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Power to the Students!

Review: How 2 Take an Exam ... & Remake the World


by Bertell Ollman
Black Rose Books, 2001

Bertell Ollman is a professor of political science at New York University, and is well known for books like Alienation and Dialectical Investigations, and for well over fifty articles and commentaries on a variety of left-wing subjects. In this book, directed to American university students, Ollman makes a deal with his readers. If they will read his account of capitalism and its effects on society, then he will sprinkle his pages with real tips on how to succeed at taking exams. He weaves his advice on how best to cope with written, oral and demonstration exams together with bracing, funny, illuminating stories, cartoons, parables, jokes and analyses of capitalism for the next 180 pages.

The first exam to which Ollman refers is the one given to anyone who wants to buy a gun in the state of Michigan. The answers to all the questions are provided on the back of the exam sheet itself. And, if you fail, you can take the exam over and over again, all day long, until you get it right. This example of rigged success is a fitting introduction to his discussion of capitalism, a system likewise rigged in favour of the wealthy and powerful, and against the efforts of workers. From this point on, Ollman’s examples of capitalist excesses and injustices reinforce this message, stressing the lie of the American Dream – that anyone who works hard will be successful – and the truth that the majority of workers wish for better lives than the ones they live, yet continue to believe that somehow they can beat the tremendous odds stacked against them by this fundamentally unfair system.

Though many readers of Canadian Dimension will be familiar with the gist of Ollman’s views of capitalism – and may have seen some of the cartoons or read some of the more famous quotations before – it’s not very likely that many university students would have read much actually written by Marx, let alone satiric poems by Bertolt Brecht or song lyrics by Tom Paxton, which are excerpted here. Though they may sport t-shirts with Che Guevara’s picture on them, I’m sure most students would not recognize the famous Guevara line quoted here, that “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

Ollman’s rendition of Marxist theory is clear and easy to grasp, designed with short attention spans in mind. This attempt to hold the attentions of the young and (presumably) easily distracted probably explains the book’s structure, which is essentially a pastiche partitioned into fifteen chapters. Ollman’s moves rapidly from political observation to the promised exam tips, which are salient, clear and incredibly useful.

For example, after explaining the three kinds of exams most students can expect to meet in the course of their studies (written, oral and practical), Ollman tells students that in an essay exam it is always a good idea to give two versions of an answer, showing what two schools of thought might think. This, he points out, “is considered a sophisticated answer.” For those taking an oral exam, he recommends starting with subjects about which you feel most confident, since professors are more likely to be impressed by a strong start, and then go easy on you from there, than they are to look well on someone who starts off poorly. He points out that in multiple-choice exams the longest answer is most likely to be the correct one, since profs don’t have a lot of time to compose longish false answers, and are more likely to avoid ambiguity by making the right answer a wee bit longer than the others. These tips, along with other, more general ones – like the value of getting a good night’s sleep, how to decide whether to review stuff you know or try to learn the stuff you haven’t yet read, and whether or not to have sex before writing an exam (a tricky question, because there is such a thing as being too relaxed) – are both funny and, to those of us who set up exams in the course of our work, really excellent. He sure susses us out!

At first, the two strains of this book – the down-to-earth Marxist examination of our world and the practical exam guidance – seem like completely parallel elements. But a persistent and gentle arc slowly draws these two themes together, pointing out the connections between taking exams and submitting to an economic and political system that requires docility from the working masses. Signs of this comprehensive analysis of the relations between higher education and capitalism appear early on, when Ollman observes that the boards of most universities are dominated by businessmen and lawyers, and asks if any of his readers have noticed this, or wondered why this is so.

In Chapter 9 he recounts a nonsense lecture he delivers early on in one of his political-studies courses in order to demonstrate to his students how easily they accept what they are told by someone in authority. After this, he promises never again to tell them nonsense on purpose – but adds that it is up to his students to make sure he keeps his promise by demanding of him that everything he tells them make sense.

At the end of that chapter, in a discussion of “commodification,” he observes that grades are the commodification of the learning process. By the book’s end, Ollman has made his point very clear. Exams are one more process by which students are prepared for the routine of the work world ahead of them – subdued, cowed, trained and defeated by the experience of taking exam after exam. “So many exams!” he writes, as the educational system disciplines students through anxiety and fear (and not being able to go to the bathroom when they want) to become the perfect worker.

The governing logic of How 2 Take an Exam is juxtaposition; Ollman sets things beside one another in order to startle his readers into insight. It can be an effective strategy, but can also seem forced after a while, which can produce irritation rather than revelation in a reader. On the whole, however, Ollman’s sense of humour and dedication to exposing the oppressive dimension of the exams we all take more or less for granted – just as some of us also take for granted the current system of global capital – makes this a must for every student’s plank-and-brick bookshelf.

This article appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canadian Students).


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