A Class on Class: Marx and the Politics of Teaching

If the “teaching and reading of literature is always a political act” (Pradl, Mayher) and we as teachers are to help produce functioning members of our current system, it’s necessary that we give our students the tools that will allow them to be critical of our situation as members of a global community, especially given our president’s current position as ‘leader of the free world.’ It is important to instill in our students a sense of history, a sense of connectedness that will allow them to empathize with others and create a meaningful discourse with the world around them. 

Presenting Marxist thought as a critical lens would be vital in communicating these ideas to our students. For those unfamiliar with Karl Marx and his approach to viewing the world, I will briefly summarize some of his main ideas. Marxist thought shows an awareness of the material conditions of our lives and social relations among people (class), it focuses on our consciousness of these conditions and our self construction based on this consciousness, and it provides a view of history based on the struggle of these classes over time. 

Appleman and Tyson relate the points of Marxist thought to our endeavor as teachers of literature in a very cohesive manner, so I will save a more in-depth analysis of Marx’s theories for class on Tuesday with a presentation of a key scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. For our purposes here, I will say that I agree with Appleman’s reasons for teaching the Marxist lens; it allows students to “think about how [they] as readers are situated culturally, politically, and personally to the content of the text,” and encourages them to “acknowledge diverse backgrounds” as well as “issues of class and race.” Before our discussion on Tuesday, I encourage everyone to look at the challenges Appleman lists at the end of Chapter 4 pertaining to the teachability of Marxist thought with adolescents. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Is Appleman’s argument convincing and is Marxism valid in today’s world? 

I also encourage everyone to think about Tyson’s statement as to the relation between Marxism and Literature: “Literature grows out of and reflects real material/historical circumstances.” Does this statement justify Appleman’s argument for the teaching of the Marxist lens? 

Personally, as I think of what Tyson states about the American Dream and reflect on the class system of our culture, I feel Marxist criticism is vital even though our society allows for us to transcend social boundaries in a seemingly easy way (ie. the rags to riches mythos engrained within all of us). Is the American Dream a myth? If it is, what does that tell us about those in charge (the higher class)? How can we relate these ideas to our classes and produce students who care about our role in the global community? 

That is all for now. If I come up with more questions/ideas, I will post them, but I feel this is a good start for our discussion Tuesday. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. 

Godspeed, 

Raph

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “A Class on Class: Marx and the Politics of Teaching

  1. sunyprof

    Hi Raph, thanks for getting us thinking about the chapters on Marx. You say at one point that “our society allows for us to transcend social boundaries in a seemingly easy way.” Is that true?

    I’m most interested in your personal understandings–the way you read literature–the ways in which these chapters tease you into thought!! Are you planning then to show a clip from “Metropolis?” KES

  2. traverse02

    I think our society makes it seem easy to transcend our social boundaries, just watch VH1 for a few hours and you can see how our celebrities came from out of nowhere. As I stated with the rags to riches mythos ingrained in all of our minds, our national narrative tells us that no matter who we are or where we come from, we can be whoever we want to be when we grow up, be it an astronaut, a famous actor, or even president. But is this just another control for those in power to utilize? What happens when we are lulled into thinking like this? That’s why I feel it’s important to be critical in our readings of our culture and our literature. The Marxist lens allows for us to be critical in this way.

    As for Metropolis, there is a 5 minute scene I will be showing the class on Tuesday.

  3. sunyprof

    Raph, re: the national narrative (the American Dream) are you referencing what Marx would call “false consciousness”?

    We know that the most important determiner of class status is the class status of one’s parents. Do we seize on the exceptions, and of course there are exceptions (Horatio Alger stories a good ex.), and universalize these to suggest that “anyone can succeed” with the right amt. of embow grease and a little luck!

    We can all be Donald Trumps or Bill Gates if only we would work hard (er)? KES

  4. allison

    Raph,
    Thank you for your post on Marxism. It is a very interesting lens. In my undergraduate work, I had the opportunity to study Marxism- in many contexts for many classes. They love Marxism at Syracuse University!! Anyways, I could take or leave most of the studies that we conducted, but there was one application that I truly loved. In one class we conducted a Marxist analysis of the movie FIGHT CLUB. This movie obviously appealed to college students. I think it would work with high school seniors as well, if you could get permission to screen the film. I think when teaching these critical theories, it is essential to select texts that will appeal to the students. They will probably have trouble plowing through most of the theory, but if they like the text to which they apply it, the whole process will surely be more enjoyable for the students.

    In my studies of Marx, the only classes I didn’t like were with professors who thought Carl Marx was God incarnate. For them, it was the only philosphy to live by, which was alienating for most of the students. Appleman says that according to Bonnycastle, Marxism “places the study of literature in the context of important social issues.” (60) Throughout history, it seems that social class systems and economic systems have always been central to the structure of the economy. Marx challenges us to look at these systems. This can be incredibly eye-opening for high school students. I think it could be easy to alienate them, so we must be careful, but it is essential for them to learn about these thought-provoking theories.

  5. ll123

    I kind of disagree with Dr. Stearns’ “We know that the most important determiner of class status is the class status of one’s parents.” The “American dream” to people, especially to immigrants, seems a different story, otherwise, people won’t come. Several foreigners I heard about have become very rich in this country, and they further try to climb the political ladder –which is a way to switch a person’s social status. My point is that somebody has to come from somewhere, maybe rich or humble. For instance, Abraham Lincoln is a good example. However, if you are from the bottom to start with, it would be much more difficult to climb the ladder either financially or politically, but each person’s effort definitely counts. To me, politic and money are twins, and they have always involved with corruption no matter what social system it is, and the only difference is a DEGREE of involvement. When you have money, then you naturally think about power; when you have power, then you begin to think about money, especially get money through the convenience of your social position. It would be nice if you were born in a family that has both, but it doesn’t necessary mean that you are going to stay in that class forever. Kennedy’s family is an exception, maybe Bush is another. Class status is not limited in one country; Bush wants to be the highest class in the world–which interprets part of his motive to sacrifice so many soldiers’ lives in order to gain that status. Let’s think about Iraq war, does that have nothing to do with oil business or world social power? Posted by L. L.

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