Granny Made Me an Anarchist by Stuart Christie

July 17, 2008

Stuart Christie is the rarest of revolutionaries—a committed freedom fighter and a gentle warrior who can also spin a cracking good yarn. From the working class streets of Glasgow as a wee lad to the gaols of fascist Spain as an 18-year-old anarchist, Christie draws his readers into the thick of things, on the move and on the run. The result is a compelling portrait of both a man and a time.

Granny Made Me an Anarchist picks up where George Orwell left off, in London and Paris and in the fight against fascism. Like Orwell, Christie’s engagements and commitments never overshadow his ongoing search for justice. We feel the thud of the police stick and the searing pain of the interrogation cell, but also the exhilaration of choosing to lead a moral life in a world gone mad, and the power of pursuing a politics based on human freedom rather than power or parties. For anyone troubled by the sorry state of things and searching for her or his own moral compass in the mud and muck of the world as we find it, this is essential reading.

Immigrant Students in Our Public Schools by Laurie Olsen

July 17, 2008

Laurie Olsen has lived her life breaking down the walls of ignorance and borders of fear, fighting for immigrant rights, tolerance, understanding, and unity. More than a portrait of a school, this is a portrait of America.

Taught by America by Sarah Sentilles

July 17, 2008

Taught by America is a book of ‘teachable moments’—those surprising, unanticipated spurts of learning every teacher recognizes as both most authentic and most enduring. Here the most sparkling teachable moments belong to the teacher herself. Powered by idealism, Sarah Sentilles discovers the limits and potential corruption of a savior complex. Struggling to meet the vast needs of her students and their families, she comes to see that an indifferent and hostile system is a form of violence that can undo both good intentions and hard work. Hoping to be of service to the downtrodden, she discovers a deeper and more effective position in solidarity with the oppressed. Sarah Sentilles’s journey contains an injunction: we must change our lives.

Frederick Douglass— What is your 4th of July?

July 4, 2008

During the 1850s, Frederick Douglass typically spent about six months of the year travelling extensively, giving lectures. During one winter — the winter of 1855-1856 — he gave about 70 lectures during a tour that covered four to five thousand miles. And his speaking engagements did not halt at the end of a tour. From his home in Rochester, New York, he took part in local abolition-related events.

On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall. It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”

Within the now-famous address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Youth Learning… by Leif Gustavson

July 3, 2008

Antonio Gramsci once said that everyone is a philosopher—Leif Gustavson shows us concretely what that might mean. In Youth Learning on Their Own Terms he offers both a compelling critique of the most familiar classroom practices as well as a nuanced and detailed portrait of young people dwelling in possibility, consciously constructing their lives as expressive and adventurous, reflective and meaningful.

Because, he is not an ideologue, Gustavson convincingly explores approaches and approximations rather than laws and causes. Motivation, engagement, sustained attention, standard-setting, self-discipline—Gustavson discovers sites of youth activity where these desirable qualities are assumed, not imposed, spots where young people invent themselves as authors, artists, and activists—as unruly sparks of meaning-making energy on voyages of discovery and surprise rather than either outlaws or raw materials moving along some alien and inhuman assembly line.

A basic and universal human impulse is the desire of leave a footprint in the sand, a cave-painting on the wall—Leif Gustavson helps us re-imagine education as a place where that impulse might become both organizing guide and controlling principle. This is a compelling, an essential book.

Education and the Cold War by Andrew Hartman

July 3, 2008

Anyone who wants to fully understand the failure of American schools to prepare free citizens capable of vigorous participation in a democratic society will find here a complex but accessible map. Andrew Hartman is a wise and sensible guide through the thickets of historical flow, economic structure, political condition and cultural context. An encounter with Education and the Cold War is fortification for the important struggles ahead.

Eugenics and Education by Ann Winfeild

July 3, 2008

As finite beings in an infinite and expanding universe, our understanding of the world is necessarily contingent, partial, and incomplete, and yet we live for the most part as if our everyday assumptions, biases, myths, and common sense are simply and entirelytrue. To say that we are—each and all of us—blind to our own blind-spots is a tautology. To take that tautology as a provocation, as a point of departure toward upending our own orthodoxy requires curiosity and courage. Ann Winfield has an abundance of both—a lively and exquisite mind combined with a willingness to relentlessly poke around in the dark. The result is a work of power and importance—breath-taking in its reach and surprising on almost every page. Here she interrogates—through the lens of a movement and an ideology that dominated our culture for much of the twentieth century—the story of democracy, freedom, and exalted forward progress that we Americans love to tell ourselves. Written out of the official story as quackery and the handiwork of a few nut-cases, Winfield demonstrates beyond doubt that eugenics was not only respectable, mainstream science but also that its major tenets were well-springs in the formation of American public schools with echoes in the every day practices of today. Formed in the crucible of white supremacy and rigid hierarchies of human value, American schools have never adequately faced that living heritage.

We no longer talk of “miscegenation” or “imbeciles,” of course, and we are likely to look upon forced sterilization and race-based marriage laws as archaic. But Winfield undermines any sense of smug superiority we might grant ourselves by drawing a direct line from those repulsive labels and practices to our own obsessions with “standards” and “accountability,” test scores and grades. White supremacy surely changes its spots but it remains durable and dominant.

Education, of course, is never entirely neutral—it always has a value, a position, a politics. Education—teaching and schooling—either reinforces or challenges the existing social order. For humanists and democratic educators, the largest, most generous purpose of education is always human enlightenment and human liberation, and the driving principle is the unity of all humanity. We embrace the conviction that every human being is of incalculable value, entitled to decent standards concerning freedom and justice and education, and that any violations, deliberate or inadvertent, must be fought against, testified to, and resisted.

The unity of human beings is based both upon a recognition of differences as well as a consciousness of our interdependence. People are different—distinct capacities, unique needs—and we are, at the same time, entirely connected. In today’s world, where we seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the knowledge we lack includes an acknowledgment of the reality of our wild diversity—something that just is—and at the same time an acceptance of our deep connectedness. The knowledge we desperately need now is a knowledge based upon recognition, upon unity and solidarity.

The relationship between education and freedom is deep, intrinsic, and profound—they are essentially the same thing. Both concern themselves with the fullest expression of human development. To the extent that people reflect upon their lives and become more conscious of themselves as actors in the world, they insert themselves as subjects in history, constructors of the human world, and they enact and express themselves, then, as free human beings.

The aim of humanistic educators is to organize schools in such a way that every member can develop and use all of his or her capacities and powers without infringing upon the basic conditions or rights of others. The classroom becomes an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

To be a good teacher in this context means above all to have an abiding faith in all students, to believe in the possibility that every person can create things and is capable of both individual and social transformation. Education becomes a form of reinventing, re-creating, and rewriting, and this is a task that can be accomplished only by free subjects, never by inert objects. Education, then, is a dialogical process in which everyone participates actively as equals—a turbulent, raucous, unpredictable and participatory affair. The goal of dialogue in this context is critical thinking and action—knowledge emerges from the continual interaction of reflection and action.

In democratic schools, an emphasis on the needs and interests of the student is co-primary with faith in a kind of robust public that can be created in classrooms, as well as in the larger society. To be exclusively child-centered, to the extent that the needs of the group are ignored or erased, is to develop a kind of fatalistic narcissism; to honor the group while ignoring the needs of the individual is to destroy any possibility of freedom. This is the meaning of community, the creation of places where people are held together because they are working along common lines in a common spirit with common aims. These are places of energy and excitement, unlike the sites of coercion and containment that are all-too-familiar in schools: the difference is motive, spirit, and atmosphere. These qualities are found when people move from being passive recipients to choosing themselves as authors, actors, builders, and makers within a social surround.

When the aim of education is the absorption of facts, learning becomes exclusively and exhaustively selfish, and there is no obvious social motive for learning. The measure of success is always a competitive one—it is about comparing results and sorting people into winners and losers. People are turned against one another, and every difference becomes a potential deficit. Getting ahead of others is the primary goal in such places, and mutual assistance, which can be so natural, is severely restricted or banned. On the other hand, where active work is the order of the day, helping others is not a form of charity, something that impoverishes both recipient and benefactor. Rather a spirit of open communication, interchange and analysis becomes a commonplace. Of course in these places there is a certain natural disorder, a certain amount of anarchy and chaos as there is in any busy workshop. But there is a deeper discipline, the discipline of getting things done and learning through life, and there is an appreciation of knowledge as an inherently public good—something that can be reproduced at little or no cost, and (unlike commodities), when it’s given away, no one has any less of it. In a rational society, knowledge would be shared without any reservation or restriction whatsoever.

Schools serve societies—in many ways all schools are microcosms of the societies in which they’re embedded—and they are both mirror and window onto the social reality. If one understands the schools, one can see the whole of society; if one fully grasps the intricacies of society, one will know something true about the schools. In a totalitarian society, for example, schools would be built for obedience and conformity; in a kingdom, the schools would teach fealty. But in an authentic democracy we would expect to find schools defined by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, and full participation, places that honor diversity while building unity. Schools in a democracy would resist the over-specialization of human activity—the separation of the intellectual from the manual, the head from the hand, the heart and the head, the creative and the functional—as a distortion. The goal of democratic schools would be the fluidity of function, the variation of work and capacity, the mobilization of intelligence and creativity and initiative and work in all directions.

The education we are used to is only a caricature—it is not authentically or primarily about full human development. Why, for example, is education thought of as only kindergarten through 12th grade, or kindergarten through university? Why does education occur only early in life? Why is there a point in our lives when we feel we no longer need education? Why again, is there a hierarchy of teacher over student? Why are there grades and grade levels? Why is there attendance? Why is being on time so valuable? Why indeed do we think of a productive and a service sector in our society, with education designated a service activity? Why is education separate from production?

Eugenics and Education will change the way you think about curriculum and teaching, school reform, educational policy and practice, and even the current debates concerning immigration and marriage. This is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the sorry state of our schools today, and the deep changes we must undertake to improve them. After seeing the world through Ann Winfield’s eyes, when you hear the terms “gifted and talented” or “at risk” you’re likely to wince. Good.