Teaching Marx in Anglophone Universities: interdisciplinary enquiry or unity of the sciences?

The purpose of this research is to reveal the ways in which the social theory of Karl Marx has been and is being taught in Anglophone Universities. The research will explore this issue starting from the emergence of Marx’s social theory as an academic subject in the twentieth century to the present day. This is not research into Marx’s teachings but the way in which Marx’s  teachings have been taught.

A distinctive feature of the research will be the way in which it draws out how Marx has been taught across academic disciplines: social science, arts and humanities, business and law and the natural sciences, through the work, for example, of Albert Einstein, John Haldane and Stephen Jay Gould. At the heart of this research lies the fundamental question, set out by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1992/1844), of the possibility for creating a unified science between the social and the natural sciences as ‘One Science’ (p. 355). While the research carried out on this project will be interdisciplinary it will challenge the concept of interdisciplinarity itself, arguing that discrete subject disciplines, no matter how well connected, are not amenable to the holistic responses  required to deal with the many global emergencies facing humanity and the natural world. The research will be based on the hypothesis that the wide ranging application of Marxist science across academic subjects has the potential to provide a unifying principle through which to reappraise the fundamental nature of teaching and learning in higher education as well as the production of critical practical knowledge.

The ambitious scope of this project is emboldened by the research project:  Ordered Universe: interdisciplinary readings of Medieval Science, based at the University of Durham and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which seeks to support fresh and original readings of medieval science. The Ordered Universe research project has a particular focus  on the work of Robert Grosseteste, 1170 – 1253, who sought to provide a cosmological theory for the medieval world based on empirical research methodologies, establishing a foundation for experimental science (Neary 2012).  Robert Grosseteste was a Bishop of Lincoln as well as being the first Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. It is entirely appropriate that a research project which is, in part, inspired by his approach to experimental science should be established at the University of Lincoln where I teach.

The theoretical and conceptual framework for Teaching Marx is grounded in a version of critical theory that sought to connect the social and the natural sciences as a radical understanding of the world, a school of thought that has become known as ‘The Frankfurt School’, exemplified by the writings of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Alfred Schmidt (Neary, Critical Theory and the Critique of Labour 2017); as well as more recent scholarship that seeks to recover the unity of Marx’s social theory and its relationship to nature as a ‘world ecology Marxism’ (Moore 2015). While the teaching of Marx and Marxism has been in decline due to the dominance of neoliberal orthodoxy, there has been a resurgence of interest in Marx’s work following the Great Recession of 2008. For example, students at the University of Manchester have developed their own approach to this issue, known as Post-Crash economics, arguing that the economic syllabus and teaching methods needs to be rethought from a more critical perspective. Teaching Marx is drawing on the ongoing reappraisal of Marx’s social theory which is producing fresh and original insights into Marx’s theory, based on the work of  Diane Elson, Simon Clarke,  Ellen Meiksins Wood, John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld Robert Kurz, Moishe Postone and Ana Dinerstein. This research will trace the way in which this reappraisal of Marx’s work is being taught in English speaking universities. The research methods will include archival research into how curricula for teaching Marx have been developed, as well as interviews with leading teachers of Marx during the twentieth century  who have now retired, those who have been  teaching Marx over a sustained period  and academics and postgraduates who are new to teaching Marx.

Outputs will include reports of regular seminars, a conference at the end of the project along with an edited book. Teaching Marx will have an online presence that will include resources for teachers teaching Marx in higher education.

This research brings together the main strands of my work: research into Marxist social theory and teaching and learning in higher education. During the period I was Dean of Teaching and Learning at Lincoln, 2007 – 2014,  I developed, in collaboration with other staff and students, a model of teaching in higher education based on the support for undergraduate research as a fundamental part of the teaching and learning programme. This approach, with the title Student as Producer, became in 2010 the basis for the University’s teaching and learning strategy across all subject areas at Lincoln. Student as Producer is based on the work of Marxist intellectuals, including Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and Lev Vygotsky. This work has been developed in other HE institutions in the English speaking world in their own particular ways, in the US, UK, Australia and Canada, and has been identified as a major trend for the future of teaching and learning in higher education (NMC Report 2014 p. 15). The University of Lincoln is recognised by academics as well as external review agencies for its support for student learning through research-engaged teaching and so is an entirely appropriate site to base this research (Quality Assurance Agency 2011, Higher Education Academy 2015).

Teaching Marx is an ambitious project in scope and scale with deep theoretical and conceptual roots; not least in the way in sets out to challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries, through an appeal, following Karl Marx and Robert Grosseteste, for the unity of the sciences.

I am just beginning this work so would welcome any suggestions you might have as to how the research could be developed.