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

A principal in a Newark high school, Joe Clark, made a national reputation for himself by bringing peace and quiet to his school. His solution was to expel all the troublemakers. But this same action led to an increase in crime in the surrounding neighborhood, as the troublemakers simply plied their trade elsewhere. It's the musical chairs approach to social problems that is so favored by liberals.

Liberals are people who recognize most of our social problems and truly want to do something about them. They view these problems as existing separate from each other and believe they can be dealt with one at a time. If these problems are internally related, however, then trying to solve any one alone will prove impossible and may even, as we saw in the case of Joe Clark, make the other problems worse. Recognizing that our major social problems are interconnected and can only be solved together is the insight that turns liberals into radicals. (It happened to me) And solving these problems together means getting rid of the social system, capitalism, that gives rise to most of them. By explaining how this system came about and how it functions, Marxism fills out this radical insight and helps us develop a strategy for fundamental change.

A liberal sees a beggar on the street and says the system is not working. A Marxist sees a beggar on the street and says it is. (Bill Livant)

In Essay Exams, if you run out of time, give a brief outline of whatever you can't finish. This should be enough to show that you really do know the answer and what you might have done if you had more time. With such an outline, many teachers will feel justified in weighing your completed answers more heavily than they otherwise would in determining your overall grade.

Conservatives? In the U.S. at least, these are people who are so busy blaming the victims of our social problems for their suffering that they have difficulty recognizing that these problems even exist. They divide into those who are materially quite comfortable and don't want to be disturbed by the din caused by those who are not, those who are materially very insecure and fear the competition of those right behind them on the social ladder, and those who are simply full of hate and prejudice for whomever is different and whatever is new. Rather than wishing to preserve existing conditions, most American conservatives want to go back to an idealized version of the "good old days", when dissatisfied folks suffered in silence, that exists only in their imagination. Consequently, "reactionaries" would be a much more accurate name for them.

What about such conservative virtues as small government, fiscal restraint, individual responsibility and family values? Yes, conservatives talk about these things, but for most it's only a fig leaf, a series of homilies put together by the public relations firm that constructs their election platforms. Few so called "conservatives" oppose the expansion of government when it serves their interests, or turn down a handout when it is they who receive it. The biggest "welfare queens" in our society are the rich, most of them conservatives, who prefer to get their welfare checks in the form of state subsidies, tax write-offs, guaranteed prices, etc. Our colossal national debt was the product of Reagan's conservative Government. And family values? Well, conservative families, as we can read even in the capitalist press, are in no better shape than anyone else's. Hence, the essence of conservatism is not to be found in what they say, but in what they do and why they do it. And what they do is defend their power and material privileges however they can—including misrepresenting what they want—out of a combination of selfishness, insecurity and prejudice.

In All Kinds of Exams, whenever you are given both a text and a question and told to read the text first, it is generally wise to disregard this instruction and to read the question first, at least quickly. This will enable you to avoid getting bogged down with complexities in the text that have little or nothing to do with the question. Of course, when you finish reading the text, you must re-read the question, and more slowly this time.

What are the capitalists really like? Marx and Luther, who agree on practically nothing else, see eye to eye on this. According to Marx, "No eunuch flatters his despot more basely or uses more despicable means to stimulate his dulled capacity for pleasure in order to sneak a favor for himself than does the industrial eunuch—the producer—in order to sneak for himself a few pennies, in order to charm the golden bird out of the pockets of his Christianity-beloved neighbors. He puts himself at the service of the other's most depraved fancies, plays the pimp between him and his needs, excites in him morbid appetites, lies in wait for each of his weaknesses—all so that he can then demand cash for his services of love".

While Luther says that businessmen "have learned the trick of placing such commodities as pepper, ginger and saffron in damp vaults or cellars in order to increase the weight... Nor is there a single article of trade whatever out of which they cannot make unfair profit by false measuring, counting or weighing. They produce artificial colors, or they put pretty things at the top and bottom and the ugly ones in the middle, and indeed there is no end to their trickery, and no one tradesman will trust another, for they know each other's ways".

But is it the capitalists who make the capitalist system what it is, or the system that makes the capitalists act as they do? The economist, Howard Sherman, has constructed a fable to help us answer this crucial question: "Suppose a landlord decided to be kind to a poor tenant and collect no rent. The Landlord would be unable to pay the mortgage and the bank would take over. Suppose the director of the bank that owned the mortgage decided to be kind to the kind landlord and not replace him. In that case, profits would fall, and the bank director would be replaced. Suppose by the furthest stretch of the imagination that the stockholders in the banking firm decided to be kind and not fire the bank director. Then the bank would eventually go bankrupt, and a new bank would take over the mortgage and fire all the kind people".

The problem, it would appear, is not that the people in power are greedy and heartless, though some obviously are, but that the rules by which they play—and by which we are all forced to play—reward venality and penalize kindness. With the imperative to maximize profits front and center, it is these rules of the game that need to be changed. But let's not be fooled. We won't be able to change these rules until the people who benefit from them, the capitalist class, are themselves removed from power.

Memorizing Important Facts for an exam. There are no sure fire techniques, but some combination of the following usually help: l) writing the facts down a few times, in summary form if need be and preferably in your own words; 2) reading them out loud to someone else or even to yourself; 3) trying to state the facts without looking at them, and repeating the exercise until you are successful; 4) relating the facts to the context, or problem, or debate in which they appear (perhaps the most important step of all); 5) if the facts are complicated, fixing the connections in mind by associating them with parts of a structure (like a house) or a system (like the human body) with which you are familiar; and 6) looking for one or more code words either in the facts or in something they suggest to you, possibly even a number, that are easier to remember, and which can be used to recall the facts when you need them.

It is also worth noting that facts reviewed a few times over the course of the term are easier to remember than facts learned during last minute cramming. And if you're under the illusion that you remember things better with the help of loud music, or a couple of drinks, or a little weed, or a sleepless night, forget it.

All this being said, it is my impression that in courses that require a lot of thinking, students devote too much time when preparing for exams to memorizing the bare facts and too little time to interpreting them and to using them for resolving problems that are likely to come up. For your other courses, which—unfortunately—probably means most of the courses you're taking, don't neglect to memorize all the basic facts and especially those whose importance has been underlined by your teacher.

Since l947, the world has spent over $l5 trillion on arms, that's l5 thousand billion. About l/2 has been spent by the U.S., l/4 by the U.S.S.R. and Russia, and l/4 by the rest of the world. To get some idea of the magnitude of this sum, it has been estimated that l/2 of it (or just the amount spent by the U.S.) would be enough to industrialize the entire third world up to the level of France, with a minimum of pollution. Who says the world isn't rich enough to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, and most forms of disease? It's just that our leaders over the last half century have been more interested in producing weapons of mass destruction and maximizing the profits of weapons' manufacturers. Imagine all the good we could do with this wealth if we put other leaders with other priorities in their place.

In Essay Exams, take a little time at the start (ten minutes in an hour exam is not too much) to outline your answers. If possible, this should include your beginning, your conclusion, and the main points and/or arguments that you hope will take you from the one to the other, maybe simply listing some of the authors to be brought in along the way. Students differ as to how detailed an outline they need or are capable of before they actually start writing. As someone—I can't recall who—once remarked, writing is "a raid on the inarticulate". We often discover how to say something only in the process of saying it. So don't worry too much if you can't produce a full outline before starting out on your answer, and don't feel overly restricted by your outline if while writing your thoughts carry you in another direction.

Who said the following: "In as much as most good things are produced by labor, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labor has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world that some have labored and others have without labor enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong and should not continue. To secure each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any good Government". If your answer is Karl Marx, just because it sounds a lot like his labor theory of value, well—you're wrong. Not that it doesn't sound like Marx's theory, because it does. But the person who said it is Abraham Lincoln (From an 1847 speech) You may also be surprised to learn that this same president said, "These capitalists generally act, harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people". (1837)

Take Home Exams. Teachers will sometimes hand out an exam, usually an Essay Exam, and give you a week or more in which to complete it. Write the outlines and if possible the first drafts of your answers as soon as you receive the questions, so you can use most of the time to reflect on what you've written. For some subjects, our best thinking occurs over a period of days, whether in the development of or in reaction to our first thoughts. This has certainly been my experience in writing anything, including this book.

Take Home Exams, which are usually essay exams, are more not less difficult than other exams, because it is impossible to limit the amount of time that some students will spend on them. That means longer and more detailed answers from at least some of the competition. There is always a grading curve of some sort no matter what your teacher says or even tries to do. Teachers can't help but be affected by the general level of most of the class and, to a lesser degree, by the very best and very worst exams they grade. So if you know beforehand that many of your peers are going to perform better than usual, as invariably occurs with take home exams, then it is important that you do better as well. Whatever the amount of time your teacher suggests that you spend on a take home exam, therefore, it is generally wise to up it by half.

Who said the following: "For whatever we say of other motives, we must never forget that in the main the ordinary conduct of man is determined by economic motives... Business is the foundation of every other relation, particularly the political relation". If your answer is Karl Marx, just because it sounds a lot like what is popularly (never by Marx) called economic determinism, well—you're wrong. Not that it doesn't sound like Marx's views, because it does. But the person who said it is Woodrow Wilson. You may also be surprised to learn that this same president also said, "The truth is we are all caught up in a great economic system which is heartless".

Exam Grades. Does it ever pay to complain about a grade? Sure, depending, of course, on the teacher and the reason for complaint (or the excuse you have for not doing as well as you could have). If for any reason you believe your grade is less that what it should be, you should not hesitate to tell the teacher. But try to do so in as non-confrontational a way as possible. No teacher wants to give in to what appears like a demand or to respond positively to what sounds like an insult.

Teachers don't like to admit that they are open to changing a grade, because they are afraid of receiving a flood of complaints. Still, don't take their public proclamation on this subject as their last word. There are always exceptions, and you may be one. I've changed many grades after hearing students' complaints, and never—I should add—in a downward direction.

Who said the following: "In the councils of Government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist". This one doesn't sound like Marx, but it does sound like some kind of radical, doesn't it? Well, it was Dwight Eisenhower. (Farewell Address, l961)

What's going on here? How can all these presidents (and there are other presidents I could have cited) hold such radical, even Marxist views? The answer is that virtually everyone, no matter how conservative, has some radical ideas and insights, that is ideas which go to the roots of a problem and indicate how our society really works. The evidence for the roots of some problems is just so overwhelming. But—and this is the catch—these ideas remain isolated. They don't connect up with other radical ideas into a pattern, into a larger picture. Instead, they just hang there, surrounded by more superficial thoughts, and consequently never have a serious effect on one's overall understanding and behavior. None of these presidents, for example, ever took any radical actions based on their isolated radical insights. Obviously, what's needed is to connect up a number of these insights until they make up a pattern, until we see how each leads to the others, and is in fact part of the others. That pattern would then represent the structure of our society, understood as what sets limits for and gives a deeper sense and direction to most of the seemingly disconnected events that make up our daily lives.

Marx's main contribution was to reveal this pattern. That's why he occupies a privileged place in our study, and why I have devoted more attention throughout to uncovering connections than to laying out the bare facts. And that's also why defenders of the status quo work so hard at blurring, masking and denying these same connections (and rejecting Marx), in the fear that once people who are dissatisfied with the status quo grasp the pattern they will not only set out to change it but will know what to do.

You really should be wearing combat fatigues and probably a helmet, because—as you will have figured out by now—school is a battleground, and it has nothing to do with knives and guns. And you, poor, unsuspecting students, are—willy-nilly—not only participants but also the ground on which most battles are fought as well as the major prize for which the opposing sides are contending. Everything that happens to you in school conspires to pull you this way or that. No one and nothing is neutral, and for the moment—and it's been a long one—those who would mold you into docile workers for your future employers occupy all the heights. They use their power to fill your schedules with narrow, required courses full of the information and skills that THEY need, hire mostly safe professors to teach them, reward conformity and punish dissent, and keep you busy preparing for one T.V. quiz show after another, which they call exams.

Yet, the university remains contested terrain. For to convince you that all this adds up to an education, our rulers have to allow some radical voices to be heard. This gives the appearance that there is open debate. Otherwise, you might mistake your university for just another Bible college, and develop an unhealthy skepticism toward all that you're learning, most of which our leaders not only want you to know but to believe in. To be fair, there are some on the other side who truly value academic freedom and even enjoy the intellectual challenge that radicals pose. Still, on the whole, radicals are tolerated in academia in order to legitimate the bulk of what gets taught there, which is to say, to fool you better.

We radicals, on the other hand, try to use the little space and time allotted us to raise embarrassing questions and, where possible, offer unorthodox answers. It is an unfair fight, since those who run our universities have all the big weapons, but how long can students ignore the fact that the shoes into which they will step after graduation are already so tight that most of the people wearing them can hardly walk? And life in capitalism, being what it is, the fit is getting tighter and tighter. Anybody for a change of shoes?