Marx wondered who would educate the educator…
I am not now nor have I ever been a Marxist, yet Karl Marx was one of my most important teachers.
Marx wondered, with good reason, who would educate the educator. But as an autodidact himself, he knew that education, like the Lord, works in mysterious ways. In the late 1960s, I was a graduate student at MIT who shared the virtues and vices of the zeitgeist: I supported greater rights for blacks and women, wished for an end to the Vietnam War, and naïvely assumed that since McCarthyism and Goldwaterism had been defeated, the millennium was just around the corner. Then, upon my return from a jaunt to Europe in the summer of 1968, between my first and second years of grad school, I learned that I had been drafted.
Though opposed to the war, I had been too deeply buried in mathematics to make time for radical politics and was too enamored of my scruples to fake my way out of the service. In short order, and because I spoke French — which the Army, in its wisdom, thought would make me a good candidate to learn Vietnamese — I found myself fighting the “land war in Asia” to which President Johnson had promised never to send American boys. My year “in country” ended with the award of a quite undeserved medal for “valiant service against communist aggression,” a rather breathtaking characterization of my mundane duties, which left me with many unanswered questions. How exactly had an unworldly mathematician from New Jersey landed in a godforsaken town in the Mekong Delta? What did my presence in Asia have to do with an ideology born in 19th-century Germany? What role had Das Kapital played in firing up the peasants of France’s former colony in Southeast Asia?