Monday, December 18, 2006

Reason #8--We All Need Perspective

I started doing this daily writing 8 days ago because I needed perspective. The worst part of teaching, for me, is the way the semester seems designed to last just long enough that I lose all perspective. Then there's that crunch at the end when I've got all the term papers and finals to read. Although this year was certainly not a breeze, I do think I got through those last few days with some measure of sanity I don't always keep hold of. The regrets of the end of the semester--the sense that everything has been a failure, or the obsession over the failures--always lead to all these ideas about how I'm going to do everything differently next semester, but this time I think I've got an idea for a qualitative break with the past.

What really eats at me at the end of the semester are all of the tasks that don't mean much to me, but I just do them because that's what I've always done. I don't want to bore anyone with the details. Let's just say some aspects of how I teach remain in my routine simply because of theory that was popular at the time I started teaching, and I have recognized at the close of this semester that my resentment over how futile these efforts seem is reflected in the students' attitude toward them--or vice versa. Anyway, I've used carrot-and-stick methods to maintain certain aspects of what's called "process" method, and I think all I've done is teach students ways to get carrots that express contempt for the process. Somewhere, Alfie Kohn (who thinks carrots and sticks corrode real learning) is saying "I told you so."

The carrot and stick are gone, Alfie. You win.

To paraphrase what Marx said to Bukunin a couple of posts back, what Marxists are almost always saying to other lefties--just because your hypothesis says something ought to be true, or just because you want it to be true, doesn't mean that's how it's going to work out.

At some point, you have to quit trying for a different result from the same old methods. Sometimes, you have to drop your tools, step back and take a fresh look at what you're trying to accomplish and why it's not working.

I got at this some in Monsters, Marx and Music when I began to write about the significance of Marx's concept of class. The idea is remarkably simple, pliable and distinctly different from the way most other people use it, so I will be talking about class over the next few posts. But it's first most fundamental virtue is the way it reminds us of our significance in the big picture.

From MMM:

Karl Marx diagnosed why we have a hard time getting our heads off the pillow in the morning. Why do so many of us dread our work? Why do we spend most days wishing our lives away? Why do we watch the clock? Why do we feel dread when we mean to be having fun? Why do we feel so alone?

He used the concept of the alienation of the worker to describe such conditions. And he actually showed why they were natural symptoms of a sick system. The alienated worker is someone who works all day for someone else’s profits. The basic principle of modern work parallels what slaves learned working in the fields. The harder and faster the slave worked, the faster pace the master expected, and the length of the slave’s life shortened.

For most of us working for a salary or an hourly wage today, the same principle is true. We have to work harder every year to keep our job, but we don’t live better. We instinctively suspect what Marx showed--the higher profits go, the harder our job becomes. In general, the effective exploitation of labor required by competitive business means that the worker becomes estranged from what he or she does, and, at the same time, competition’s increased need for division of labor alienates us from one another. While Marxism’s concept of the alienation of the worker is crucial to appreciating his critique of capitalism, his thoughts on the ties that bind us together show a way out.

Our daily problems threaten to overwhelm us. We don’t need to be told we are working harder and faster for less and less security than our parents before us. Sure, we have color TVs, CD and DVD players and cars that (more often than our parents' cars) start in the winter, but these material advances only reflect the technological advances (and overproduction) of our society.

What we don't have is the peace and security that might allow us to enjoy these things. Real security means job security to maintain our current standard of living, the promise of enough money to keep our kids well fed and clothed, the promise of enough to live on late in life or when we are no longer able-bodied, anything to hedge us against the disasters of illness and injury. Those kinds of security have virtually vanished.

Researchers have concluded that we live with more tension and less sleep than any generation before us. Our epidemics of anxiety disorders and depression only seem to confirm this.

Marx's theories allow us to step back from the confusing details of our daily existence and see their deep causes. Marx's analysis of the evolution of history and the broad outlines of capitalism itself are not particularly controversial. Detractors don’t argue with Marx’s analysis of the evolution of history or his description of capitalism. They reject only his solutions. Still, our system works best if unexamined, and those in power have long known the danger of the objective view that Marx offers.

Like the witches who drew on ancient ideas and thought outside of the narrow parameters of Puritanism, Marx sees human potential outside of the limits of our current society. Everybody who sees the potential of a cooperative society threatens the system in this way—from the early Christians to today's anticorporate protesters.

Marx's writing adds a unique quality to this threat (or hope). It says a cooperative society is more than a noble idea; it is a logical resolution to our current social problems.

Like the first astronauts on the moon, we get a brand new look at our big blue when we read Marx. It allows us to see the past 3000 years of cascading forms of oppression as a brief storm and the potential for the evolution of mankind from our ancient cooperative existence based in a struggle to survive scarcity to a future cooperative society necessary to manage the world's potentially abundant resources....

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