Teaching Marx: The Socialist Challenge
reviewed by David Backer - September 18, 2014
Title: Teaching Marx: The Socialist Challenge
Author(s): Curry Stephenson Malott, Mike Etc Cole, John M. Elmore (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623961203, Pages: 394, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com
Consider two related problems: an educational problem in economics, and an economic problem in education. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, these two problems emerged with greater clarity, though they are nothing new. The first problem is a failure to learn that the social formation known as capitalism periodically throws a majority of its residents (whom we now call the 99%) into dramatic fluctuations in living conditions; this same formation permits a minority of its residents (whom we now call the 1%) to become wealthy enough for these fluctuations not to matter to them (Economist online, 2011; Saez, 2013; Stern, 2013; Stout, 2012). To use a neologism, it is a failure to think prosocially, or in ways that preserve, strengthen, and encourage nourishing social relations between persons.
The second problem, howeverthe economic problem in educationinvolves those working within educational institutions: teachers, students, teacher educators, administrators, and policymakers. It is the lack of prosocial thinking in lessons, questions, and methods within the K-16 system. Though the first problem is a primary cause of the second, those who address the second problem do not always address the first in great detail.
This brings us to the collection of essays in Teaching Marx: The Socialist Challenge. The book confronts both of these problems with a constellation of polemics, descriptions, and prescriptions. This array poses important questions and arguments for those interested in making the world less unjustspecifically those who prefer to question the foundations of capitalism as a social formation rather than questioning the ways in which that formation can function better. The former tradition is typically denoted by the proper name Marxism, since it is rooted in Karl Marx's writings (though I call it prosocial thinking here). The Teaching Marx collection is importanta milestonesince amid the books constellation, the reader may sense a new turn in education for social change. For those striving towards a more just world, a new path is emerging.
To describe the turn, we must look back to what came before it. Many of the essays in Teaching Marx share a position prevalent in prosocial thinking about education. Call it position A. One of position As features is a focus on schooling, and the claim that prosocial thinking should be taught to students in schools across grade level and subject matter. This feature can take several forms. One of them is the positive claim just enunciated, but another is to phrase a negative claimdemonstrating how children are not exposed to prosocial thinking across grade level and subject matter. What is at stake in this feature of the A position is whether or not socialism, communism, thick democracy, exploitation, surplus value, class struggle, and texts by Marx and Marxists are on the agenda in our educational institutionsin other words, whether our curriculum aligns with prosocial standards and benchmarks. Position A chiefly addresses the economic problem in education mentioned at the start.
The purpose of demarcating position A in this review is not only to summarize the dynamics of Teaching Marxs essays (most of their claims take position A), but also to reflect on this positions strengths and weaknesses. Position A has a strong sense of narrative (capitalism and capitalists are the enemy and we must fight them tooth and nail), and creates a charismatic energy around prosocial claims. Authors taking position A also include helpful details about how to teach prosocial thinking in schools, and engage new generations of putative prosocial thinkers with fervor and practical vision. Position A also keeps prosocial questions alive, even during periodssuch as our ownwhen capitalism is so ambient that merely saying "capitalism" is an anti-capitalist thing to do.
Position A has weaknesses, however: its strong narrative can be confusing, overwhelming, and tragically alienating for those who do not understand or buy into its tenets and sense of grandiosity. Accordingly, position A, though it presents itself as critical pedagogy, tends to focus on curriculum rather than pedagogy. For those in position A, concerns for what we should be talking about (prosocial thinking) tends to crowd out concerns for how we should talk about it (sensitively, roughly, in lecture, conversation, discussion, etc.). For similar reasons, position A can sometimes fudge details with respect to concepts, data, and history in order to satisfy its sense of narrative. Finally, or in sum, as mentioned previously, position A tends to focus on the economic problem in education rather than the educational problem in economics mentioned above.
Three essays in Teaching Marx peek out from underneath this dominant position, however; they are worth mentioning specifically, since they gesture towards a new turn in prosocial thinking about education. Brad Hollingshead's profound diagnosis of Marxism confronted by feminist and postmodern/poststructural critiques carves an extremely helpful and appealing distinction between critique and Kritik. The former sculpts Marx as a Hegelian systematician, while the latter casts him as a democratic political-economist. The latter Marx attends closely to agency and language, whereas the former deflates subjectivity and ignores the signifier. Hollingshead calls for a new Kritikal project in Marxism that turns away from authoritative systematics and towards a practical and radical democratic politics. Carol Freie's short reflection on a series of student interviews folds a class critique into her methodology, yielding the observation that working class female students in her university education department go to school to get good grades and secure a career, but generally feel unsafe during classroom interaction. Such conclusions echo hookss (1994) and Ellsworths (1989) concerns about critical pedagogybut Freie is a Marxist. While Freie concludes that these observations bolster the reproduction view of schooling, it also simultaneously broaches an important question: what if the challenge to critical pedagogy is not to become more widely accepted as-is, but rather to become more approachable by lessening its alienating effect on students? Finally, Mike Cole's research on Venezuela's Bolivarian approach to education is an example of an existing prosocial education a grounded paradigm in which readers might find inspiration for prosocial reform in education.
Each of these three essays in Teaching Marx betrays position A and broaches a new way of thinking about teaching, learning, and studying prosocial thinking. As one student at a Venezuelan university reports: "socialism is being redefined, something that is flexible. I believe there are new understandings of what socialism is and how it can be implemented" (p. 351). While many of the essays in Teaching Marx follow a well-trod path in prosocial thinking about education, these three essays fully address the challenges of education and economics, and envision a new approach.
Teaching Marx is therefore a milestone. The book's subtitle speaks to this monumental quality: the socialist challenge. The challenge for its readers will be to navigate the way forward for prosocial education, retain edifying arguments and resources in the old positions, and take new turns towards more effective and revolutionary ways of creating a more just world.
Economist online. (2011, October 26). The 99 percent. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/10/income-inequality-america
Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn't this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-325.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
Saez, E. (2013). Striking it richer: The evolution of top incomes in the United States (updated with 2012 preliminary estimates). Berkeley: University of California, Department of Economics. Retrieved from http://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf
Stern, K. (2013, March 20). Why the rich dont give to charity. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/why-the-rich-dont-give/309254/
Stout, L. (2012, April 4). How investing turns nice people into psychopaths. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-investing-turns-nice-people-into-psychopaths/255426/