As it stands, Core off the Marx

By Nathan Bloom

“The position or self-affirmation and self-confirmation contained in the negation of the negation is taken to be a position which is not yet sure of itself, which is therefore burdened with its opposite, which is doubtful of itself and therefore in need of proof, and which, therefore, is not a position establishing itself by its existence—not a position that justifies itself; hence it is directly and immediately confronted by the self-grounded position of sense-certainty.”

If you have absolutely no idea what this means, then you and I have something in common. This is unfortunate because this paragraph from Martin Milligan’s translation of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 was part of 60 pages of reading assigned in my Classics of Social and Political Thought course last May.

In 80 minutes of class we never got around to discussing this, or many of the other shockingly verbose and incomprehensible paragraphs in those pages. Not surprisingly, there was not enough time; we were too busy discussing the interesting ideas and passages that the text did contain. Did those who organized the curriculum seriously think that our class could adequately cover 60 pages of dense philosophy in 80 minutes?

My guess is that they did not. Their goal was not to have us discuss ideas or to internalize them. Instead, they wanted us to learn Marx.

If you haven’t already, you too can learn Marx. Just pick up a Marx anthology—any one will do—and read indiscriminately for 60 pages. Then talk about what he has written. What stood out? Do you understand it? If you find your learning enjoyable, don’t stop with Marx. You can ask the same dull and aimless questions of any 60 pages in any other text!

Learning ideas properly is somewhat more complex. Above all it requires evaluation, coming to terms with the interesting questions that really matter: How have these ideas been influential? Do they make sense? Are they useful? Are they right? Can I put them into practice? Should I?

It also requires discriminating between what is important and what is not. Hobbes’s description of the state of nature in Leviathan is a legitimate subject for a Core course; his 32-line definition of dreams is not. It strains credulity to see how this and the countless other equally absurd and obscure passages that I have been assigned to read constitute the “fundamental concepts, theories, and philosophies” that the College Catalog tells me that I should be learning.

The catalog also states that the College is committed to providing a “rigorous core of general education” for first- and second-year students. But if my first two years in the College have taught me anything, it is that the Core is neither rigorous nor general. Not rigorous because it lacks the discipline to sort the trivial from the profound. Not general because it teaches not broadly applicable and recognizable ideas but the particulars of aged texts suffocated in a scholarly vacuum. The “habits of mind” that it encourages are not the ones “most urgent to a well informed member of civil society” but cynicism about the ability of great thinking and great writing to shape the world and to make sense of large chunks of our bewildering reality. If the College wants to stop undermining its own ideals, reforming the Core curriculum is a good place to start.