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NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Several e-mail responses to my "small triumph" post yesterday expressed distress at the lack of real mentoring these days in the Academy.  As I was taking my walk this morning at 6:30 [a lovely full moon hanging low in the western sky], I thought back to my first year as a senior member of the Columbia Philosophy Department, forty-nine years ago.  The department at that time was like a three generation family party.  There were the old wise men, at or near retirement -- Ernest Nagel, John Herman Randall, Horace Friess, and James Gutman -- the grownups -- Justus Buchler, Bob Cumming, Albert Hofstadter, Charles Frankel -- and the kids -- Sidney Morgenbesser, Richard Kuhn, Richard Taylor, Arthur Danto, James Walsh, Charles Parsons, and myself.  I had been told when I was hired that my "teaching load would be two and two" -- academic shorthand for a responsibility of teaching two courses each semester.  But the old men in the department, all of whom had come up in the Great Depression, had no conception of a teaching load.  They were simply teachers, and when students wanted to learn something they taught it, whether that meant teaching two courses a semester or five.  The year I arrived, Randall, Friess, and Gutman were teaching a seminar on something or other, joined by Frank Tannenbaum, a distinguished historian.  They asked whether I would like to join them and I said sure.  The seminar, if you can call it that, was a hoot.  We sat in a room with maybe fifteen graduate students from all over the university and talked about whatever the students were interested in.  There was no sense of "fields," or "specialties."  We were all just teachers.  There were some delicious moments.  Every so often, for example, Jimmy and Horace would have a disagreement, and like as not Jimmy would say, "Horace, I seem to remember you took a different view of that question in 1937."  Then Jack and Frank would try to recall whether Jimmy was right.  I was thirty at the time, and I felt really privileged to be allowed to take part, sort of like being permitted to join in the conversation as a kid when my parents had friends over of an evening.  I never forgot that window on an earlier time, when teachers taught, not counting credits or teaching loads or contact hours.

In the Spring of 2000, I was a Professor of Afro-American Studies at UMass and Graduate Program Director of our new doctoral program.  None of our graduate students knew anything about Marx, so I decided to teach them.  I announced a series of evening classes on Marx and about seventeen students showed up -- almost all of our doctoral students at that point.  We met for as many weeks as it took for me to give them the elements of Marx's thought, and to their credit, these overworked students all stuck it out.  There was one wonderful moment, but a little background is required.  At that time, not a single member of the department had anything that could by the wildest stretch of the imagination be called a religious belief, but at least half of our students were serious Christians of one sort or another.  [When you called Chris Lehman on the phone, for example, if he wasn't in, you got blessed three times before the beep.]  Anyway, I was lecturing on Marx's early views one rainy evening, and a propos of I know not what, I remarked in an  off-hand fashion, "Of course, there is no God."  Just at the moment, there was a tremendous clap of thunder.  I did not know it at the time, but I later learned that a number of students took it as a sign.


Superfluous Man said...

This is the kind of thing that gives an agnostic great joy, at least as far as atheists goes. Some might start asking questions and join us.

Unfortunately, it doesn't have the same effect on the believers.

Chris said...

Superfluous Man,
I don't think the two positions are mutually exclusive. If you ask me where the cosmos came from, the only honest answer is the agnostic one: I have no fucking clue!

If you ask me my thoughts on every last religious account of metaphysics, ontology, the origin of the universe, etc, my answer is a resounding: bullshit.

I'm an atheist about all religions, that is I outright reject them and say they are false, and an agnostic on how a cosmos came to be.

This is how I've always understood the issue, thus Wolff is right, by religious accounts OF COURSE there is no god!

Chris said...

Wolff, as a fellow philosophy teacher, what role do you think we have in making our atheism readily known? I often feel compelled to do so. And I often want to do what you do, and just say "of course there is no god..." But I live in jacksonville florida (where everyone's pious), where 1) I just find it funny to ruffle feathers, but more importantly 2) know a lot of the kids in my class must have doubtful thoughts and have never known a fellow atheist or doubter. I think being openly atheist may be beneficial along the lines as someone who is being openly gay, socialistic, etc. Warm people to the idea that it's okay.....

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The most important thing, as a teacher, is to make sure that students are comfortable opening up and saying what they believe. This does not require that you conceal your views, but it does require that you not speak in a way that makes them feel scorned or mocked. Remember -- and this is the hardest thing for young teachers especially to keep in mind -- to your students, you are AUTHORITY regardless of how you feel or what you say. You are the teacher. You are the person who is going to give them a grade. That trumps everything.

That being the case, it would probably be enormously eye-opening for them to discover that someone who is THE AUTHORITY does not have religious beliefs. It is not necessary to argue the matter, especially not in an overwhelming way. The mere fact that you can say that calmly and in a matter of fact manner will turn their world upside down.

NotHobbes said...

Well said Professor!
The authority assuming an obligation to destroy any previously held beliefs is placing himself/herself in the role of a deity, a bloody narcissistic one at that

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