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Liberal education theme of latest Marxist lecture

The Socialist and Marxist Studies Series hosted its third lecture of the spring semester on Thursday, Feb. 14, with a presentation by Interim Dean of the Honors College David Gross, titled “Honors Education, Liberal Education and Social Justice.” Roughly 25 people attended the lecture, which was held in the Bangor Room of the Memorial Union.

The lecture was sponsored by the Maine Peace Action Committee, the Division of Student Affairs and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Philosophy professor Doug Allen introduced Professor Gross.

Gross, who retired to his hometown of Orono after a career as an English professor at the University of Oklahoma, now serves as interim dean of the Honors College. He told his audience that he had been thinking about the topic of his presentation for about 50 years. Gross described his struggle with the concept of a traditional, liberal education and its perceived emphasis on capitalist values over the course of his career, beginning with his own time as an undergraduate, when he felt alienated by the higher education system.

This feeling changed, he said, when he attended two talks delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. — early versions of what would eventually become his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Gross also described his interactions with a Marxist professor as formative, as he found himself increasingly drawn to the Marxist social critique.

After finishing his own education, Gross took a position at Winona State University in Minnesota, where he frequently used his classroom as a platform to criticize the Vietnam War. His self-described radicalism eventually led to his firing, after which he moved to Oklahoma to continue teaching.

Although he accepted his role as a teacher, Gross acknowledged a deep uneasiness with what he perceived as a contradiction between his teaching of the established Western canon and his belief that many elements of western culture — particularly capitalism — were morally reprehensible.

According to Gross, the self-celebration of the Western canon creates elitism and a lack of empathy for subjugated classes. He described how the traditional liberal canon was first assembled in 1835 for the education of Indian colonials. Gross referred to Thomas Babington Macaulay, who published “Minute in Indian Education” in 1835, saying, “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” This closed attitude persists today, Gross said, though perhaps not as overtly as it did in the past.

Gross said that “time tempered [his] radicalism.” He began to observe a progressive influence that resulted from students studying the so-called liberal canon. He began to see students developing more egalitarian ideals through his courses. In 1990, he developed a lecture in support of liberal education, “Thinking Hard About Things That Matter,” that he continues to deliver to the University of Maine Honors College.

“If radical change does not come soon, perhaps liberal education can at least help us as we wait,” Gross said, concluding the lecture, cautioning that true education must extend beyond the perimeters of traditional Western literature to create positive change, but acknowledged.

The next lecture in the Socialist Marxist Studies Series will be presented by Paul Grosswiler, chair of the Department of Communications and Journalism, titled, “Defending Thought We Hate: The Social Value of Offensive Ideas.” The lecture is scheduled to be held in the Bangor Room at 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 21.