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Black Rose Books, Canada, 2001
Reviewed by Rich Gibson
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 2 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 of 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 guilt—and the mysteries of capital—will enjoy chewing through. This is 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 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. Z
Rich Gibson is the College of Education at San Diego State University.