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How to Take an Exam...& Remake the World
Z MagazineJuly/August 2001
There is the chanting mob: noisy, raucous, not terribly dangerous. There is the silent mob: ominous, serious, quietly menacing, more dangerous. Then there is the laughing mob. When the laughing mob approaches, the Masters will be wise to flee. The laughing mob is the mob that will overcome. In this book, Bertell Ollman is the agitator and educator of the laughing mob.
Who else is going to produce a funny book, How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World, about testing in schools and the class struggle? Who else is going to include Tuli Kupferberg, author of the incomparable 1960's score of the "Gobble Chorus," ("Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble," etc., in falsetto) as an illustrator? Who, but the more dangerous of the reds, is going to cover the book with upside-down pictures of Groucho Marx, Einstein, and Karl Marx? Who else is going to offer an index that readily directs the reader to "frog-jumping," and "chicken-headless," a special index where to find the great cartoons by luminaries like Huck and Robert Miner, as well as Rosa Luxembourg and Brecht?
Ollman did it. The book is an amalgamation, a mess of a fruit and nut cake, as he describes it, that anyone who has sweated an exam or wondered about their powerlessness and guiltand the mysteries of capitalwill enjoy chewing through. This is a dead-serious good fun, erudite scholarship easily read; and a how-to-scam-the-big-exam guide that is as good as most of the marketeer's test-prep courses. It's surely for every teacher, every student, and plenty of workers who want to know more about how the workplace works.
What Ollman is up to here is to lead us joyfully through the sometimes daunting warrens of the Old Mole of historical materialism, from alienation to exploitation to reification to commodity fetishism, all the while chuckling at the fizzle-wits who want us to take tests about the fonnics of skaircity and choyse.
Along the way, we learn how to take multiple-choice tests (if it says, "all," four out of five times it's false), essay exams (write clearly), and the fearsome oral examination (get a good night's sleep). But we also get bigger treats: answers to the questions, "Is it better to get rid of the bosses or capital?" and, "Why have school?" or "What might be the relationship of grades, money, and wearing the Yellow Star?" and "Why have government?"
Ollman understands that a good education leaves a student with good questions, not necessarily good answers, but not rudderless either. Rigor is mixed with freedom here, we chew down on both at the same time. But this is not just pedagogical theory. Like all teaching, it is both analysis and a call to action. The point is: "resignation sucks." He thinks we can win.
We also get the clarity that Ollman cultivated in a lifetime of works that are profound, yet accessible and sometimes funny (his book, Alienation, Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, and his board game, Class Struggle). He goes at the de rigeur notion of globalization head on: this is capitalism, imperialism, but on a world scale never seen before, no holds barred, absolute freedom for the movement and accumulation of things, especially the main thing, more capital; utter degradation for human beings. Freedom and tolerance become the liberty to tolerate hierarchy and inequality. Globalization has its demands and, in school, it is More Exams Everywhere. The exams prepare us for life, beneath capital. This is where Ollman truly enters, laughing. He plans to outwit them both.
How shall this be done? What are the limits to capital and to testing? Does Ollman give tests? It's all in the recipe Ollman is playfully offering, tongue not so much in cheek, but right out between the teeth. Yes, there are limits to capital, and like Istvan Meszaros, David Harvey, and others, Ollman thinks we approach them now, in the environment, in the pending crises of overproduction, and in the nearly unthinkable chances of war (more unthinkable to Ollman than to many others).
There is tradition here too, within the authentic radicalism of the entire text. There are traditional cartoons (the organized bee-hive and Miner's Headless Soldier) worth the price of admission alone. Ollman's tradition wants abundance as a basis for equality and democracy, a dubious requirement for a society run by elites who don't shrink from poisoning the air their children breathe and who would bomb their own factories in their death throes. The sole limit to capital is, as Ollman has said, the conscious decision of masses of people to live better, in the connected interests of each for all. Those interested in education and social justice will see the link deftly made.
Ollman writes with an urgent sense of patience. With all that the mainstream press will probably call the strident pointing to crisis levels of structural limits and injustice, there is the fortitude that understands the requisite role of reason, changing millions of minds, in order to make the struggle for a better world worthy, and defensible. How we do that is in the book too.Rich Gibson is in the College of Education at San Diego State University.
Taking Exams, Taking on Capitalism
Books, Monthly ReviewJanuary 2002
Margaret Mikesell Tabb, Kathryn Cressida Tabb, and William K. Tabb
Since How to Take an Exam...& Remake the World by Bertell Ollman sets out to build a bridge between generations, addressing the needs of both students and radical professors, it made sense to evaluate it from both points of view. We therefore welcomed this three-part review by two educators and their college student daughter.The EditorsPart I: Introduction by English Professor Mom
Bertell Ollman's How to Take an Exam...& Remake the World has a double agenda, which Ollman candidly acknowledges: to offer advice about studying (which the student wants) and to make a powerful plea for socialism (which Ollman wants). As a study guide, the book offers suggestions for exam preparation that are most serious (persistently reminding the student of the importance of advance preparation and offering guidance about how to do that), sometimes cheeky (pre-exam sex is okay, drugs and cheating not), sometimes subversive (in the advice on how to get over on the professor), and at bottom deeply critical of exams as a genre, especially the ones that discourage thinking. Ollman argues that the function of exams is to train submissive workers, a trenchant assessment that grows increasingly explicit as the book develops. These exam tips and observations form less than half the story of the book, which scatters them amongst a devastating political analysis. While his experience as a professor makes him a good adviser for exam taking, his commitment to progressive politics and his deep knowledge of Marxism and capitalism make the political and economic material the more powerful part of the book, as he intends.
The political argument develops seemingly casuallythe plethora of cartoons and lack of chapter titles being two obvious parts of this strategybut gradually the shape of the analysis becomes apparent. The book begins with a critique of capital and its accompanying "-ism," largely through anecdotal accounts of the deadening, the miserable, and the outrageous effects of basing our society on the accumulation of wealth. Gradually this presentation gives way, in the crucial last quarter of the book, to a definition and discussion of some of the basic, most complex, concepts of Marxismideas like "alienation," "capitalist ideologies," and "revolution"all explained with commendable clarity. Toward the end, Ollman lays out a rather inchoate view of what a socialist society might be like and offers some thoughts about the other c-word, the one that our capitalist apologists (legislators, journalists and the like) insist has been erased from the world.
As an English teacher, I have to say this: the book offers a poor example to its student readers in two respects: abysmal editing has left numerous grammar errorsincomplete sentences, misused apostrophes, incorrect verb forms. And the lack of any source citations whatsoever is disturbing; moreover, it will make the book's abundant examples impossible for students to use in any responsible way.Part II: by College Freshman Daughter
Characteristic of Bertell Ollman's affectionately irreverent and elegantly concise style, How to Take an Exam...& Remake the World begins with a cartoon: "Pass the exam! Your future is at stake!" demands a balding professor. "Examine the past! Your present is at stake!" counters the shaggy-haired student. While succinctly summing up Professor Ollman's main directives for his book, the cartoon is charitably inaccurate. It is, of course, Professor Ollman who hopes to re-establish the priorities of students with his emphasis on the bigger picture and to show us just why it is finally more important to turn our attention outside of the examination system itself. However, the reversed situation portrayed by the cartoon is an example of Mr. Ollman's success in avoiding unwelcome didacticism in this hilarious, poignant, and simply necessary book. Similarly, he offers a "deal" to his readerhe will impart his test-taking expertise if the student will simply "put up with" his political theory. Soon any student worth her salt will realize that she got the short end of the dealwhile the professor's tips are at worst innovative takes on old tricks of the trade and at best teachers' secrets that a student would never think of, the majority of the book is concerned with theory. But by this time the attentive student will be too engrossed to care.
As a recent high school graduate, I am deeply impressed by the accuracy of the relationship Professor Ollman demonstrates between the anxiety people my age have about exams and our unease with the larger world order that is making more and more demands on us. The psychology of the proletariat, Professor Ollman claims, is often based upon measurements of potential, independent of the individual's own drive, and this certainly starts with exams in school. He zealously encourages escape from this trap, cheering on students who realize that "resignation sucks." The critical thinker, he argues, can play "bullshit bingo" with her professor's pedagogy, can express her radical view points and still ace the exam, not only controlling the training of her own mind but also curtailing her exploitation by the ruling class.
While Professor Ollman's confidence in both his subjects and the intensity of his resolve are a bit engulfing in the first chapters of the book, the reader is soon encouraged to engage her mind as she would in the classroom, preparing evolving questions that, impressively, are for the most part answered by the end. However, Mr. Ollman's arguments were weakened by the lack of counterarguments of his opposition, a danger he warns against in essay and oral presentations. While he makes it quite clear that he thinks the champions of capitalism have no honest answers to the problems he points out, he doesn't offer any of the arguments they use in their defense, information that offers important lessons for developing a critical mind. Professor Ollman's philosophy of working within the systemin fact, mastering the systemencourages courageous self-reliance, élan, and resolution both inside and outside the classroom. He recognizes the position of students as powerful but also overwhelmed to the point of paralysis or worse, laziness. He offers two of the most efficient aids to escaping these doldrumsencouragement and information.Part III: Afterword by Economics Professor Dad
Bertell Ollman is one of the most creative and truly radical of our intellectuals. Those who have read his path-breaking works on Marx's theory, especially on alienation and dialectics, or his many essays on topics such as the yakuza and the emperor of Japan or Wilhelm Reich or for that matter played his board game "Class Struggle," know something of his breadth and depth. Now comes How to Take an Exam...& Remake the World. Before one even opens the book one is confronted by its colorful cover featuring three of the world's most famous headsGroucho Marx, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein (sticking out his tongue), all three upside down and in a unity of composition inviting a host of possible associations (Curley, Moe, and Larry, for one). The monkeys of see no, hear no, and speak no evil, alert one to the whimsy of a creative genius. The "lessons" that follow, while not 100 percent non-didactic, are delivered through funny, thought-provoking cartoons and stories you will want to repeat to friends. You will find yourself reading straight through to the back cover of a book engaged in a presentation that is multi-vocal in form and texture.
Chapter one begins with a story that is both funny and pertinent to important themes of the book, since it presents the collision of overwhelming power with a material reality which cannot be ignored. The book proceeds by a series of germane but often quirky juxtapositions: in quick succession paragraphs contain insights on how to read true-false questions and to determine which ones are likely to be false given the logic teachers are reduced to employ in such a test format, followed by analysis of the lot of students, their fears, and possibly unhappy prospects. Ollman reminds students that they are not responsible for their situation, contextualizing the conditions that our system imposes and showing how the student's personal is capitalism's political. Advice on taking examswhy it is generally wise to tackle your second best question firstis followed by a discussion of careers and rat catching in Bombay. Ollman draws on Marxist theory and UN reports, deconstructs the memorial service of an industrialist, and shares a post office-ready flier for one Jesus Christ, who is wanted for "conspiracy to overthrow the established government, is said to be a carpenter by trade and associates with common working people, the unemployed, the bums." He segues to why J. Edgar Hoover "knew" Martin Luther King was a Communist and thence to the Dali Lama's endorsement of Marxism.
Then comes advice on succeeding at oral exams. Including a communist version of the Ten Commandments, a poem titled "Feelings" by a youthful Karl Marx, songs of Tom Paxton and Victor Jara, an airplane joke, a flipping coin joke, what the program of a revolutionary party might look like today, and references to Alfred North Whitehead and James Thurber may be too much for some readers, but for my college age daughter and the friends to whom she gave copies of How to Take an Exam..., it has proven a breath of fresh air, daring, exciting and intellectually provocative, not to mention slyly seductive. If grasped by enough students, Ollman's discussion of why capitalism, as such, is virtually invisible in the social sciences would make American education as it is now practically unsustainablewhich is as good a reason as any to run out and buy a copy of this book for every student you know.
How to Ace an Exam Without Selling Your Soul
Our Schools/Our SelvesOctober 2001
Paul Leduc Browne
Bertell Ollman once made headlines as the inventor of the world's first Marxist board game, Class Struggle. In How to Take an Exam...& Remake the World, he offers us a Marxist self-help book for students, indeed for all those willing to think critically. The book is intriguingly written and very intelligent. Ollman has a wonderful sense of humour and the book is also extremely funny.
A noted philosopher who has taught at a number of American and European universities for thirty-five years, Ollman has "acquired an enormous exam lore" during his career, but doesn't feel any strong urge to share it with his readers. Rather:
What I really would like to do is to tell you about capitalism, the system by which we produce and distribute the wealth of our society, but I suspect that most of you couldn't care less about what I have to say on this topic. Yet you'd probably like to hear my exam advice. So: Let's Make a Deal. That's the catch. I'll tell you what you need to know in order to write the best possible exams if you lend an ear to my account of capitalism. (vii)In the nearly 200 pages that follow, Ollman intersperses a montage of brief reflections on the disparities and contradictions of capitalist society with practical (and often strategic) tips on preparing for exams and passing them.
The logic by which Ollman's thought unfolds is not linear. The book at first appears as a collection of little snippets pasted together almost randomly. It helps to know that he first made his reputation with a book entitled Alienation (Cambridge University Press, 1971), which expounds Marx's philosophy of internal relations, and has recently published Dialectical Investigations. Dialectical thinking "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." (p. 109) But Ollman gives us all the tools we need in How to Take an Exam....
In a marvelous passage (p. 108), Ollman recalls Oliver Sacks's brain-injured patient, who could perceive all the discrete aspects of things, but couldn't understand how they related to each other to form a whole. In Ollman's eyes, we all suffer from such blindness; only, most of us do so for sociological, rather than neurological reasons: "the socialization that we all undergo in capitalism inclines us to seek the particulars that enter our lives but to ignore the ways they are related and, thus, to miss the patterns that emerge from these relations."
We can see much of what goes on in capitalist society; but the system, capitalism, that underpins and unites all these experiences and relations, remains invisible to most of us. How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World aims first to show us the many different particulars, then to give us the tools to relate them to each other, and finally to make the wholecapitalismvisible in all its contradictions.
You will have guessed from this that the topic of exams is more than incidental here, more than a mere gimmick to gain an audience. Indeed, a punning cartoon right at the beginning of the book tells us as much. A teacher lectures a student: "Pass the exam! Your future is at stake!" To which the student retorts: "Examine the past! Your present is at stake!" (Incidentally, the book's hilarious political cartoons alone would make it worth reading.)
Ollman regards exams as part of the process of moulding individuals' hearts, minds and bodies to the needs of the labour market in the interest of employers. In his words, exams "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." (p. 150) Exams condition us to sit still, to endure abuse, stress and boredom, to cope with speeded-up work, to accept orders and imposed tasks without question, to live in fear of failure, to feel always inadequate, and to believe in the greater wisdom and intelligence of those administering the tests. "Is it any wonder," Ollman asks, "that life itself is often experienced as a series of exams for which one is never quite prepared, never quite in time, and never quite finished?" (p. 150)
Yet it need not be thus. In a metaphor for broader process of social change, Ollman describes an "alternative to the typical exam, where each individual is thrown into a deadly competition with others," namely the cooperative exam, "where students work together to produce a common product." (p. 155) Anyone who has tried cooperative ventures within the school system knows that the results are uneven. Some always feel that they are doing all the work or contributing all the brains, while others just aren't pulling their weight. As Ollman recognizes, the cooperative approach requires students to display a strong sense of responsibility; but as he also points out, it fosters such qualities in turn.
George Lukács once pointed out that there can be no such thing as a blessed island of socialism in an ocean of capitalism. The competitive system tends to overwhelm isolated attempts to live and work cooperatively. True and lasting change can only be systemic. Systemic change requires knowledge. Like Hegel, who defined freedom not as the absence of necessity, but as its recognition, Ollman believes that freedom "is not simply doing what you want, but includes knowing how to do it, when you do it, why you should do it, and, sometimes, why you shouldn't." (p. 160)
What is the relation between grades and money?
How to Take an Exam... demystifies the context in which exams are administered. But it also offers the student a wealth of excellent advice on how to approach exams. By suggesting ways to prepare for exams and achieve the best results, while putting the whole process in perspective, Ollman aims to give us "the mental distance and the moral right to manipulate them back (... ) to ace an exam without losing [our] soul[s] to the process." (p.180) In so doing, he arms us intellectually to take on the challenge of remaking the world of alienation in which we live.Paul Leduc Browne is a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a survivor of many exams.
Adult Education QuarterlyAugust 2002
John Ohliger, Basic Choices, Inc.
I am personally offering a money-back guarantee for this book. I am so convinced of its value that if you do not think it is worth what you paid, send the paperback to me, along with the receipt for your cost, and I will mail you a full refund.
How to Take an Exam is by a world-renowned professor of political science at New York University. Although Ollman has written several highly technical tomes, such as Dialectical Investigations, he is also the creator of the popular board game Class Struggle and coorganizer of the first conference on radical humor. His new book has received enthusiastic endorsements from distinguished educators such as Howard Zinn, Ira Shor, and Andrew Ross.
This is a very easy-to-read book, but bedtime browsing is just the beginning. I suggest you start by skimming the book and noting the ideas the author offers for studying and passing exams. Each of the more than 100 hints is preceded by an obvious printer's mark. Many of these recommendations are based on Ollman's shrewd observations of teachers' hopes to fool their students. Others are drawn from studying the sometimes careless and sloppy habits of students preparing for exams and their often-unwise approach to the classroom when faced with writing the answers to the various types of test questions. After you have completed this skimming, go back and start reading the book carefully to catch the author's wily but emancipating agenda for linking test-taking hints with world-changing strategies.
Based on his 35 years of teaching, Ollman presents a cogent but good-humored analysis of our oppressive society, emphasizing the oppressive nature of exams. The book concludes with a prescriptive description for a truly free nation, one in which learning is honored but not forced. All this is achieved in simple, clear prose devoid of any jargon. That is quite an accomplishment for a Marxist, especially when Ollman's sense of humor glows on every page of the text and in the more than 40 historic cartoons and graphics he has chosen.
You do not need to be a Marxist to find this book really helpful. I am not a Marxist, and I do. If you are a teacher, I recommend you test its worth by adopting it as a text for one adult education section while using a more conventional approach for another.
The most eye-opening parts of this book for adult educators are the final three chapters, which present Ollman's vision for the future. A single quotation gives the flavor: 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... 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 small, 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 what learning should be. (p.175) Indeedespecially because more than half of adult learners are now subject to "required courses."
Students or teachers interested in linking large-scale social and educational reform would do well to study this book. Start by thinking about the meaning of the book's cover. There you will find upside-down caricatures of three famous historical figures: Karl Marx scowling, Groucho Marx smiling, and Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. This is one book that you can tell by its cover.
New Political Science, Volume 24, No. 2, 2002
Leslie Feldman, Hofstra University
Psst. Wanna be a straight-A radical? Pick up Bertell Ollman's deceptively amusing and earthy guide for the would-be radical, How 2 Take an Exam...& Remake the World. Based on the sound theory that students will only listen to political theory when offered with practical guidance on how to "ace" college exams, Professor Ollman brilliantly mixes the two. The result is practical advicesuch as the suggestion that good penmanship will improve your exam gradealong with Ollman's subtle, insightful wisdom on how to think critically and deconstruct the game that is capitalism.
Ollman begins the book with a testament for readers: "I leave to the students of this world all the 'As' they desire and as good a life as they're willing to fight for, along with the little bit of wisdom I've acquired on how to get both." Ollman is surely modest as he is wiseand his simple Socratic wisdom and irony permeate the book as they have permeated the lives of his New York University students for 35 years. The author "makes a deal" with his reader at the outset of the bookto "tell you what you need to know in order to write the best possible exams if you lend an ear to" his "account of capitalism" (p. vii). He explains that "the book is organized like a fruit and nut cake and to get at the fruit you've got to eat the nuts" (p. viii). Thus, advice on exams is mixed through the chapters with thoughts on the political and economic scene and how the capitalist system works. Unfair, you say? Good. That's just the kind of response that Ollman wants because the reader can use it to question unfair aspects of society.
Ollman mixes his lessons on society and economics, on becoming radical and on critical thinking with the famous brand of humorfrom Karl Marx to Groucho Marxthat has delighted his students for decades. Pointers on academic conventions are mixed with stories about alienation, class struggle, etc., but this is a weighty book. For example, one essential element of critical thinking involves making comparisons. To illustrate this point Ollman invokes the words of humorist James Thurber, who when asked "How is your wife?" replied "As compared to what" (p.2)? The unfair nature of capitalism is illustrated with the story of the millionaire who made his first million by buying an apple for 5 cents and selling it for 10 cents and doing it every day until his father-in-law left him a million dollars (p.3). Such is the nature of the capitalist "game." The book has upside down pictures of Einstein, and the two MarxesGroucho and Karlon the cover, as if to reinforce the contradictions that would be ideal in illuminating basic Marxist ideas for a graduate or undergraduate class.
Games are another thing Ollman knows about (his dilemmae in producing and marketing his board game "Class Struggle" are a story in themselves, in which he asks the question: why do banks only lend to those businesses who "don't really need it?" p. 85). The point is clear: everything is a game. When you can see the rules you will understand that the capitalist "game is rigged!" just as the essay exam is riggedbetter answer "your second best question first" so you can "warm up" for your best question while pacing yourself (p.4). Better bone up on the forces fueling the system before you become part (a victim?) of it.
Generally, the advice is excellent: be respectful, but ask questions. Demand clarificationson exams and in life. Just as Aristotle analogized to "cooks and diners" Ollman notes that an exam taker is like a cook in a restaurant waiting to take an order from a customerbecause the cook doesn't know what the customer wants before being asked, the best the cook can do is "stock up on the ingredients that are required by the dishes that are on the menu" (p. 9). So exam takers can "stock up" on the essentials with which to cook up an answer, and critical thinkers can stock up on essentials such as criticism and social and political analysis with which to examine and critique the capitalist system.
Ollman's book makes very serious observations on everything from alienation, his specialty, to the homeless. Ollman urges students to look beyond the eventsexams, university education, job interviewsto the forces that drive them including the quest for conformity and the general disdain for creativity and originality of thought. As original thinking is a threat to the routinized system of exams, so is it a threat to the social structure. So, Rule #1don't make waves. Capitalism dictates that we fit in. Conform. Ollman, happily, does not take his own advice and himself eschews conformity, making him one of the liveliest, most unconventional and influential professors and writers of his generation.
Ollman shines between the lines of this book. Quirky, humorous, and kitsch but always with the rigor of the true Oxonion, a bit Catskills and a bit Plato, Ollman purveys wisdom. Marx (both of them) would be proud. So, as Ollman would have it, do not be afraid to conform while doing the "dance of the dialectic" and unraveling the mysteries of the system. Just as Plato says we have to turn ourselves around to see our knowledge, Ollman says we should reorient ourselves, or "adjust our thinking," in order to understand capitalism. It is hard work. Just as you will have to work hard to get an "A" you will have to work hard to change the systembut at least you will be actively involved. Rather than having education be the "passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence" (p.51), Ollman seeks to go behind the curtain of exams and capitalist society and reveal the "wizard" behind them both. At this he excels. The book is witty, sardonic, delightful. Ollman has perfected the true art of teaching Marxism with style, wit and charisma. And for those who want to get good gradesthere is that too.
Socialism & DemocracyFall, 2001
Dave Lippman, Chapel Hill, N.C.
I've recently been embroiled in a collective anguishing over the exam and homework strategies of a 16-year-old scholar. And with no hope of a quick resolution: it seems that college, unfortunately, can be the extension of high school by similar means.
In his continuing effort not only to say important things but to actually communicate them to a new audience, Bertell Ollman has set out to deal with the hyper-corporatization of education. The book proceeds from an outrageously simple, yet simply outrageous premise: I'm going to tell you a story you don't want to read, and you are going to read it because it has something you do want hidden in it. It's a carrot and stick, bitter and sweet approach: You want to know how to ace a test; I'm going to tell you that tests suck. And that if you pass, you'll face a lifetime of working for test-designers who will surely test your patience with the meaninglessness of their (and your) pursuits.
Exams, says Ollman, are "the treadmill that prepares [students] for the still bigger rat race to come... the drug that so befogs students' minds that they take this mad scene for normal." Furthermore, "an exam is not the ideal occasion for laying out one's world view." That in itself should convince us there's something wrong with exams. And something right with them from the point of view of the exam masters: they are, in fact, an ideal occasion for laying out someone else's world view, the one you've been taughtthe fragmented, incoherent, uncritical world view that's dished out in (and out of) school in order to replicate an order already existing. More often they are the occasion for regurgitating the incoherent fragments themselves, with world view obscured by the obligatory absence of critical thinking.
Ollman pursues his point with a text rich in both startling statistics and pithy quotes, along with cartoons and song lyrics, all well suited to today's sound-bite consciousness. There are quotes about schools, like Mark Twain's "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education," and quotes about capitalism, like Adam Smith's "Civil government... is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor." "These capitalists," explains Abraham Lincoln, "generally act, harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people." "The truth is," adds Woodrow Wilson, "we are all caught up in a great economic system which is heartless."
And statistics!: "Since 1947, the world has spent over $15 trillion on arms... 1/2 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." This sort of perspective ought to come as rather a jolt to students if they stop to think of how many other such things they have not been taught, and how irrelevant these most relevant things prove to be, come test time.
And Ollman continues to invent games, following up on his famous board game Class Struggle with Bullshit Bingo. He undertakes an elucidation of class struggle, sketching an outline of Marxist theory including alienation, commodification, and surplus value. He practices, even down to the details of what should or shouldn't be publicly owned.
He also encourages the reader to practice the unusual but essential skill of thinking about things from two perspectives at once, or nearly at once. He urges students to develop both the skills to survive in the system and the skills for struggling to change it. It's very smart. It's an anti-capitalist reference book. Yet it starts from where so many young people areconsumerist and survivalist. For this reason it should be appreciated by both the most and the least activist of today's students.
By the way, his test-taking tips are excellent, even principled. Thanks to Ollman for that.
And thanks to the folks at Black Rose Books for bringing us this handy, enjoyable tool. One thing though: get a proofreader. The frequency of dangling participles, spelling glitches and typos should disconcert anyone even casually cognizant of grammar or punctuation. In a book written by a professor, for students, these are particularly embarrassing. Otherwise, kudos. And a word to students: don't leave this book to the last minute. Cramming, as Ollman points out in a burst of traditionalism, isn't really learning. But then, neither are exams.
Perspectives on Political Economy of Education
Educational Studies, Volume 35, No. 1
Kevin D. Vinson, University of Arizona
E. Wayne Ross, University of Louisville
What initially connects an author and a readerbefore the influences of hype, marketing, reputation, word of mouth, bestseller lists, awards, culture, hipsterism, critical acclaim, and so forth take their effectsrests essentially upon an implicit and uncertain deal, with no guarantees, in which both participants expect not only to give something to the experiencing of a book, but also to receive in return something substantial and rewarding from it.
For readers this means the prospect that in compensation for their commitment of some often substantial sum of moneya share of "expendable income"and of a significant portion of their increasingly limited and valuable time, they will encounter at least an effort on the part of the author to communicate something interesting, informative, challenging, and/or novel. For authors it means that by accepting the hard-earned time and money of readers they accept as well the obligation at least to try to provide them something meaningful and worthwhile in exchange. Both presume a good faith attempt on the part of their counterpart to meet the responsibilities of the underlying bargain.
With most books, this agreement remains unspoken, silent, and covert, hidden from the ostensibly surface act of reading and thus barely noticed even by those most directly involved. Bertell Ollman, however is emphatically not most authors, and neither is his newest work, How to Take an Exam... and Remake the World, most books. We suspect, moreover, that Ollman's regular readers are not most readersthat they would recoil at the very notion.
What first makes How to Take an Exam different from other books is its author's willingness to share his own deal, albeit a unique one, with his readers, overtly and bluntly, and to spell out from the beginning his expectations of them and what they in return can expect from him. Here's his promissory offer:
What I really would like to do is tell you about capitalism, the system by which we produce and distribute the wealth of our society, but I suspect that most of you couldn't care less about what I have to say on this topic. Yet, you'd probably like to hear my exam advice. So: Let's Make a Deal. That's the catch. (vii)He continues:
I'll tell you what you need to know in order to write the best possible exams if you lend an ear to my account of capitalism. This book will be our "deal." My pledge: you get advice that is almost certain to raise your grades in virtually any subject area. My price: I get to harangue youlightly, nothing that draws blood, not yours anywayabout what really concerns me. Okay? Except, since I know that many students cheat if given half the chance, I've not been so foolish as to divide the material by chapter. Instead, what you really want to hear is thoroughly mixed up [sic] what I really want to tell you. Exam hints will appear at the start, in the middle and at the end of pages devoted to political exposé, and nothing in the style or size of print will offer a clue as to what's what. The book is organized rather like a fruit and nut cake, and to get to the fruit you've got to eat the nuts. (viii)Indeed, there are plenty of both fruits and nuts. For Ollman attacks exams with the same verve and vigor with which he attacks capitalism, offering alternatives to and insights into both. In the end, he is more than effective in each case and succeeds in demolishing them completely and with little mercy.
"Unfair!" you holler. That's right. The best thing you have going for you is the raw nerve that tells you when something isn't fair. It's also the best thing going for us, since we are all part of the same society. Well, what is and isn't, and what can be done about it is just what I want to talk to you about. And if I have to be a little unfair myself in order to get your attention, so be it. (viii)Upfront and transparent, nothing hidden, conversational, that's Ollman's style. He goes on:
In what follows, then, exam hints and political facts and ideas play off one another like contrasting themes in a musical fugue, with numbered intermissions called only when I think you need a break. Still, as in Bach's fugues, there is a slow build-up, an eventual mingling of themes, and a final crescendo. You may be in for a bumpy beginning, but let yourself go with the rhythm, and you'll learn how to dance to it soon enough. (viii)For those of us on the social, political, pedagogical, economic, and cultural Left, Ollman's work in fact is music, a veritable and virtuosic dance.
Ollman is a professor of political science at New York University and author of a number of previous works of revolutionary theory and practice, including Alienation (1971), Dialectical Investigations (1993), and Social and Sexual Revolution (1979). He offers up a straightforward, insightful, witty, and timely work that begs to be read within at least two radical and progressively more important developing contexts. First, it should be considered within the growing body of scholarship opposing the (mis) use of educational tests (such as those so prominent in the new bipartisan federal education law), a literature that includes most notably efforts such as: Peter Sack's Standardized Minds (1999); Susan Ohanian's One Size Fits Few (1999); Linda M. McNeil's The Contradictions of School Reform (2000); W. James Popham's The Truth About Testing (2001); and Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999) and The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000). But second, it should be read within and against Ollman's own previous works and their singular and principal place among other examples of contemporary Marxist-socialist critical theory and writing.
What Ollman recognizes, and what forms the basis of his overall contribution, is that today in the United States we face a society that is at once: (1) engulfed in a testing craze, one so severe that among many groups and individualsliberals as well as conservatives, most pointedly those elite few wielding the most absurd and inordinate levels of wealth and political powerschooling has become nothing more than test preparation, and test scores have become image-driven substitutes for a more authentic and meaningful education; and (2) ripe for social(ist) revolution as it experiences the ever-increasing weight of capitalism's intrinsic dangers and "necessary" globalist cruelties. Most interestingly, though, Ollman sees the twotesting ad capitalismsuch that each relies upon conjoined and parallel mechanisms for its very existence and exhibits ultimately the same set of devastating effects and consequences, namely, those of alienation, exploitation, and commodification.
Unquestionably, Ollman holds up his end of the bargain. He delivers legitimate and useful test-taking strategies as well as deeper and astute perceptions relative to the construction and meaning of a variety of commonly used tests, namely, those identified as fact-based, essay, and oral examinations. At the same time, though, he offers readersstudents and teachers comprise his most desired audiencea clear and comprehensible introduction to the inherent flaws of capitalism and to the fundamental concepts and principles of Marxism-socialism and its benefits as an anti-capitalist socio-politico-economic structural alternative. Throughout, these efforts are interwoven so that Ollman is able not only to ensure his commitment to the deal, but also to make creative and insightful links between the dangers and problematics of testing and the dangers and problematics of capitalism.
Overall Ollman's test-taking advice holds up. An example:
In Essay and Oral Exams, how careful must one be in qualifying one's conclusions? Very careful. A common error is for students to offer evidence or arguments that support a conclusion limited as to number, kind, time or area, but to make it seem that it applies to everyone, everywhere, always. Also, when your conclusion isand can only betentative, likely or uncertain, say so. Also, it may sometimes be the case that you can't come to a conclusion, or that there are two possible conclusions. If this is what the "facts" call for, say so explicitly. Assuming the facts justify it, carefully qualified conclusions usually go over very big with examiners. (56)Likewise, his comments relative to the continued failings of capitalism prove thoughtful, tightly argued, compelling, and frightening. For instance,
In sum, the socialization that we all undergo in capitalism inclines us to see the particulars that enter our lives but to ignore the ways they are related and, thus, to miss the patterns that emerge from these relations. 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. (108)Or
Capitalism died the moment the conditions necessary for accumulating capital on the scale required by the enormous amount of wealth available for investment could no longer be assured. It died when the related conditions that are indispensable for selling all of the rapidly growing amount of finished goods likewise evolved out of reach. Today, there are simply not enough profitable investments in the production and distribution of goods, given the gigantic sums seeking investments; nor are there enough people with sufficient purchasing power to buy the mountain of goods that have already been produced. (121-122)As he promises, How to Take an Exam moves between one and the other, effectively drawing the reader back and forth in anticipation not only of additional test-taking strategies but also of what he will demonstrate next about the perils of capitalism and the promises of socialism. As a case in point,
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 playand by which we are all forced to playreward venality and penalize kindness. With the imperative to maximize profits front and center, it is these rules of the game (themselves rooted in the very nature of capital as self-expanding value or wealth) 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.is followed immediately by
Memorizing Important Facts for an exam. There are no sure fire techniques, but some combination of the following helps: (1) 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, 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. (99)
Undoubtedly, How to Take an Exam will unearth familiar ground for those readers with some prior knowledge either of Marxist political economics or of contemporary educational testing. Yet though his intended audience includes high school and college students interested enough in improving their scores on exams that they will accept Ollman's deal, those who may not be particularly familiar with capitalism's genetic weaknesses and Marxist critiques and socialist alternatives as well should find a great deal of this material relevant and important. Educators (Ollman here most specifically targets university professors) might, for example, gain insights into the effects of tests and examinations, including their connections to the reproduction of existing society inequalities. Ollman asks,
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... 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. (171)How many teachers and professors (and educational managers) have truly confronted these questions? More directly, how many agree with Ollman yet continue to create and administer tests? To what consequences? Here he suggests alternatives, including a surprisingly (at least what will be the case for some readers) practical suggestion he calls the "Cooperative Exam," a process characterized in part by "students [who] work together to produce a common product" (155) and in which "the high point... occurs at the very beginning when the participants suggest different questions for study, and debate their respective merits" (155). He argues that in such a setup "students can acquire as good an overview of the subject as any the teacher might provide" (155).
Likewise, those with an existing interest in and/or some level of experience with Marxist thinking should benefit at least a little bit from Ollman's lucid and concise overview, or review, of its major ideas and understandings. His brief yet thorough treatment of such concepts as "alienation," "class," "commodification," "money," and "dialectical thinking" are particularly useful and effective, tantalizingly simple yet startlingly deep and complex. And though obviously many other authors have called for some kind of socialism or another as an alternative to capitalism, Ollman takes the bold next step of delineating precisely what he sees as the definitive features of a revolutionary socialist project: "Extending democracy, the rule of the people, into all areas of society... " (152), building here on his always solid interpretations of the conditions that indicate capitalism's failure as well as those that signal socialism's inevitability.
In the end Ollman delivers a captivating and worthwhile read, a fine return (as it were) on the reader's investment of time and money. Though addressing potentially arid academic topicseconomics and testing theoryhis effort is anything but dry. In fact it manifests itself in ways that on a number of levels prove interesting, unique, timely, readable, and, yes, even remarkably fun (the cartoons, song lyrics, slogans, humorous stories, and jokes interspersed throughout the text alone more than justify the price of the book). Still, his book represents a sobering explication of very serious contexts and issues, one which effectively lays out a constructive and convincing accounting of various dangers, commitments, settings, and alternatives. For maintaining his persuasive and very public ideals in the face of a small yet well-armed and powerful opposition he deserves a great deal of credit. Anyone who cares about educationand about young people, teachers, justice, democracy, and schoolscannot afford not to read this marvelous and inspired book.
For Ollman teaches us both "how to take an exam" and "how to remake the world." In that, as in all other aspects of his work, he keeps his promises.References
Kohn, Alfie. 1999. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Schooling and "Tougher Standards." Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kohn, Alfie. 2000. The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. New York: Heinemann.
McNeil, Linda M. 2000. The Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing. New York and London: Routledge.
Ohanian, Susan. 1999. One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. New York: Heinemann.
Ollman, Bertell. 1971. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ollman, Bertell. 1979. Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich. Boston: South End Press.
Ollman, Bertell. 1993. Dialectical Investigations. New York: Routledge.
Popham, W. James. 2001. The Truth about Testing: An Educator's Call to Action. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Sacks, Peter. 1999. Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It. New York: Perseus.
Kevin B. Anderson, Purdue University
This volume offers something very unusual. On the one hand, it gives irreverent but sagacious advice on taking exams of all sorts, from undergraduate tests to Ph.D. orals. On the other hand, it contains an accessible and reliable introduction to Marxian social theory. These two topics are intertwined, their presentation laced with humor. The goal is to gain the attention of students by offering advice to improve their grades in order to introduce them to a world of theoretical concepts that might not otherwise engage them. Thus, the volume begins with the proposal, "Let's make a deal... I'll tell you what you need to know to write the best possible exams if you lend an ear to my account of capitalism" (p. vii).
Bertell Ollman, whose previous work includes the influential, 1971, Alienation, as well as the 1993, Dialectical Investigations, is one of the English-speaking world's foremost scholars of Marx and Marxism. This means that the introduction to Marx is of the highest quality, far above the ordinary run of introductory texts. At the same time, it is written in a literate and engaging manner all too rare in the social sciences today. Ollman presents complex topics with style and grace, interweaving discussions of Marxian theory with advice on exams, to wit:
Hegel declared that "freedom is the recognition of necessity," by which he meant that it is only after taking into account all the ways in which what we do is determined by forces outside our control that we can begin to exercise any real freedom in choosing what to do. (To this, Marx would addand to take control, eventually, to the very forces that until now have controlled us.)Ollman follows this immediately with some exam advice that connects closely to this issue of freedom and necessity:
In Essay Exams, pay careful attention to the key verb that tells you what to do. "Discuss," for example, allows more leeway and offers more opportunities for embroidery than "compare," which, in turn, is more open ended than "explain" or "evaluate"... Note too that you are never asked to say all that you know about a subject, so be sure that your answer doesn't make it appear this is what you are doing. (p.64)Using this type of interweaving, Ollman manages in a very brief space to cover many of the major Marxian concepts, such as alienation, ideology, exploitation, dialectics, totality, commodity fetishism, historical materialism, and class conflict. The discussion of totality is particularly strong. Again and again, Ollman cautions against perspectives on society that fail to look at the larger socio-economic context, that of capitalism: "Most people... are so busy focusing on the partsinequality, biased government, power of money, feelings of alienation, etc.that they never look up to see what they are parts of" (p.34).
Ollman is also very careful not to talk down to his audience. Many of his examples come from areas of daily life that will be familiar to students. He presents his historical material succinctly and clearly. Moreover, he shows great respect for the idealism with which young people often approach social issues. Thus, in a discussion of how class interests usually trump generalized concern for other human beings, he allows, "The possible exception is young people, particularly students" (p. 141).
Some readers will be disappointed that there is so little interweaving of class with race and gender. Others will find the critique of the Soviet Union and similar regimes operating in the name of Marxism somewhat inadequate. Despite these possible problems, this volume would serve well in courses where some clear and forthright theoretical discussion of Marxian theory, and more generally, social class, is desired.
How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World
Green Left Weekly (Australia)July 18, 2001.
How's this for the dream exam! There is just one paper consisting of just 10 true/false questions. You know the correct answer is true for all questions. If you forget, the answer is on the back of the exam paper. If you still manage to fail, you can take the exam as many times as necessary until you pass. Everybody wins a prize from this examif you are applying for a handgun in Michigan (capital city, Detroit, the "murder capital" of the USA).
On the other hand, says Bertell Ollman in his splendid little book on exams and society, if the reward is graduation and a decent job and quality of life, then the prizes are strictly rationed and graded.
Ollman's book is a clever self-help book for students on how to pass exams whilst holding up to critical scrutiny the exam and the capitalist system it thrives in. The ideology and practice of exams reinforce capitalism, argues Ollman, professor of political science at New York University and a Marxist, by promoting the idea that if you're an "A" student or have a successful career, it's because you have superior ability. If you fail, in life as in exams, it's your fault, not the fault of a capitalist system of structural privilege and inequality.
Exams have very little to do with testing knowledge, let alone critical thinking, and they are thoroughly alien to cooperative learning and working practices. They are intensely competitive and highly subjective. Exam grades reflect more about the biases, moods and inconsistencies of the exam-marker than they measure the ability of the exam-taker.
Most teaching is exam-driven, and education is driven by the needs of the corporate economy. Narrow courses, safe professors and passionless curricula are aimed at producing docile workers for future employers whilst exams provide the discipline to force students to stay within this system.
Exam-obsessive Japan illustrates the paradigm with scary clarity. To aid the training of students in rote learning and to condition them to the competitive struggle for grades and jobs, an industry of private "cram schools" has flourished in Japan solely to prepare students to pass exams. Because some cram schools are more effective at this than others, there are now cram schools, which prepare students to pass exams to gain entrance to the better cram schools!
The exam infested Japanese "education" system produces small armies of compliant, unimaginative, suicide-prone whiz kids used to doing as they are told and kept in a constant state of anxiety-ridden obedience over performance and fear of failure. Ideal material for the Japanese capitalist class to extract profits from.
Worker insecurity and employer power are enhanced by the employment future facing many exam survivors under capitalism"welcome to the world of part-time, temporary, 'flexible,' low-paying, no-benefit jobs" and "disposable, throw-away workers," in which the ability to please an employer, as one pleases an examiner, is dominant. This capitalist world to which the prospective wage-slave graduates is one of economic growth driven by increased exploitation of workers.
In the USA from 1983 to 1997, productivity rose by 17% yet the share of society's wealth going to workers decreased to 3%. Of the new wealth created over this period, 86% went to 1% of the population. As Ollman quotes from the Observer magazine, "the market is not rising on a bubble of fictions but on the rock-hard foundations of the spoils of class war."
Ollman warns, however, that it is rarely wise to attempt this sort of radical class critique in exams. Exams are the weapons of the enemy fighting on their terrain. Contrary to the alarms rung by conservatives, few teacher-academics are Marxists. Most collude with the capitalist order by taking the capitalist framework of their academic discipline for granted. They rarely welcome, and may actively punish, a challenge to their fundamental, if hidden, assumptions.
Radical students, in particular, need strategies to survive exams while remaining true to their convictions. Ollman's exam tips are practical and his book is a valuable form guide for student-punters gambling in an educational system that runs on large doses of exam luck. Ollman, an exam-atheist, knows how the exam-believers think and he passes on the exam secrets and mysteries of the academic priesthood.
Also invaluable are Ollman's potted cheat sheets on the core principles of the capitalist systemsurplus value, alienation, patriotism, corporate welfare (US$125 billion a year in the USA), the "paradox" of growth in GDP and declining living standards.
Also instructional are Ollman's tips on how to spot the capitalist wolf in euphemistical sheep's clothing. Rarely are capitalists called by their real namethey are always entrepreneurs, the "business community," employers ("never 'un-employers' though they also unemploy workers"), even, as in Holland, "work-givers" or "social partners."
The bright ideas spun by capitalist logic are entertainingly mocked by Ollman. "Pollution credits," for example, "allow the companies that pollute more than the law allows to buy the 'rights' or credits of companies that pollute very little if at all. This way the big polluter is happy, because it can now pollute to its heart's content. The other companies are happy, because they've just made money for not doing what they didn't do anyway."
Capitalistsand establishment politicianswho deviate from the capitalist commandment of investment for profit-maximization are soon capitalists and politicians no more.
So who ya gonna call if you want a real paradigm-buster? Only revolutionary socialists. Liberals won't do. They don't understand that the class game is rigged, that a "have-not" majority is essential to the minority of "haves." As Ollman notes, "a liberal sees a beggar on the street and says the system isn't working. A Marxist sees a beggar on the street and says it is." The socialist answer to the dictatorship of money is democracyeconomic and political.
Ollman's book, served up with lashings of humour including classic socialist cartoons, is a wonderful course in how to take exams and how to examine capitalist society and its education institutions. The later will thoroughly deserve their fail grade.
How 2 Take an Exam & Win the World
Humanity Society (August/November 2001)
Ollman is known not only for his scholarship in Marxist theory and socialist pedagogy, but also for his gamesmanship. He is both the author of the books Alienation and Social and Sexual Revolution, as well as the inventor of the board game Class Struggle (if the capitalists win, the world ends). In the present text, Ollman provides a critical analysis of 'standard' exams and a systematic critique of the role of higher education in American society. This type of (standard) exam can take different forms, including multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, short-answer, and even oral and essay questions. The essential ingredient is the element of surprisewhich makes it necessary for the student to anticipate the strategy of the examiner, and which renders teaching an exercise in arbitrary authority and learning synonymous with obedience training.
In this context, the most important ingredient of any successful method of exam preparation is accumulation.
In Studying for an exam, you are a little in the position of the cook in a restaurant who is waiting to receive an order from a customer. You can't prepare the order ahead of time because you don't know what it will be (you don't know the exact questions that will be asked). So the best you can do is to stock up on the ingredients required by the dishes on the menu, taking special care not to run short of those that are used in several dishes. (p. 9)
But Ollman is not simply advocating less standardization and alternative methods of testing. Nor is this book simply an appeal to instructors to change certain vocational habits. Rather, it is addressed to students. And it encourages them to take matters into their own handsby learning how to succeed in the world of academia, as well as how to get a real social science education and with it "change the world."
This book begins with an odd proposition. The author claims that he is not particularly interested in the topic of exams, but instead in talking to readers about capitalism. Therefore he is willing to make a bargain: 'I'll tell you what you need to know in order to write the best possible exams if you lend an ear to my account of capitalism' (p. vii). He goes on to say that this will undoubtedly strike readers as unfair, or so it should. After this "admission," the author explains that he will be appealing to their sense of fair-play. Later on, he adds that complaining about exams may be most students' first informed criticism of the way society works. 'Students know, for example, that exams don't only involve reading questions and writing answers. They also involve... 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 know, and that the correction and grading process is highly subjective and done by professors with whom they've had only minimal contact' (p.35). In the pages that follow, the author sets out a two-fold task: of illustrating a causal nexus for social problemscapitalismand relating many of the problems that students encounter in the educational system and personal life to this nexus.
Ollman presents clear and concise data and rich anecdotal evidence that serves to illustrate the way the American educational system is not only a component of capitalist reproduction, but also one that obfuscates, mystifies, and legitimates the whole. "Left on its own, devoid of rationalizations, capitalism is about as attractive as slavery or feudalism. That's why it's never left on its own. Instead, it is always accompanied by an elaborate set of ideas and concepts that Marx calls 'bourgeois ideology'" (p.134). According to Ollman, a well-educated person is no more aware of his/her interests as a member of a class (unless it's the upper class), than anyone else, rather less. The well-educated person is required to know all the narratives that affirm the official culture, including the official explanations of imperialism ('Manifest Destiny'), poverty ('the morals of the poor'), and class inequality ('the free market,' etc.).
Formal education also provides specialized vocabularies that obscure their social and historical referents, such as 'employer' and 'employee' in place of capital and labor, 'globalization' in place of imperialism, monopoly capital, or simply capitalist globalization, etc. Such terms are uncritical and undialectical, since they are not organically related to any other terms. Thus capitalism comes to appear as the end of history, without a visible alternative. Ollman points out that when technical terms do not serve the purpose of greater clarity they invariably do the opposite. These terms are the practical equivalent of euphemisms that businesses use to sell their products and the government officials use to advance the needs of business while appearing to do otherwise. Dialectical thought is possible in the context of ideological gloss and distortion through questioning 'explanations' and naming reality. This is what children do naturally, but conspicuous when coming from an adult. For example, properly educated adults are not expected to say obvious things, or pose obvious questions, particularly around the following state of affairs: 'it's businessmen, generally big businessmen and their lawyers, who dominate university boards of trustees' (p.11); 'Government is made up of capitalists and their lawyers' (p.131); 'the nerds who made it big in Silicon Valley... are the exceptions. George Bush [senior] is the rule' (p.3). Once in the realm of ideology critique, away from learned rationalization, other questions flow naturally, until it becomes impossible to accept such euphemisms as 'free market' and 'balance of payments' as part of any explanation for policies that hurt large numbers of people. Debt implies obligation, Ollman tells us. 'But why should the large majority of Americans repay the few rich who got their government to spend our money (and then some) serving their interests while making profits for their corporations?" (p.75).
Examinations are an essential source of support for bourgeois ideology by obfuscating these facts and by placing a premium on the following attitudes and values: puritanical self-discipline, obedience to arbitrary authority, reductiveness, and impersonal knowledge and relationships. In addition, the 'standard' exam is noncontroversial, bracketing even those facts that are the subject of great public concerns and that are ordinarily featured within a narrow range of public debate, for instance to explain or critique particular economic or political policies, such as the fact that the U.S. surpasses every other developed nation in 'homicides..., military expenditures, drug consumption, prison population, financial bailouts for failing capitalists, and national debt'. Ollman asks rhetorically, 'When was the last time you took an exam when one of these facts was the right answer?' (p.9).
In an earlier work, 'On Teaching Marxism' (1978), the same author characterized formal education in the U.S. as 'training in undialectical thinking,' through an endless series of lessons and exams that obfuscate and omit 'middle terms'including groups and classes. In this respect 'standard' education represents an egregious form of mis-education and an active process of unlearning. 'Children, and less educated people in general, often operate with a rough, unconscious dialectic, while those who have benefited from an education that is constantly breaking down processes and wholes without putting them together again do so much less or not at all' (p.229). In the present text, Ollman criticizes the left for asserting alternative explanations and narratives without engaging the non-initiated in plain language and at the level of commonsense knowledge; and for vesting too much energy in providing 'answers to questions that people are not yet asking.' He suggests we spend 'more time just adding question marks to the mind numbing slogans that surround us on all sides: "Vote for Gore?" "Jesus Saves?"'... (p.55).
At the same time, the author wants to show the student/reader that there are differences among radical and dialectical schools of thought and that Marxism speaks directly to their experience and their interests as members of the working class (which is deemed to be the majority of society). He also illustrates numerous similarities and contrasts between Marxism and 'commonsense,' and between various analyses of Marx and less controversial figures, including mythologized religious and political leaders in American history. For instance, he cites a study in which 47% of seventeen-year-olds believed that the majority apparently agree with and attribute the statement 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs' to Marx (p.146). He says that it would be wrong to attribute this misconception (solely) to poor education, without acknowledging the natural proclivity of the young to ask real questions and to a naturally concomitant commitment to fair-play and justice. Marxism is also 'explained' throughout the text, not through an engagement with Marx's texts, which can be found in the author's numerous other works, but through discussions and illustrations of fundamental Marxist concepts like private property, commodity fetishism, alienation, exploitation, ideology, and by using those concepts to problematize the notion of human nature and central claim of bourgeois ideology, namely that bourgeois institutions represent a natural order.
Finally, it should be noted that the book actually contains good advice on how to take a standard exam. For example, Ollman cites a study wherein 'statements containing the word "some," four out of five were true; and in statements containing the word "generally," three out of four were true.' And where 'the longer the statement, the more likely it is to be true,' since the teacher would have to be unusually perverse to spend time writing long questions that are false (p.3). Here's a few more: 'if two answers are exact opposites, it is generally an indication that one of them is right, since few teachers would bother to think up the opposite to a wrong answer that is also wrong' (p.8). '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 read the question first, at least quickly' in order to avoid being bogged down with complexities that have nothing to do with question (p.97). And studying regularly (i.e. accumulation) helps the student not only to do well on exams, but also makes it possible to 'contextualize' the subject matter, and to 'feel comfortable' around teachers. Students are then able to 'question them with authority.' 'Throughout all this, he ("she," too, of course) transforms the teacher from high school teacher and exam coach into a university professor, and reaps the corresponding intellectual rewards' (p.139). Given what has already been said in the text, however, it is doubtful whether this expectation can generally be met. But Ollman also has a plan for helping students deal with ideologically dogmatic instructors, which he guarantees, will also help them stay awake in their class. The plan takes the form of a game: 'Bullshit Bingo.' To play the game students check off a block whenever their instructor mentions the word they assign to it. Among the words that qualify as 'bullshit' terms can be found 'paradox,' 'flexible work,' 'free trade,' 'all things being equal,' 'middle class,' 'corporate responsibility,' 'national interest,' and 'democratic capitalism' (p.15). There is also a bit of advice for instructors worth considering: cooperative exams, in which grades are given to the group and not the individual, or better yet none at all. If this strikes the reader/instructor as unrealistic, it is also worth asking why and what can be done to change reality.References
Ollman Bertell. 1978. 'On Teaching Marxism.' Pp. 210-254 in Studies on Socialist Pedagogy. Edited by Theodore Mills Norton and Bertell Ollman. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.
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