As an educator, I am currently on a path to teacher students in a middle school setting. Having studied both English and Philosophy as an undergrad, and now being well into a Master’s learning the theories, approaches, and application of teaching, I am aware of the deepness, complexity, and often time controversial elements in Critical Theory and modern thought in general. I believe that it is important to have as well-rounded of a personal perspective as possible. There is much to be gained by exposing one’s students to aspects of Marxism and Phenomenology and Cultural Studies. In this essay, I will present some terminology, concepts, and historical, as well as modern, personalities that apply to, and can accompany, the teaching of literature that relates to class.
In order to introduce the ideas behind class and class struggle, even before delving into literature, I would begin with concepts related to today’s world, for instance, capitalism. Even at the middle school level, students have heard the term and have most likely been exposed to its development in Social Studies. I could ask my students to help me to develop a list of the pros and cons of such an economic system as the one America, and many counties in the world, are involved in. It could be possible to allow students to think about our culture’s current trends regarding consumption of goods by touching upon some of the ideas laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Students would be able to begin to think about the consumer habits of themselves, and those around them, in a very different light.
This opening of the door to new ways of thinking can make other terms, concepts, and important figures less intimidating when they are introduced. Some students may even be asking themselves: “How did we get to this point? I love Disney, Sony, and my latest cell phone upgrade. Should I fear this concept of Cultural Industry?” Not all students will have such an existential reflection while in the classroom or during the bus ride home, but why not start to talk about some background on class, the proletariat, and the alienation of labor? For it is hard to imagine that anyone will start out working their dream job. Everyone has to work their way through jobs that generate frustration and angst in order to get to a place where one can find more meaning and fulfillment.
This is the place where concepts, like class struggle, set forth by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, can be addressed. The majority of students in today’s public schools should be able to relate to how difficult it is to get by and rise above economic hardship and a sense of exploitation they are witnessing in their own families on a daily basis. Students are aware that their parents work multiple jobs, go back to school, and can’t afford health care. They know, firsthand, because it directly effects their own lives and wellbeing. I want my students to be aware that there are many ways to address these social ills, and by looking back to history to see what has worked, and what has not, is a good approach.
Although communist has become the king of dirty words in politics, a brief discussion of the pitfalls, and current successes, of its application in recent history should be addressed. Such developments from communism, like fascism, should also be touched upon. From this discussion, socialism can be introduced. I would help my students to see that there are benefits to not only capitalism, but also to aspects of socialism, by discussing examples that apply in a global sense. Universal health care in many European countries would be a good starting point. My students would then be able to see that many programs, even our own current health care system, have a foundation in socialist thought.
The time for Critical Theory in the classroom, even controversial topics like Marxism and Phenomenology and Cultural Studies, is here. As a culture, we need it now, more than we ever have. Our students are living in times of struggle, alongside of their families, neighbors, and communities. They are aware of what is going on. They are listening. They hear that their father has lost his job, their mother is going to get less hours at work, and that the cancer treatment for grandma just isn’t going to be possible. They are listening. At night when the T.V. is on and the American people are using their best judgment to decide between a capitalist business man and a socialist democrat for president, they are listening. Let’s help them to learn, grow, and keep on listening.
Justin J. Gallagher