The Arizona Desert Lamp

The unbearable stuffiness of intellectual infantilism

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 7 April 2009

Marx for SaleRenowned UA blogger (and Wildcat editor-in-chief) Justyn Dillingham has a very fair interview with David Horowitz in today’s paper, getting this quote that sums up the problem rather nicely:

That atmosphere, he insists, has been poisoned by the “airless totalitarian nature” of the classes he writes about, which “indoctrinate” students with “infantile leftism.”

There are no Leninists employed by the University of Arizona, but there are many instructors who simply fail to realize the power of an assigned reading list. One is left feeling like a modern-day Isiah, crying alone in the wilderness against a face of absolute banality.

Yet I must take issue with this critique of Horowitz:

He criticizes Kari McBride’s “Feminist Theories” course, for example, for assigning works by Karl Marx. Horowitz also complains about McBride assigning her own “Introduction to Marxism,” which he views as an attempt by McBride to indoctrinate students with Marxism.

I looked up the syllabus, which Horowitz helpfully provides the URL for. While McBride does indeed assign Marx, she also assigns works by John Stuart Mill, Virginia Woolf, and Susan B. Anthony. The “introduction” turns out to be a few paragraphs, which accurately describe what Marxists think. There is no indication that McBride personally believes in Marxism.

Yet while Mill wrote The Subjugation of Women, Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, and Susan B. Anthony is practically the face of feminism in America, Marx only discusses women incidentally. The absurdity of Marx in this context is revealed by the reading assignments for February 20, as found on the syllabus:

*  about Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”; another version;
* about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony;
* about the first women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls, NY, and the Declaration of Sentiments produced by those who attended;
* Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Solitude of Self;
* about Emma Goldman and anarchism;
* two of Goldman’s articles, “The Traffic in Women” and “Woman Suffrage”;
* about Karl Marx;
* an Introduction to Marxism;
* two excerpts from Karl Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital: “What Are Wages?” and “The Nature and Growth of Capital.”

This is like academia’s version of Sesame Street – “Three of these things are not like the others. . . .” Literally everything else on this list is connected with issues directly relating to women and gender issues – except for Marx’s essays. (This is not to say that Marx should not be taught, or that there should somehow be a disclaimer [“WARNING: Application of this theory may lead to tyranny and genocide.”]. Marx is a fascinating thinker, with a brilliant (if, ultimately, flawed) critique of the capitalist system, fully worthy of study in a class on political theory.) Imagine, for instance, taking a class in international relations, with two books – International Relations, 8th Edition; and Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism. The argument that McBride doesn’t have any sort of leanings is very reminiscent of this scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin:

Jay: Wait, how do you know she was a transvestite?

Andy: Because her hands were as big as Andre The Giant’s. And her Adam’s apple was as big as her balls.

Jay: So you have no proof.

Yet the issue is as much as what is taught as what is not taught. How, for instance, can a class on “Feminist Theories” omit Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae? For all the writings from Marx, why not a simple essay arguing that the unleashing market forces and individualism is beneficial for women (you could take any number of selections from Liberty for Women)? This is what Horowitz gets at in his critique, and I have yet to hear a convincing answer. Even if “indoctrination” is a bit strong, simple intellectual neglect is an offense worth considering.

NB: Also, I couldn’t help but notice this odd little note from the syllabus (emphasis added): “Read about structuralism in all its guises.” I haven’t spent enough time in the structuralist/post-structuralist trenches to comment intelligently on this, but I do know one local blogger who is familiar with these schools of thought – perhaps he might shed some light on this puzzling editorial phrase.

Image courtesy of Flickr user DREASAN

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8 Responses

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  1. Ben Kalafut said, on 7 April 2009 at 12:37 pm

    In lieu of trackback, I’ll just post a link.
    http://goldwaterstate.blogspot.com/2009/04/if-your-only-tool-is-hammer-you-might.html

  2. A. Hill said, on 7 April 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Wellll, I’ve got to quibble a little with your quibbling, Evan. There is a whole branch of feminist theory called Marxist feminism, so while Marx himself may not directly address women, it may be important to read Marx first before discussing what Marxist feminists are all about. It’s really difficult to determine how well those readings fit in to the overall class without being able to hear the lectures on them, but my bet is that, considering this is a feminist theories class we’re talking about, the Marx readings are meant to provide context for understanding Marxist feminism.

  3. mattstyer said, on 7 April 2009 at 10:18 pm

    I think “in all of its guises” is just a turn of phrase for “different varieties.” Some of the stuff deals with identities, so guise = face = identity.

    I pretty much defer to Alyson otherwise. Just because Marx didn’t say much himself about women doesn’t mean that labor alienation (my guess, I’ve never ran into Marxist feminism) isn’t rich conceptual terrain.

  4. Evan Lisull said, on 8 April 2009 at 12:53 am

    Alyson & Matt: That’s nice and all, but I would also say that division of labor and comparative advantage also offer many conceptual possibilities – so why are Adam Smith and David Ricardo omitted?

    A further interesting note in the syllabus, regarding Wollstonecraft:

    “. . .don’t get bogged down in the details of the French Revolution or particular authors Wollstonecraft refers to; instead, read for her argument about the nature of women”

    Curiously, no such disclaimer is necessary for Marx. I obviously have political sympathies here, but my bigger concern is that these readings do not reflect serious issues of theory facing women, but rather comprise a list of the popular academic trends since the 1950s – Marxism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Psychoanalysis, and Post-Modernism, and what-not.

  5. A. Hill said, on 8 April 2009 at 1:01 am

    I think you might misunderstand me, Evan. I’m not really trying to justify Marxism as having feminist applications, or else I would totally agree that pretty much anything dealing with those issues can have feminist applications. What I’m saying is that there is a specific school of feminist thought called Marxist feminism, whereas no such group of feminists, as far as I know, has devoted itself to applying Adam Smith’s thoughts to feminist issues. So if you’re taking a survey class on the different types of feminist theory, which I get the impression this is, you’d study Marxist feminism as opposed to Smithian feminism simply because it exists and the other doesn’t.

    Your critique does, however, open up the very interesting possibility for a class devoted to finding potentially feminist applications for as-yet-unused thinkers.

  6. Evan Lisull said, on 8 April 2009 at 1:25 am

    Borgesian gender studies? Jeffersonian interpretations of Chicano-Inuit relations? Futarchical perspectives on transgenderism?

    I might have just stumbled into a career.

  7. A. Hill said, on 8 April 2009 at 1:38 am

    Wow, it’s like pomo mad libs.

    Which gives me a post idea.

  8. Connor Mendenhall said, on 8 April 2009 at 6:30 am

    Pardon my vulgarity, but mightn’t Marxism be included here simply because it’s deterministic? In the eyes of a Marxist, all this superstructure stuff–sociology, critical theory, politics, all the “studies”–is determined by economic reality, so one might as well append those last three to every reading list. Speaking of which, have any of you managed to avoid reading Marx (or some summary thereof) in your academic careers? It strikes me as difficult to graduate with a degree in any of the more popular social sciences or humanities programs without bumping into Uncle Charlie, except perhaps in (irony of ironies) economics.

    That’s not a bad thing. Getting a grasp on Marxism strikes me as a bit like learning Cantonese–a way to communicate with a lot of folks that would be speaking gibberish otherwise. Plus, it’s an indispensable framework when I find myself stumped on something and forced to spout bullshit. But come on, academe–before you accuse me and my neoliberal Friedmanite buddies of economic imperialism, take a look at yourself!


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