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Interview with Bertell Ollman: This is Only a Test <DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
This is Only a Test
Interview with Bertell Ollman

Bertell Ollman is a professor in NYU's Politics department. He teaches classes on socialist theory, Communism, and dialectics; a recent book is called How to Take an Exam And Remake the World, which uses examples, anecdotes, and lots of jokes to explain how social and economic structures influence the way students are educated and miseducated in America today. Two newer books, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method, and Ballbuster: True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman, are now also available.

The following interview was conducted by Ryan Nuckel, via e-mail, August 6, 2002.


RN: In "How to Take an Exam," you write that "complaining about exams may be most students' first truly informed criticism of the society in which they live." How so?

BO: Having taken so many exams, students generally know what they are talking about when they criticize them. But most students don't know enough about the larger context in which exams take place, so they are not aware that they are also making a criticism (albeit partial and indirect) of present society. Perhaps the most important point in the book is that exams teach us far more than they test us. And what they teach (through their preparation and form as well as through their content) has more to do with socialization, training, indoctrination and preparedness than education. By exposing the larger social framework in which exams occur and showing who has built the framework and benefits from it, I have tried to make a useful contribution to students' real education. With this, they can—if they wish—take their criticism of exams to the next level.


RN: What do you want students to get out of the book?

BO: As the title says—I really do want them to pick up some important tips on how to ace exams and remake the world. In any case, I've shared with readers the best of what I know on both subjects. But I would also like students to understand how these two apparently quite different subjects are connected. In brief, learning how they are being manipulated by the system should also make students better at manipulating the system back, starting with, but not limited to, the system of exams.


RN: Once they get the message, what should they do with it? What role do students have in making change—at their school and in society?

BO: Well, they shouldn't refuse to take exams, and they shouldn't drop out of school. Given the relations of power inside education and throughout the rest of society, that would be suicidal, and suicide is never good politics. Rather, they should become better students by learning more about the role of education, and of exams in particular, in capitalism. Nowhere does the contradiction between the selfish and manipulative interests of our ruling class and the educational and developmental interests of students stand out in such sharp relief as in the current debate over exams. Students of all ages need to get more involved in this debate, therefore, in order to raise the consciousness of other young people regarding the source of their special oppression and the possibility of uniting with other oppressed groups to create a truly human society.


RN: At one point in the book, you suggest that radicals should "write fewer leaflets with answers to questions people are not yet asking and spend more time just adding question marks" to mindless slogans, as in "Must see TV?." You're obviously half-kidding, but the point's a serious one. How else can the Left make itself more relevant to more people?

BO: People are hurting in all sorts of ways, and with all the economic indicators pointing down, life is going to become much more difficult and painful very soon. With this will come a greater receptivity to what all kinds of radicals have to say. But if we are to make the most of these new opportunities, we still need to find more and better ways to get our message across. Our chief problem as radicals is that most people don't see the connections between their personal difficulties and the normal workings of the capitalist system, what a more rational and humane society might look like, and what they can do to help bring such a system into being. What radicals call "consciousness raising" involves all this. But it has to begin with where people are at in their lives, worries, frustrations, pains and pleasures (life exams for students), and to be effective it has to involve each person in an active search for answers. So stimulating curiosity and critical thinking generally, and helping people formulate the key questions are an important step in consciousness raising. Unfortunately, it is also one that many radicals overlook.

In my own work, I have spent a lot of time dealing with this step, often with the help of radical humor. Besides the Exam Book, I helped organize the first Radical Humor Festival, which was held here at NYU in 1984. I also invented a humorous Marxist board game, "Class Struggle," and wrote a humorous business autobiography about the experience of producing and marketing the game, the second edition of which—now titled "Ballbuster? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman"—will be out this October. Laughing at something that doesn't make sense is often the first step in wanting to learn just why it doesn't make sense and opening that subject up for criticism. Believing that what is funny cannot be serious, however, most radicals have ignored the consciousness raising potential in radical humor. There is a lot of good radical humor out there. I have always thought; for example, that radicals should make a more concerted effort to circulate radical jokes, cartoons, songs and stories, and by every possible means. If they're really funny, they will be read, sung, listened to and thought about (and passed on) even by people who don't agree with their meaning.

Radical humor, of course, is but one tactic for dealing with our problem. I give it such prominence only because it is something I have often tried to use.


RN: You make an interesting connection between the rise in the education system's reliance on exams and the phenomenon of "globalization." Explain.

BO: What's called "globalization" is essentially capitalism on a world scale, but a bigger capitalism also brings bigger problems for capitalism. Those who are pushing for more and more exams at all levels of the educational process point to the intensified competition between industries, and therefore also between workers world-wide, and the increasingly rapid pace at which economic changes of all kinds are occurring. To survive in this new order, they say, requires people who are not only efficient but have a variety of skills (or can quickly acquire them) and the flexibility to change tasks whenever called upon to do so. Thus, the only way to prepare our youth for the new economic life that awaits them is to raise standards of education, and that entails, among other things, more exams.

A more critical approach to globalization begins by recognizing that the intensification of economic competition world-wide is driven by capitalists' efforts to maximize their profits. It is this that puts all the other developments associated with globalization into motion. And it is well known that, all things being equal, the less capitalists pay their workers and the less money they spend on improving work conditions and reducing pollution, the more profit they make. Recent technological progress in transportation and communication together with free trade and the abolition of laws restricting the movement of capital allow capitalists today to consider workers all over the world in making their calculations. While the full impact of these developments is yet to be felt, we can already see two of its most important effects in the movement of companies (and parts of companies) into the Third World in search of cheaper labor and a roll-back of the modest gains in wages, benefits and work conditions that American workers have won over the last fifty years of struggle.

Thus, while capitalists in this new age of globalization certainly need workers with the right mix of skills and knowledge to run their businesses, they need every bit as much—and I believe even more—people across society and particularly in the working class who will accept worsening conditions and accompanying fears and anxieties without making waves. Naturally, if changes in education alone (with the main focus on exams) could produce the desired effect, the capitalists would be very pleases. But if—and where—it can't, the capitalists and their government (and their media, and their cultural, educational and social institutions) are quick to supplement it with other tactics.

The current rage for more exams, therefore, needs to be viewed as part of a larger strategy that includes the obscene stoking of patriotic fires and the chipping away of traditional civil liberties (both rationalized by the so-called "war" on terrorism), the promotion of "family values," restrictions on sexual freedom (but not, as we see, on sexual hypocrisy), and the push for more prisons and longer prison sentences for a whole range of minor crimes. Simply put, the "man" is worried about loss of control at a key turning point in the development of capitalism when the disruption in people's lives is going to require more control than ever before.

There is also a connection between the explosion in the number of exams and the drive to privatize public education that deserves at least a brief comment. Standardization, easily quantifiable results, and the willingness to shape all intervening processes to obtain them characterize the path to success in both business and exams. How long does it take for what is still a model for how to deal with education becomes a new definition of what education is all about? When it happens (and to the extent it has already happened), putting education in the hands of businessmen who know best how to dispense with "inessentials" becomes a perfectly rational thing to do. In this manner, whether undertaken consciously or not (and I suspect it is a bit of both), the introduction of more and more exams prepares the ground for the privatization of education.


RN: Finally, while we're on the economy: When Enron burst, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said the collapse was testament to the "genius of capitalism." Any comments?

BO: O'Neill is absolutely right. It takes some kind of genius to come up with ways to waste, destroy, misuse, allow to collapse, and leave undeveloped the material and human wealth now available to our society. When an individual is surrounded by all that is necessary to live well, she/he makes a personal plan on how to proceed to achieve this end (it's called "being rational").

Without the ideological baggage acquired in schools and through the media, most people would proceed in the same way (that is, they would make a social plan) in order to make effective use of what is available in our society to satisfy their social needs. The "genius" of capitalism lies in avoiding this common sense solution (and keeping most people from even seeing it), so that capitalist owners can continue to rule the roost. How long will most people accept the collapse of businesses, growing unemployment, the waste and misuse of resources, and the ruination that accompanies all this as an act of genius? As the economic depression deepens (and acts of such "creative destruction" multiply), how long can we afford to do so?