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Taking Exams, Taking on Capitalism

Margaret Mikesell Tabb teaches English at John Jay College, City University of New York. Kathryn Cressida Tabb is a freshman at the University of Chicago. William K. Tabb teaches economics at Queens College, City University of New York and is the author of The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (2001).

Bertell Ollman, How to Take an Exam…& Remake the World (Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 2001), 191 pages, $19.99 paper.
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 Editors

Part 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 mostly 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 casually—the plethora of cartoons and lack of chapter titles being two obvious parts of this strategy—but 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 marxism—ideas 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 errors—incomplete 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 reader—he 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 deal—while 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 viewpoints 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 the 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 system—in fact, mastering the system—encourages courageous self-reliance, élan, and resolution both inside and out of 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 doldrums—encouragement and information.

Part III: Afterword by Economics Professor Dad

Bertell Ollman is one of the most creative and truly radical of left intellectuals. Those who have read his path-breaking works on Marxist theory, especially on alienation and dialectics, or his many essays on topics such as the yakusa 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 heads—Groucho 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 essay exams—why it is generally wise to tackle your second best question first—is 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 practiced unsustainable—which is as good a reason as any to run out and buy a copy of this book for every student you know.


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