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Monday, September 16, 2019


One of the problems I have faced in preparing my up-coming Columbia lectures is that there is simply not enough time to say everything I want to say in the three remaining seminar meetings devoted to Marx.  Obviously one solution is to refer the students to the books I have written, but I was concerned that I might scare them away from the first book, Understanding Marx, if I mentioned that it had math in it.

Well, some years ago when I was working pro bono at Bennett College, an HBCU in Greensboro, I surfed the web until I found the state-wide standards promulgated by the North Carolina State Board of Education for all public schools K-12.  There I discovered that the math I use in the body of the text of my book is required to be taught in all North Carolina schools in grade 9.

So I shall say to my Columbia students, by way of encouragement, that if they made it through the Freshman year of high school, they can handle my book.

As teachers, we do what we can.


s. wallerstein said...

Math tends to scare some people off.

I did very well in high school math (although I preferred history and literature), scored over 700 on the math SAT (although I got a higher score on the verbal test), but by the time I got to the university, I didn't want to see any more math. I tend to avoid anything that has math in it and since leaving high school, I've never used any math more complicated than percentages.

I believe that I not alone in my math phobia. I don't recall if you are giving your lectures in the sociology department or the journalism department. If the latter, avoid the math. I'm not sure about the former. Good luck.

David Palmeter said...

A few years ago at OLLI, I took a physics course. These are a low key courses--no exams, no papers. There was some basic algebra involved, and all of us humanities majors who (like s. wallerstein) avoided as math as much as we could, were struggling. The study group leader (we don't have professors), a retired physics professor, pointed out that this was simply high school algebra. One of the members of the group pointed out in turn, that expecting us to be able to use algebra "fluently" was like expecting someone with two years of high school French going to France half a century later and expecting to get around with it.

s. wallerstein said...

I know lots of Chileans who when younger participated in Marxist-Leninist movements and called themselves "Marxist-Leninists". All are still on the left, although generally, they are no longer "Marxist-Leninists".

They are relatively well-educated and bright, but almost none of them has ever read Das Kapital (me neither). The stated reason is generally all the calculations, all the numbers, which turn a lot of people off.

On the other hand, all of them, including myself, have read books explaining Marx, which avoid the math.

Aime DeGrenier said...

Hi Bob! I’m here eating dinner with Aimee Racicot and Marie Meckel (Gyepi Sam’s wife). We are reminiscing about IASH and our years with you and Esther and Nancy! Hoping all is well for you and your family.

LFC said...

@ s wallerstein

There are lots of classics I have not read, so I am not in any way criticizing you for not having read Capital.

I had to read (i.e., for a course) much/most of vol. 1 of Capital in college. There are v. few numbers and v. few "calculations" -- maybe there are some in vol. 3, which I haven't read, but not in vol.1. RPW uses linear algebra in the part of his lectures on Marx's LTV and (as he says) in his bk Understanding Marx, but Marx himself did not use it in v.1 of Capital, at least not as I recall. In short, there's essentially no math in vol.1 of Capital, except for a few fractions. So that can't be the excuse to not read it. (A better reason I suppose is that you've read things about Marx. But Capital's literary qualities are striking.)

p.s. I don't exactly get why RPW is so bothered by the fact that he has more to say about Marx than there is time in which to say it. I understand he is flying thousands of miles every week from NCarolina to NYC b.c he has important things to convey and enjoys conveying them. But surely the seminar will count as a success not on the basis of whether students get every last drop of RPW's analysis of Marx (as he says, he can refer them to his books or youtube lectures) but rather on the basis of whether they get the general points about 'ideological critique' and are stimulated to read/explore/research/etc more on their own. This is not, after all, a class on Marx -- it's a seminar on ideological critique, and Marx's position in the course, as I understand it, is therefore exemplary of an approach -- otherwise why are Weber and Mannheim and Wilmsden (or whatever his name is) and Charles Mills, among others, on the syllabus at all?

Anonymous said...

I’ve often thought—though to say so may reflect my mathematical ignorance—that Marx had partial differential equations in mind when he constructed Capital. I.e., he treated one variable as variable while holding the other variables constant for the moment. This, anyway, is how I read the beginning of the first chapter of Vol. III, Part I:

“In Book I we analysed the phenomena which constitute the process of capitalist production as such, as the immediate productive process, with no regard for any of the secondary effects of outside influences. But this immediate process of production does not exhaust the life span of capital. It is supplemented in the actual world by the process of circulation, which was the object of study in Book II. . . Considering what this third book treats, it cannot confine itself to general reflections relative to [the synthesis of the processes of production and circulation]. On the contrary, it must locate and describe the concrete forms which grow out of the movements of capital as a whole.”

Michael said...

Off-topic, but I just ordered Autobiography of an Ex-White Man. Very much looking forward to it. Thanks for writing it, Prof. Wolff.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Holy Shimoly! The Two Aimes!! Greetings, and thanks for posting.

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