Monday, March 8, 2010

A teacher teaches Marx

from Amateur Reader's website:

The enjoyable Karl Marx - a classroom success

I do not believe I have ever written a post about my teaching. In the classroom, the Amateur Reader becomes a Professional Reader. Not a reader of anything that might show up on Wuthering Expectations - there's the difference.

This semester, though, I have been able to briefly force a merger, during a two week unit on Karl Marx.* My real coup was forcing John Ruskin on the unsuspecting young'uns. As with many coups, a counter-revolution drove the rebels from the palace. They were lucky to escape with their lives. What a disaster.

Marx, though, I cannot believe how well the students responded to Marx. We used The Portable Karl Marx, edited by Eugene Kamenka, reading The Communist Manifesto and selections from The German Ideology, Grundrisse, and Capital. Light stuff, as Marx goes.

I had a copy of the book from college, and read or reread the whole thing. I read an unhealthy chunk in Morocco, or on the plane home. When I was an undergraduate, twenty years ago, I read Karl Marx, substantial chunks of Karl Marx, in courses in: History, Economcs, Political Science, and Sociology. Plus, everyone graduating with a BA was assigned The Communist Manifesto in Western Civ. So that's five subjects. That's a lotta Marx.

Of my sixteen students, four had read the Manifesto. One of these had read Capital as well. What, the first volume, I asked? No, all of it, all of it. Two thousand pages, more. I thought it would be discouraging to ask why, so, to answer your question, I don't know. No, I know. Why do I read (some) of what I read? To do it, to see what's there. Good for him.

I do not believe I had any actual Marxists in my class, although a student did wear a Marxite novelty t-shirt on the final day (Lenin in a pointy hat, Mao with a noise-maker, all at the Communist Party, ho ho), and another said he had meant to. The positive response, then, was not to the ideas of Marx, as such - hostility was more openly expressed, at least - but to Marx as a sort of intellectual puzzle. We take a definition of surplus value from this reading, combine it with offhand comments about what capitalists produce from that one (short answer: nothing but trouble), mix in some colonialism here and some peppery rhetoric there. Combine enough pieces and a picture begins to emerge. The students seemed to enjoy it, and seemed to understand that agreeing with any or all of it was entirely beside the point, an activity for elsewhere.

If they actually remember a single Marxian idea, I hope it is the concept of the worker's alienation from his labor. I'm training students to be well-paid bureaucrats. I accept that. Best to be aware of the truth.

* I will allow readers to guess at the class. Standard class in my field.

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