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Selections from How 2 Take an Exam...& Remake the World < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Selections from How 2 Take an Exam...& Remake the World

By Bertell Ollman

Education From 'A' To 'Z'

What's called "education" has taken many different forms over the centuries, just as its content has varied from A to Z, depending not only on what was known at the time but on the skills and personal qualities the rulers of each society wished to inculcate into their subjects. So in ancient Athens, for example, rhetoric occupied the central place on the curriculum. While teachers in Sparta were more likely to give practical instruction in swordsmanship and lectures on military valor. In medieval Europe, it was theology that received most of the attention. Yet, students everywhere probably believed that the kind of education they got is what "learning" is and has to be.

But once education is relativized in this way, two questions arise: l) why do those who have power in our modern capitalist society want you to learn what you do and in the way(s) you do it? Given our special concern in this book, this translates into—Why so many exams? And 2) starting from your own needs and interests, what would you like to learn and how would you like to learn it? Here are a couple of Life-Exam questions worth taking a few days/weeks/years to mull over. Helping you answer them would be my idea of a "good education".

If Only Generals Were On The Board Of Trustees

If you were studying a military dictatorship, in Myanmar for example, and discovered that almost all of the members of the boards of trustees of their universities were generals, would you be justified in drawing certain conclusions about the nature of education in that country? You'd be dumb not to, right? Well, in the United States, it's businessmen, generally big businessmen and their lawyers, who dominate university boards of trustees. Are these the most learned people in our society? The most public spirited? Because, in most cases, they aren't even paid for their services. Well, what are they doing there? What's in it for them, and how does that affect your education, even your exams? Perhaps there are students in Myanmar who have never asked themselves this kind of question, but somehow I doubt it.

Mind Gulag

Hold everything. Before you go any further, I have a little test for you. It's a game I call "Mind Gulag", and it's meant to determine how much of your mind is already under enemy occupation. Prizes will be awarded at the end.

Answer True or False to the Following:
  1. Human beings are basically greedy and selfish.

  2. The rich deserve what they have, because they earned it.

  3. The poor also deserve what they have, because they haven't tried hard enough to improve their lot.

  4. There have always been rich and poor, and there always will be.

  5. For democracy to exist, it is enough that two parties contest in elections, and that people are not coerced to vote for either one of them.

  6. We are free as long as the state does not restrain us from doing what we want to do.

  7. The American Government has been a major force promoting freedom and democracy around the world.

  8. Most Americans are middle class.

  9. Most workers are satisfied with their conditions and would never go on strike if not stirred up by outside agitators.

  10. Socialism is what they had in the Soviet Union.

Now give yourself ten points for every time you answered "True". Add up the total. Here are your prizes. Those who scored 0 - 30 win an Albert Einstein Medal for Critical thinking. If you have a score of 40 - 70, you receive a Tiresias Pin (with points on both ends) indicating you can go either way. While those who racked up a count of 80 - l00 win a Ronald Reagan Gulag of the Mind Banner, which doubles as a blindfold, painted in red, white and blue. All prizes will be given out along with your college degree when you graduate. After all, who has done more to help you win your prize than your teachers?

A Philosophy Of Education

The one thing that everyone can buy enough of these days is lies. The air is full of them, since the going currency is gullibility, and we all have enough of that. Looking for a philosophy of education that will help you survive in this situation? Try these on for size:

  • "Doubt everything". (René Descartes, but also Karl Marx)
  • "Seek simplicity, but distrust it". (Alfred North Whitehead, English philosopher)
  • "Education is a crap detector". [Ernest Hemingway) [It usually isn't, of course, but it should be]
  • "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" (Mark Twain)

Student Complaints About Exams

Complaining about exams may be most students' first truly informed criticism of the society in which they live, informed because they are its victims and know from experience how exams work. Students know, for example, that exams don't only involve reading questions and writing answers. They also involve forced isolation from other students, prohibition on talking and walking around and going to the bathroom, writing a lot faster than usual, physical discomfort, worry, fear, anxiety (lots of that) and often guilt. From their experience, many students are also aware that most education has become preparation for exams, that exams do a poor job of testing what students actually know, and that the correction and grading process is highly subjective and done by professors with whom they've had only minimal contact.

What student hasn't griped about at least some of these things? But it is just here that their criticism runs into a brick wall, because most students don't know enough about society to understand the role that exams—especially taking so many exams—play in preparing them to take their place in it.

Training Tigers To Jump Through Hoops

How do you think tigers are trained to jump through hoops at the circus? A little bit of whipping here, when they do it wrong, a little bit of raw steak there, when they do it right, and eventually they get it. Students too have to be trained to jump through hoops. It doesn't come natural or easy to them either. Exams, lots of them, with curt, crisp orders that can't be questioned, and loaded down with threats of all sorts—an "F" and expulsion from school—that's the whip. A high grade and a good recommendation from the teacher—that's the raw steak. After a youth misspent playing such sadistic games, most students are ready to jump through any hoop held up by their future employer.

The French philosopher, Pascal, said if you make children get on their knees every day to pray, whatever they may start out thinking, they will end up believing in God. What applies to praying applies to taking exams. If you make students take so many exams, they will end up believing _________? You fill in the blank (my answer will come later). Just remember, we not only learn from what we read (books) and hear (lectures) but from what we do and what is done to us, from our experiences. Of these, our experiences are the most important, because they usually combine activity with perception and a stronger dose of emotions than accompanies just reading and listening on their own. Consequently, the form of education—in this case, frequent exams and our experience in taking them and studying for them—can be more influential on our thinking and feeling than the content of what is taught. What Marshal McLuhan said of T.V.—to wit, "The medium is the message"—also applies to exams. It is in this sense that exams, repeated exams, teach us far more than they test us.

Why Do We Learn So Many Useless Facts?

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?

The Importance Of 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?

The Role Of Exams In Capitalism

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.

Education As Manipulation

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.

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...

History's First Exam

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.

What's Waiting For You After College

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 ll, l99l) 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?

The Musical Chairs Approach To Education

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)

Universities As Contested Terrain

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?

Nonsense Lecture

Someone once defined an exam answer as something that passes from the mouth of the lecturer to the hand of the student without ever passing through the student's brain. A blood libel? I wish I could be so sure. Listen to this story.

Everyone knows that people are very gullible, but few would include themselves in this generalization. With the aim of showing students that they accept much more on authority than they realize, I often open my undergraduate course on the history of political theory with a nonsense lecture. I tell students that I want to test how well they can understand a new and difficult subject by spending the first twenty minutes on an exciting new departure called "Proportional Political Theory". Afterwards, I tell the class to write for fifteen minutes on the question, "What is Proportional Political Theory and what do you think of it?".

Without going into particulars, suffice it to say that "P.P.T." is based on the principle that "Politics is the logic of the political mind", from which it follows that each thinker can be represented by a combination of numbers and letters. I then proceed to add Locke and Rousseau to get Marx, and to subtract Aristotle from Plato to get—who else?—Mill, and so on.

When the papers are collected, I ask students if any of them wrote that I was speaking nonsense. A few hands are raised, but from the rest, nothing. Most students, perhaps 90%, are quite shocked by my revelation. There is some nervous laughter, and a few people get angry. My response is to point out how important it is to think critically about what we hear (or read), because—well, look at what can happen when you don't. And who is to say that this is the first time they have accepted as true some utter nonsense just because it came from an "authority"? Could it be, I ask, that this has also happened with other teachers, with newscasters and reporters, politicians, priest/ministers/rabbis, and even parents? At least in this case I have confessed to speaking nonsense, but what of the others? And how can they, the students, know? I would be very frightened, I add, if I were them, because their heads may be bulging with nonsense told to them by others whom they respected a little too much.

The lively discussion that follows is devoted equally to hearing alibis and to looking at what in students' socialization has so dampened their critical spirits. I then promise that I will never knowingly speak nonsense to them again, but it is only they—by insisting that everything that is told to them make sense—who will be able to judge whether I keep my promise. Later on, in correcting the work they do for the course, I am very attentive to the slightest sign that a student is thinking for him/herself even to the point of giving higher grades to those who disagree with my arguments—assuming that they know them—than to those who simply repeat what I said.

What lessons can be drawn from this story for taking exams or writing papers for your teachers? It all depends, I guess, on how much they want you to think, really think, for yourself. Well, what have your teachers said or done recently that indicates the importance they attach to critical thinking? If nothing, watch out.

The Importance Of Helping People See Patterns

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dr. Oliver Sacks tells of a brain injured patient of his who lost his ability to perceive patterns. He could see aspects of things well enough, but he couldn't put them together. Because most things only make sense as parts of something larger than themselves, he couldn't tell what anything was. He couldn't recognize faces, for example.

The malady that Sacks uncovered is far more widespread than he feared, except for most people the cause is neither biological or psychological but rather sociological and historical. In sum, the socialization that we all undergo in capitalism inclines us to see the particulars that enter our lives but to dismiss the ways they are tied together and, thus, to lose sight of the patterns they create. The social sciences reinforce this tendency, first, by breaking up the totality of human knowledge into the specialized learning of competing disciplines, each with its own distinctive language, and, second, as part of their stress on quantitative techniques, by concentrating almost exclusively on the bits and pieces of our experience that permit statistical manipulation.

This book is full of "patterns" that most people in our society are socialized not to see. Such is the connections between the working class and the capitalist class, between the interests of the capitalists and how our government works, between feelings of alienation and the power of money (upcoming), and there are many others. In every case, most people see the parts well enough but not the connections and not the overall pattern, or capitalism, which is made up of the sum of these connections. Capitalism, as such, is virtually invisible in the social sciences. Yet, it is only the connections and the resulting pattern—as in the case of Dr. Sack's patient—that gives meaning and value to the parts. In an instant, all sorts of "paradoxes" and mysteries—like growing poverty in the midst of growing wealth—make sense. ("This is what capitalism is. This is how it looks. This is how it works".) But it is a sense that those who run our society and determine our socialization (including your education) would prefer we didn't get.

As regards the form, this separation—repeated on a hundred fronts—of what cannot be separated without distortion is the key feature of what is called "undialectical" thought. "Dialectical" thinking, on the other hand, is the ongoing effort to grasp things in terms of their interconnections and this includes their ties with their own preconditions and future possibilities as well as with whatever is affecting them (and whatever they are affecting) right now. The whole panoply of otherwise confusing dialectical concepts—such as "contradiction", "totality", "abstraction", etc. (which I have tried to spare readers of this book)—is directed to making some group of interconnections easier to think about. To make more and better sense out of the trivia, paradoxes, half-truths and outright nonsense that constitutes such a large part of most people's understanding of society, therefore, requires not only a lot of facts that are generally hidden from us but a more dialectical grasp of the facts we already know.

Educational Alienation

Do you suffer from the feeling of being disconnected from the world around you, of isolation, of not belonging, of no one caring, of being an outsider, and therefore of being ineffectual and powerless? If so, you've got lots of company. This is one of the greatest mysteries of our time, since it is not clear where this "normal suffering" comes from. Another equally big mystery has to do with the extraordinary power of money in our society and the willingness of most people to do virtually anything to acquire it.

These two mysteries don't seem to have much in common, but Marx treats both of them as aspects of the problem he calls "alienation". Many psychologists and sociologists use this term, but they limit the meaning of "alienation" to some version of the psychological malaise given above. What is crucial for Marx, on the other hand, is the overall situation of the person who has these feelings, and, in particular, the part played by money. In his discussion of alienation, this is brought out by focusing on four relations that lie at the heart of the work experience in our society: l) the relation between the individual and his/her productive activity, in which others determine how it is done, under what conditions, at what speed, and for what wage or salary, and even if and when it is to begin and end; 2) the relation between the individual and the product of that activity, in which others control and use the product for their own purposes (making something does not confer any right to use what one has made); 3) the relation between the individual and other people, particularly with those who control both one's productive activity and its products, where each side pursues their own interests without considering the effect of their actions on the other (mutual indifference and competition becomes the characteristic forms of human interaction); and 4) the relation between the individual and the species, or with what it means to be a human being. For Marx, the ties between an individual and his productive activities, products, and the other people with whom he cooperates at work are essential aspects of human nature. To cut these ties, which is what happens when any element in this cluster is removed from one's control, is to deprive people of a good deal of their potential for coordinated growth and development and to leave them humanly diminished.

Though Marx's discussion of alienation is centered on the sphere of production, these four relations can also be found in other areas of capitalist life—in education, politics, culture, science and religion—wherever, in fact, people's activities and products (including services and ideas) are under the control of others who use them to further their own special interests. In this way, for example, students whose distinctive activities include coming to lectures, taking exams, paying tuition, etc. can be seen as producing a range of "products" that include grades, diplomas, professors and the university itself. Through activities of relating to "this" building as a university, it is they (you) who turn it into one. Otherwise, it is simply an ordinary building. The same with the talkative man or woman who is turned into a professor by your treating him/her as such.

Both of these activities and products are under the control of the higher administrations and boards of trustees of our universities, who cleverly manipulate them in the service of their own interests with relative indifference to the real interests of the students. The result is that students are cut off from and have little to say over the entire university context that constitutes so much of their lives as students. Yet, this context is an essential part of who they are as human beings (aspects of what Marx considers their broader human nature) as well as of what they are as students. Diminished as people in the very act of manifesting their identity as students within the capitalist university, is it any wonder that most students feel disconnected, isolated and powerless? ...

Grades And Money

What is the relation between grades and money? In ancient Greek mythology, Procrustes was an inn keeper who made sure that guests fit perfectly into the bed he prepared for them. Those who were too short were stretched, while guests who were too tall had their legs trimmed to the size of the bed. Both money and grades serve our society as Procrustean beds. Money enables us to compare very different things on the basis of their price. Grades enable us to compare very different people on the basis of a letter. Once we attach a monetary value to something, its other qualities become much less important and are often ignored altogether. The same thing happens to the distinctive qualities of each person once we view him or her as an "A", "B" or "C" student.

The process by which things acquire a price is known as "commodification". What is made to be eaten, worn, lived in, etc. finds its way into the market and is hereafter thought about and valued largely in function of its price. Grades represent the commodification of the learning process. They stand in for many different kinds and levels of knowledge much like money does for the different kind of products it can buy. Grades reduce the enormous variety of human talent and achievement to a single dimension (what gets tested), then measures it, and eventually replaces it in the eyes of students, teachers and the general public alike. No wonder the grade consciousness of many students often reaches demented proportions, very much like the greed for money.

Grades could only acquire this power, because—as in the case of money—the activities they represent have become separated from and turned against the very people who are engaged in them. As we saw in the discussion of alienation above, everything students do as part of getting educated is controlled by those who run the universities and used primarily for their own benefit. Thus, exams break down students, viewed as a group of people who share a common interest in acquiring an education, into so many atomistic individuals competing for a limited good; while grading recombines the now isolated individuals into new, artificial groups ("A" students, "B" students, etc.), whose most distinctive qualities are of greatest interest to their future employers. More than a simple instrument of control, grades are the sign that academic servitude has arrived full circle. It is the form in which the relation of domination itself has passed into the hands of its victims, who are encouraged to treat the yellow star sown onto their jackets as if it were an Olympic gold medal.

Academic Research As Ideology

A scientist who studies frogs wrote in his journal as follows: "Day one—I made a loud noise behind the frog, and he jumped l5 feet. Day two—I immobilized one of the frog's hind legs, and repeated the sound I made yesterday. The frog jumped only 3 feet. Day three—I immobilized both of the frog's hind legs, and made the same sound. The frog did not jump at all. Conclusion: when both of the frog's hind legs are immobilized, it goes deaf".

Social science has come up with many techniques to help our rulers sleep easier in their beds at night, but probably none is more worthy of the governmental and business support it receives than the widespread substitution of subjective reactions for the objective conditions that cause them. With this, capitalism is left off the hook. Much greater attention is also devoted to trivial problems, or the already obvious aspects of important ones, instead of to the things that we as hurting citizens need to know. Thus, a major study, reported in the New York Times (Dec. 8, l988), found that women do more housework than men, and another found a strong correlation between poverty and malnutrition. But there is still no large scale study of the relation between capitalism and the millions of unnecessary deaths and injuries that occur every year.

"Poverty is World's Greatest Killer"—so ran a headline on the front page of the Guardian Weekly (May 7, l995), one of England's leading liberal newspapers. A few weeks earlier, the same paper had a headline that said, "Rich Are Getting Richer, Poor Are Getting Poorer". The inescapable conclusion is that by taking an ever greater share of society's wealth, the rich are not just making the poor suffer more, they are actually killing them. The crime is murder, but on such a huge scale that most people have difficulty seeing it.

At a philosophy conference several years back, an errant hand wrote on a blackboard, "While radical philosophy points its finger at reality, mainstream philosophy studies the finger". In mainstream social science, the same minimalistic results are obtained by starting out with the methodological assumptions that if you can't count it then that's not it, and if something didn't happen twice then it didn't happen. The price that our social scientists pay for their a priori commitment to study only those problems that can be broken up into easily quantifiable units stands out clearly in the story of the drunk who lost his keys. One night, a drunk returning home lost his keys in front of his door. When a friend found him looking for them across the street under a street lamp, the embarrassed drunk stammered, "But there is more light over here". Yes, but the keys—and all the big, complex and important problems having to do with the functioning of capitalism—lie over there.

The Japanese Model

Japan is a land of exam madness. Students take a big exam immediately on returning to school in September, and then four or five more before taking another big one in early summer. This happens every year until—after passing still another exam—they get into university. With success so dependent on scores in exams, a huge industry of private cram schools has gotten started. Millions of students attend them every day after public school, and many families have gone heavily into debt to pay their huge fees. There are cram schools for all levels of education, even kindergarten, and because some cram schools have better track records than others there are also cram schools that prepare students to pass the exams that will gain them entrance into the better cram schools.

As you can imagine, most of these exams involve simple memorization. There is little thinking and less criticism, so it isn't surprising if the final result are millions of well disciplined, unimaginative, suicide prone whiz kids who are ready to excel at the next quiz show (which, not so incidentally, is the hottest item on Japanese T.V.). Lest you feel too superior to your Japanese peers on this score, you should know that the educational reforms (sic) picking up steam throughout the capitalist world are heading in just this direction. All this in the name of improving competitiveness. But against whom? Over what? Why? And isn't there an alternative, one more humane and also more conducive to real learning?

And The Social Sciences?

The American social philosopher, Barrington Moore, says that "To maintain and transmit a value system, human beings are punched, bullied, sent to jail, and thrown into concentration camps, cajoled, bribed, made into heroes, encouraged to read newspapers, stood up against a wall and shot, and sometimes even taught sociology [or economics, or psychology, or political science—B.O.]". What he neglects to mention is that the most effective of these is the last.

But don't think that most of the professors who maintain and transmit capitalist values—not, for the most part, by extolling the virtues of private enterprise but chiefly by taking capitalism for granted and ignoring the big questions—are comfortable in this task or are even fully aware of what they are doing. A l964 poll of 500 political scientists, for example, showed that two out of three "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that much scholarship in the discipline is "superficial and trivial", and that concept formation and development is "little more than hair splitting and jargon". There is no reason to believe that the results today would be any different. There is a deep-going and on-going malaise among political scientists, and indeed professors throughout the academy, who are genuinely dissatisfied with what they do, but as long as they criticize their efforts as worthless (as indicated by the poll above) rather than conservative—it is worth a lot to our rulers—there is little chance that this will change.

Exaggerating Our Personal Responsibility

At the start of this book, I sought to assuage the guilt people feel for most of the bad things that have happened to them. I said, "It's not your fault". Tests, on the other hand, are society's main way of telling you otherwise. So that when you can't find a job, or have one that is boring and poorly paid, or when you can't find a home you can afford, and so on, you end up blaming yourself. Just like in school, you think, you didn't get what you wanted because you didn't try hard enough, or you simply don't have what it takes. It's you and what you are or have done (or haven't done) that is responsible. Hence, it is you who is guilty. But what if—as I've argued throughout this book—the deck is stacked against you? There is no more important service that all these tests perform for our ruling class than getting you to mistake a hostile social environment for a personal defect.

'Poor' Education or a Commitment to Social Justice?

A recent study of seventeen-year-olds found that 47% of them believed that the words "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" came from the U.S. Constitution and not—as is the case—from Communist Manifesto. Poor education, as some conservatives were quick to suggest? Or a sign of a widespread commitment to social justice together with the naive belief that any idea that makes so much sense must be part of our foundational document? Don't underestimate young people's strong drive for justice before all the mis-education they receive obfuscates (temporarily?) what it really means...and requires.

Chains, Treadmills, Guns And Drugs

The list of ways in which exams prepare students for life in our capitalist society is longer still:

  1. by fixing a time and a form in which they have to deliver or else, exams prepare students for the more rigorous discipline of the work situation that lies ahead;
  2. in forcing students to think and write faster than they ordinarily do, it gets them ready—mentally, emotionally and also morally—for the speed-ups they will face on the job;
  3. the self-discipline students acquire in preparing for exams also helps them put up with the disrespect, personal abuse and boredom that awaits them at work;
  4. exams are orders that are not open to question—"discuss this", "outline that", etc.—and taking so many exams conditions one to accept the legitimacy of the orders one gets from those on top in other hierarchies in which we occupy (or will occupy) a subordinate position;
  5. by fitting the infinite variety of answers given on exams into the straitjackets of A, B, C, D and F, students get accustomed to the impersonal job categories that will constitute such an important part of their identity later on;
  6. because of the superior knowledge of the teacher, students tend to assume that those who are above them in other hierarchies—at work or in politics—also know more than they do;
  7. because most teachers are genuinely concerned with the well being of their students, many students also assume—incorrectly—that those who stand in a similar relation to them in other hierarchies must feel the same;
  8. with the Damocles sword of a failing grade hanging over their heads throughout their years in school, the inhibiting fear of swift and dire punishment never leaves students, no matter what their later situation; and
  9. because there is always so much students don't know, exams—especially so many of them—tend to raise students' level of anxiety and to undermine their self-confidence, with the result that most of them remain unsure they will ever know enough to criticize existing institutions, and psychologically and even physically uncomfortable at the thought of putting something better in their place. Is it any wonder that life itself is often experienced as a series of exams for which one is never quite prepared and never quite in time, and with which one is never quite finished? For confirming evidence, check your dreams.

Exams? They are the chain that binds students to their desks and to the status quo, the treadmill that prepares them for the still bigger rat race to come, the gun at the head that threatens to go off should they try to move away, and, maybe worst of all, the drug that so befogs students' minds that they take this mad scene for normal.

Cooperative Exams

An alternative to the typical exam, where each individual is thrown into a deadly competition with others, is the COOPERATIVE EXAM, where students work together to produce a common product. Virtually any number can "play". Probably the high point of the exercise occurs at the very beginning when the participants suggest different questions for study, and debate their respective merits. In choosing one or two to work on and dividing among themselves areas for further investigation, students can acquire as good an overview of the subject as any the teacher might provide.

After completing their research projects, one student tries to stitch together what the others have found or concluded. Then, the entire group meets to discuss and modify the result. Finally, the teacher gets to read or listen to what the students have done, and to react to it, after which it is again the students' turn to ask questions, disagree and the like. The grade, when it comes, is for the entire project from the initial choice of questions to how students responded to criticisms, and everyone who contributed to it in any way receives the same grade. We could, of course, dispense with the grade completely. At this point, who needs it? Not the students. Unfortunately, in the system in which we are operating, this is not possible (I know—I tried it once, and got slapped down by the Dean's Office).

There is no question but that the process described here assumes a certain sense of responsibility and a high degree of cooperation on the part of the students, but it also helps to develop just these qualities, to say nothing of the self-confidence that comes from bypassing the authority of the teacher. When education is more concerned with helping students realize their potential as human beings and less so with producing the knowledge, skills and attitudes that best serve the interests of a ruling class, we can expect a lot more cooperative exams. Until then, it might be worthwhile to try one just to see what you're missing.

What Tests Do We Take Outside School?

Who gives you exams outside of school? I mean, who else grills you besides your teachers, and what do they want from you? Well, there's the potential employer, who wants to know if you will make a suitable employee; the police, who are trying to find out if you've broken the law; there's the I.R.S. (income tax) and customs, who want to know how much money you owe them; the welfare, housing and unemployment agencies, who are trying to determine if you deserve their help, or, if you are already getting help, following their rules; the opinion polls, who are informing candidates for political office what opinions they should pretend to have; and salesmen and advertisers of various sorts, who are looking for an angle so they can sell you something. It is clear that these tests at least have nothing to do with education and everything to do with control and the desire on the part of those who administer the tests to shape your behavior in ways that suit their interests. Is there a message for you in all this?

In about l800 B.C., a Sumerian father wrote to his son, "Go to school, stand before your teacher, recite your assignment... Be humble and show fear before your superiors". Back then, I don't think people had much difficulty seeing the connection.

Exams And Sexual Repression

Exams and sexual repression are the two main ways we socialize the young. In both cases, it is the whole of society that jumps on a person's back and stays there until the free flow of emotions assumes a socially acceptable form and their will echoes the will of their trainers. The first goal is attained by repressing one's strongest feelings, and the second—far more than is recognized—by overwhelming him/her with an endless series of exams that masquerades as education. The reordered emotions then interact with our captured volition to forge a personality in which our true selves is held prisoner.

Breaking out of this jail requires that we know something about the material out of which it is constructed, but also how it functions, who built it, and why. What else is this but a kind of street smarts for life in the biggest and most dangerous neighborhood of all, global capitalism? Only with the appropriate street smarts can we make the independent judgements and develop the strategies necessary to reclaim our freedom. Without a grasp of such basic matters, rebellion is not a free act, just a stubborn one, and what passes for rebellion is often very self-destructive. Taking drugs, engaging in unsafe sex, or refusing to take or prepare for a scheduled exam are not free acts, because they don't take full account of the context or of the effect of one's action. Freedom is not simply doing what you want, but includes knowing how to do it, when to do it, why you should do it, and, sometimes, why you shouldn't.

Instruments Of Control And Of Learning How To Be Controlled

Are tests ineffective ways of finding out what you know? Usually. Do they give an unfair advantage to those who are comfortable because they have taken a lot of tests before? Without a doubt. Will they be corrected by someone with the usual amount of biases (meaning a lot) and a host of other quirks likely to affect your grade? Of course. Well, then, why exams, and especially why so many? The truth is that exams play less of a role in learning than in socializing and classifying students to suit the bureaucratic needs of our schools and the behavioral and ideological requirements of your future employers. They are essentially instruments of control and of learning how to be controlled. That's why tests are as much about your ability to take tests and directions as they are about knowledge. The role of education, as I've argued throughout this book, is minimal.

Yet, there is something else that gets tested here, something most examiners have not reckoned with, and that is "gamesmanship". If you understand what tests really are and how they work, you are in a position to be one up on your examiners. You can give them what they want and get a higher grade than you otherwise would, and through your success in manipulating exams reduce the degree to which they have manipulated and molded you. All readers of this book have been given what it takes to ring the bell on gamesmanship the next time they take an exam.

Okay, to be fair, I am now willing to admit that some of the better exams also test for what you know, but, though this is what gets everyone's attention, it is only worth a brief mention.

Questions, Yes! Exams, No!

Readers shouldn't misunderstand my criticisms of exams in this book as opposition to a teacher asking questions. Questions are an essential part of education, but they should go in both directions. A give and take between students and teachers that includes a lot of questioning should be constant, even casual, but no less intense for all that. There is no need, however, to build up any of the questions coming from the teacher as the "Big Test", or to organize the discussion that precedes it as preparation for the test, or to grade the results. If some of you respond that absent such factors many students will not study at all, this only goes to show how far education in our society has become separated from genuine curiosity and felt needs. Who can deny that such alienation exists, and is even widespread?

The remedy lies in smaller, more intimate classes, student participation in drawing up the curriculum and course syllabi, and making it crystal clear from the start how what is taught is relevant to students' lives. And, of course, no one should be forced to take a course against his/her will. Required courses are the death knell of all serious learning. Most of these educational changes could only be carried out on the back of large scale social reform, but it is not too soon to begin thinking about what learning should be. It remains the case, that as far as real education is concerned—which means achieving a deep, permanent, critical and balanced understanding of the subject along with a desire to probe deeper into it—all the paraphernalia currently attached to question asking that transforms it into an EXAM are counterproductive.

Marxism And Exams?

Finally, will Marxism help you do better on exams? I'd like to respond with an unambiguous "yes", but all I can offer is an ambiguous one. To the extent that it stresses change and interconnections, puts the university and the exam situation itself inside their proper social context, and makes you hip to who is really on your side and who isn't, Marxism should make you a more thoughtful person and a better student. To the exent, however, that it supplies you with a number of concepts—"class", "class struggle", "exploitation", "alienation", etc.—that your teachers themselves may not understand, and makes you impatient with the superficiality of most exams and angry at their all-too-frequent biases, Marxism could get you into trouble and result in lower grades. No matter how much good it does you, every strong medicine—and Marxism is one of the strongest—is capable of doing harm if used in the wrong way, or at the wrong time. So be careful, be wise—not furtive, but street-wise—and you may discover that the Marxism dispensed in this book helps you more with your exams than all my exam hints combined.

My Exams?

What kind of exams do I give? In case you're wondering—apart from departmental graduate exams that I have to participate in, I haven't given an exam for over fifteen years. The truth is I don't believe that the work students do in preparing for an exam is the best way to acquire the kind of critical understanding I want them to have of the political theory and methodology courses that I teach. Nor do I believe that it is the best way of testing their knowledge; nor do I enjoy driving students' anxiety levels through the roof for a couple of weeks at the end of every term. In some courses, I require term papers, but for most I've requested students to keep an Ideas Notebook, a kind of intellectual diary, in which they both ask and answer questions raised by their readings and by my lectures during the course. Students seem to enjoy doing the Notebooks (and appreciate having a record of their thinking during the course when I return the Notebooks to them afterwards), and they are also very instructive and a lot of fun for me to read.