Friday, August 20, 2010

First hand accounts of Marcuse's undergraduate teaching

A pair of articles appearing in 1969 in the Los Angeles Times describe the excitement and intensity of Herbert Marcuse's undergraduate classes at UCSD.

Art Seidenbaum in a Los Angeles Times article entitled "The Trouble with Students" gives an interesting first hand account of the author's first time meeting with Dr. Herbert Marcuse and the subsequent lecture on Freud which he attended.

The story begins with a random student telling Seidenbaum: "Hey, if you're gonna get to know this place, you ought to hear Marcuse". Art plans to hear Marcuse and so the story continues: "This is the day Herbert Marcuse's undergraduate class meets. Marcuse is the most controversial philosopher in California, the synthesizer of Freud and Marx whose books have become working manuals for American student revolutionaries".

Art makes his way to a UCSD info desk and asks where he can find Marcuse, "the information executive hesitates. Then he reminds me that Marcuse has received death threats". He continues, "the executive calls his secretary who calls Marcuse's secretary who promises to check with the professor himself". Art gets the go-ahead and makes his way to Marcuse's office, he is given a ONE-TIME ONLY pass. The following is the interesting re-telling of Art's first meeting with Marcuse:

"As I thank the secretary, in walks a slightly-stooped, gray-haired sparrow of a man who starts to pour himself a cup of coffee from the urn in the corner. The secretary smiles at me and nods at him, meaning Dr. Marcuse is among us. When he turns to face her with his coffee she introduces me. We shake hands, and he asks if I have any "devices" with me. I have no idea what he means but I open my briefcase so that he can look inside where there are only pads and pencils. He explains that he meant recording equipment. And then, in a soft, paternal voice he apologizes. He is embarrassed for having asked and I am embarrassed too".

After their introduction Art attends Marcuse's undergraduate course entitled "The Present Age" which he recounts as being "in the basement of the humanities building" and that there were "graduate student guards at the doors".

"The room is fan shaped and full. An American flag stands behind the lectern. The students are predominantly freshman, mostly clean-cutters by the lengths of hair and skirts. Dr. Marcuse comes in a few minutes after the hour and his first remark is a request: 'Would you please not smoke in this room. There have been many complaints. So repress. Repress.' He rolls his 'R's' and the students giggle over repression while the philosopher wipes his glasses. The kids lean forward, expectantly. Todays lecture is basic Freud, all about man's instinctive need for pleasure versus civilization's restraint and repression of pleasure. Marcuse walks as he talks, constantly taking off his glasses and wiping them. He is cordial enough but hardly rousing as he describes the primal horde and goes on to define ego, id and superego. 'From time to time', Marcuse says, 'the primordial force breaks through the repressions of civilization; sons may band together, as in the primal horde, to revolt against the father. Witness the generation gap.' The pimpled boy next to me snickers. Marcuse continues: 'Man's basic drives are sex and aggression. Both are in constant antagonism. There is no such thing as a self-preservation instinct; the need for pleasure supercedes self-preservation'. Then, still using the same mild tone, still wiping his glasses, Marcuse concludes, 'Aggression in man must sooner or later destroy him--as we shall see next time.' The guru of the revolution is a gentle, repressed personality, I realize. Certainly less aggressive than his critics."

The ending of the lecture concludes Art's encounter with Dr. Marcuse. The narrative tells a rich and detailed, albeit short, account of a reporter meeting Prof. Marcuse and attending one of his lectures; a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes life of a celebrity philosopher.

In another LA Times piece entitled "Herbert Marcuse: Accentuating the Negative", published July 27, 1969, Roger Rapoport gives details of an interview with Erica Sherover, doctoral candidate at the time as well as Marcuse's research assistant (and future wife), as well as another short snippet of a lecture with Dr. Marcuse; the article gives further insight into his teaching methods and personality.

Erica Sherover, speaking about how Dr. Marcuse generates a healthy amount of academic turmoil in the classroom, is quoted as saying, "He's at his best when dealing with leftists who've swallowed a lot of jargon. They expound theories and he says, 'What do you mean by that?' He forces them to expose their ignorance".

Rapoport goes on to give details of a "Marx and Lenin" lecture he sat in on:

"In class, Marcuse comes on like like a Teutonic master. Ready to convene a 'Marx and Lenin' lecture, he silences gossiping students by coming up from behind and poking them gently with his pointer. He begins class by promoting an extracurricular discussion of the SDS leaflet that has attacked his teaching methods. 'Could we meet next monday night?' he says afterwards. Student heads nod, but one boy laments: 'That's the night of the jazz concert.' 'Very well,' says Marcuse. 'We shall put the two together.' After the laughter subsides, Marcuse lectures on Marxian theory: 'Moral judgements do not play any role in capitalism. The theory calls for a specific social and political practice. There's not the slightest indication in Marx of capitalist conspiracy of the upper class. There is no theory of the evil character of capitalists. Even if all capitalists are angels, there would still be disintegration and a need for radical change.'"

Works Cited

Rapoport, Roger. "Herbert Marcuse: Accentuating the Negative". Los Angeles Times, Jul 27, 1969, p. N12-15.

Seidenbaum, Art. "The Trouble With Students". Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1969, p. M9-14.

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