central and what you can't less relevant. Together with this, you can try to pad your answer with related facts (for teachers who are most impressed by facts) and arguments (for the rest of us). In the latter case, "picking a fight" with the question could also involve attacking its assumptions or implications, or examining who might have asked such a question and why, or inquiring into the kind of evidence that is needed for coming up with any answer. If there is anything the least bit sophisticated in what you have to say, many teachers will grant you the right to sound a little outrageous. For this tactic to work, it also helps if you write well, giving the impression of an intelligent though opinionated student who has used the limited time available for answering the question in order to take a stand.

Capitalism operates a lot like Three Card Monte, where the pieces are moved around so fast that it is almost impossible to guess where the red card is. Who or what is responsible? This is capitalism's red card. Once one recognizes—and it's almost impossible not to—that our society is falling apart, it becomes essential to know where to put the blame. Only then can we fix it, really fix it.

There are six main possibilities: l) nothing and no one is responsible (that is, the problems from which we suffer are the result of natural economic laws); 2) the material forms in which the problems present themselves are responsible (that is, cars and, according to Reagan, trees cause pollution; technology causes unemployment; and so on); 3) we, ourselves, are responsible, so that those who suffer most have only brought it upon themselves (doesn't Pogo say, "We have met the enemy and it is us"?); 4) some group you don't like very much anyway—the Blacks, or Jews, or Japanese, or (fill in)—are to blame, and this just serves as another reason for disliking them; 5) the political leader or party in power is responsible, since it seems they can do whatever they want and they aren't doing anything to help (except the other party did more or less the same thing when they had the chance); or 6) the class that runs the economy and uses their power to maximize their profits are responsible. This power is used directly, through decisions regarding investment, pricing and hiring, and indirectly, through getting the Government, which they control, to act on their behalf.

Well, these are the possibilities. Now you decide. Who or what is chiefly responsible for unsafe and poorly paid jobs, unemployment, pollution, lousy health care, slums, poor schools, yes—even the high crime rate, and on and on. While you may not be responsible for any of these problems, you are responsible for deciding who or what is. To yourself. To your family. To the rest of us. Even in Three Card Monte, if you know how the trick is done, it is not too hard to locate the red card—and win.

What is the relation between receiving a good grade and being especially likeable? And what about the old red apple routine? Teachers are only normal, and I suppose it's only normal to think that people you like and those who are especially nice to you are more intelligent. But it's only normal to disapprove of insincerity, and the backlash it generates can produce a terrible burn. So don't crowd your teacher, but don't shy away from him/her either. On this one, it's probably best doing what comes naturally, on the assumption that you're probably pretty likeable just being yourself.

("New York Times" Op-Ed, Mar. 24, l979)
By Bertell Ollman

"Tote that barge, lift that bale, secure better finances, or lose that sale"

"Old Man River" is not what it used to be, and neither is sleep, food, health, fun, friendship or conversation. For I am now a businessman, a leaser if not yet owner of means of production, an employer of labor, a seller of commodities.

It was a year ago that a half dozen other socialist professors and I started a corporation to produce and market my Marxist board game, Class Struggle. What began as a chance to mix politics with fun and add to our pedagogical bag of tricks soon became a serious business and I, with it, a serious—if not too effective—businessman.

In the game business, four large companies determine pretty much what gets produced, distributed, advertised and, consequently, played with by the American people. Afraid of alienating conservative customers, the big four would not even consider our game. Our efforts to find an independent producer were a nightmare that only ended with our paying about twice what any large company would pay for a similar product. Bankers were endlessly amused when I offered them a chance to hedge their bets by financing a Marxist board game, but—with one small exception—they stuck to their rule of lending money only to businesses that can prove they don't really need it.

All this to arrive on the desk of store buyers who, as often as not, were more concerned with the color of the box (black is out) and the amount of shelf-space it would occupy than with the intrinsic qualities of the game. Outside New York, there was some rumbling about the game's "ideological character"—as if Monopoly were neutral—but with the help of over l50 media stories, the game was selling and selling out practically everywhere. How surprised everyone seemed to be that a Marxist could be funny! Some papers have reported that we have already made millions, but the truth is that after selling 30,000 games we are still in debt.

Events soon taught me that success in business could be won only if I acted in a business-like manner—excessively friendly when I needed something or someone and curt and exacting when it was the other way around. I developed painful physical symptoms, slept less, continued scheming into my dreams, started noticing when my workers (all close friends) arrived late for work, worried about corporate taxes and became a crashing bore at parties, where all I wanted to talk about was my game. Activities I normally enjoyed began to pale in comparison to the newly discovered thrill of making a big sale, and I found myself thinking of humanity more and more in terms of customers and potential customers.

Unlike the overnight metamorphosis of the salesman in Kafka's story into a cockroach, my own frighteningly similar change took place slowly, and I hope it is still not complete. At first, I was bemused by the strange feelings that began to disrupt my professorial calm, certain that I remained in control.

I should have known better, for Marx had already warned how functions get hold of people and drive them against their will to become something they are not. The process is one of "embodiment". The capitalist, for Marx, is not a real individual as much as the socio-economic functions of owning means of production and exploiting workers and consumers in search of profits. These functions belong to the capitalist system and pre-date the individual capitalist, who comes to embody them. It is the pressure of these functions, of what is required to perform them effectively, that subtly and insidiously transforms the real individual into someone who only sees other people as a means to make money.

Caught in a whirlwind that is not of their own making, capitalists too—though most will not recognize it—are but victims of an inhuman system. If I have long known that socialism would be good for workers, I now understand just how much capitalists, as human beings, have to gain from a system that serves social needs instead of private profits. Socialism humanizes. I intend to carry this message of hope to the next meeting of my Chamber of Commerce.

POSTSCRIPT (two years later): the New York Chamber of Commerce did not react very favorably to my message of hope, but Warner Brothers did to the extent of purchasing my life story to do a film on the Class Struggle game. After preparing a disastrous anti-socialist script, the idea was dropped, and I learned another painful lesson about the world of business.

In Oral Exams, if you have a choice, try to begin the questioning in your strongest field. This will build up your confidence, and also help impress teachers with your performance from the start. Early impressions tend to last and affect a teacher's reaction to whatever comes after. (I've just come back from an oral exam, where an excellent student ignored this advice, and chose to deal with her weakest subject area first—"just to get it over with", she said. What a disaster!)

What's waiting for you after college? Let's assume you're lucky and you find a job. Let's further assume—a big assumption -that it is a full time and permanent job (a growing number of new jobs are only part-time and temporary). Let's really stick our neck out and assume that the wages are not too bad (most jobs pay less than they used to and most new jobs fall into the lowest wage category). Well, after so much good luck, where does that leave you? Welcome to "Job Stress", whose symptoms include—exhaustion, anger, anxiety, muscle pains, headaches, insomnia and digestive disorders. As far back as l99l, 72% of America's workers were found to be suffering from one or another version of this complaint. ("International Herald Tribune", July 11, l991) And all this only if you're "lucky".

Among the causes of stress as determined by this survey were "a substantial reduction in employee benefits... elimination of positions at the company... frequent requirements for overtime", and a lack of control over one's job. All of these conditions have worsened in the past decade, and in particular the number of hours that people with full time jobs are forced to work. A recent study showed that between l983—l997 women in married couples increased their work load by 223 hours a year (that's nearly 6 weeks) and men in married couples by l58 hours (4 weeks), which makes Americans with full time jobs the most overworked workers in the developed countries. Another First for Uncle Sam. In short, our capitalists do whatever is required (and they can get away with) to maximize their profits, no matter its effect on workers' health and well being.

I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you that your "higher education" probably won't get you the job you've been preparing for, because most good jobs have been automated, computerized, broken into part-time, flexible and temporary jobs, exported to countries where the pay is much less, and/or made into stressful horrors. But getting a "higher education" does give you a little time to think about whether this is the kind of world you want to live in and whether we as a people can do better. Are you making good use of this opportunity?

So you failed the exam (or got a grade lower than you wanted, which many students experience as just as bad). It happens, and it isn't the end of the world, not even your world. What's a "How To" book on exams doing talking about failure? Well, aside from making this tiny effort to keep things in proportion, I also want to stress the extraordinary learning opportunity that occasional failure can provide. When else is all that we must do to improve set out so clearly? For the rest, it is worth recalling—and it may be the only true thing Nixon ever said—"It is when the going gets tough that the tough get going".

If you can't find a good job, many of you are thinking, you can always start a small business. Right? Doesn't the "American Dream" say that if you have a good idea, invest your whole kitty in it, and work like a demon, you too can get rich? All people have to do is try. And they do, or want to. A poll of workers on an assembly line in Detroit showed that over 80% of them had either been in business or were planning to start one. Horatio Alger lives on in people's imagination as a final and desperate hope, the only way of moving up in a society that insists that we march through life in single file (collective solutions verboten). Poor Horatio. If he was really a typical small businessman, he probably went bust, strangled his cat or his kid, and finished his life in a factory (if he was lucky) or sponging on the Bowery. For bankruptcy, as all too many who take this route will learn, is also as American as apple pie—especially today with the money owed to banks and credit card companies going through the roof.

According to a Dun and Bradstreet survey of "experts", most business failures are due to the "lack of business-management knowledge". But this is like saying that the people on the Titanic drowned because they couldn't swim. The boat sank—remember? Likewise, with nine out of ten small businesses failing within ten years of getting started, the odds of succeeding are very small, even in the best of times. No doubt being a good manager contributes to the success of those few who make it, but so do a deep pocket, gross overwork and a willingness to lie and to exploit others (including one's spouse and kids).

Ideologically, small business (even more than the existence of "free land" in the l9th century, and the relatively easy access to higher education today) puts flesh on the idea of equality of opportunity, the core rationalization on which democratic capitalism stands or falls. It is only because most people believe that they really have a chance to become rich and respected that they can view their present setbacks as temporary. No wonder most American workers cannot admit that they belong to the working class, that they have settled there for good. Consequently, capitalism repeats the same lie in a thousand ways, lauds the "entrepreneurial spirit" without cessation, and pulls one unlikely small business success story after another out of its media hat to show not only that it can be done but that you can do it.

On All Exams, if you can't answer the questions, don't assume that the fault is always (or only) yours. "I'm surprised I didn't get more wrong. Those questions were so confusing", said Raffaele Costa, Italy's Minister of Transport, when he flunked his country's new written driver's test, a test prepared by "experts" in his ministry. If an exam question doesn't make any sense, don't hesitate to ask the teacher about it—immediately. Recognizing his/her error, the teacher may rephrase the question. This could happen even if the question is not all that confusing, in which case you'll have a lot more to go on in developing your answer.

"Globalization" is but another name for capitalism, but it's capitalism with the gloves off and on a world scale. It is capitalism at a time when all the old restrictions and inhibitions have been or are in the process of being put aside, a supremely self-confident capitalism, one without apparent rivals and therefore without a need to compromise or apologize.

The main features of capitalism in its stage of Globalization include l) free trade; 2) free movement of capital; 3) the easy relocation of industries across national borders in pursuit of lower labor costs; 4) the rise in influence of financial capital, and the banks and Treasury Ministries that represent it, over industrial and commercial capital, and the institutions that represent them; 5) a spectacular increase in personal debt, related to the former, as a springboard for heightened consumption; 6) growth in the number and size of business mergers both nationally and internationally, followed invariably by radical restructuring and downsizing of the labor force; 7) in the stock market, "financial instruments"—national currencies, insurance, debts, commodity futures, etc.—take over from the production of real goods as the main targets of investment, making the stock market more of a casino than ever; 8) the rapid flow of advertising, public relations, infotainment, and spin into all walks of life, including education; 9) the replacement of many full time jobs with temporary and part-time jobs, and the spread of outsourcing and contract labor; 10) a quantum increase in the speed at which information, particularly information relevant to profit making opportunities, moves around the globe; 11) minimal taxes on business; 12) deregulation of business practises that harm workers, consumers and communities; 13) attack on the economic welfare and security reforms of the past century mainly to reduce business taxes but also to increase the number of workers willing to work for very low wages; 14) privatization of many formerly public institutions and functions (except, of course, the police and the army); 15) the spread of "accountability", quantitatively measurable and interpreted from a managerial point of view, to all sectors of society, including education; 16) the widening of social and economic inequality beyond anything ever seen in the capitalist era; 17) the weakening of all independent organs of the working class; 18) the weakening of the national state (and therefore of democratic control) in areas where capitalists never wanted the state to exercise much control in the first place; and 19) the creation or strengthening of various international institutions—like the I.M.F., the World Bank, the W.T.O., the Davos Conference (see Chapter l) and N.A.T.O.—to coordinate, make propaganda for and enforce our still hesitant participation in all these developments. Oh, and 20) exams, lots of exams, everywhere.

Taken together, these developments—which are all internally related—constitute a new stage in capitalism, but it is a serious ideological distortion to consider that they have brought us beyond capitalism. If anything, with these changes, our society is more thoroughly capitalist than ever before. After all, more and more of the world is privately owned, more and more wealth is devoted to maximizing profits rather than serving needs (and only serving needs in so far as they maximize profits), more and more people sell their labor power in order to live, more and more objects (ideational as well as material) carry price tags and can be bought in the market, and money and those who have a lot of it have more power and status then ever before. This is capitalism, capitalism with a vengeance, and that's globalization. Which means, too, that the problems associated with globalization cannot be solved—as so many liberals would like to do—without dealing with their roots in the capitalist system.

So, has capitalism changed a lot since Marx's day? Yes, of course. Is Marx's analysis still relevant? Just because of these changes, it is more relevant now than ever.

In Studying for an exam, how important is—sleep? The "Journal of Cognitive Neural Science" (Mar., 2000) published a study that shows a clear link between an enhanced memory and a good night's sleep. The best results were achieved by students who slept eight hours. More sleep also enabled students to remember skills as well as facts longer than those who slept less. Harvard Professor Robert Stickgold, who directed the study, goes so far as to claim, "How well Harvard undergraduates do on the next day on a retest does not depend on what preparatory school they went to, their SAT scores, or how hard they tried. Rather, it mostly depends on how well they slept".

Of course, this assumes that the student has already encountered the material that will be on the exam, while a good deal of late-night cramming is to catch up on things that one hasn't had a chance to look at. Still, Stickgold's study makes it clear that getting a good night's sleep before an exam is an integral part of preparing for it, which means—among other things—that you should try to finish all new reading at least a day before the exam. As for Oral Exams, besides giving you the air of a zombie, cramming all night leads to a stumbling and dispirited performance. It is also bad for your health.