AERA Speech 2003 Chicago
Rich Gibson, San Diego State University
Marxism and Education Symposium, April 23

What Is It That People Need to Know, and How Do They Need to Come to Know It,

In Order to Be Free?

What is it that people need to know, and how do they need to come to know it, in order to lead reasonably free, connected, creative, communal lives? These are epic times when qualitative and irreversible changes are taking place. People are defining themselves and, in a world which can offer its children only perpetual war, it is a period when despair and confusion can seize the outlook of masses of people. These epic times call for a new form of epic heroism, rooted in notions of the common good, community and equality, which remembers the wisdom that says where there is oppression, there is resistance, sometimes muted, sometimes not taking forms that we approve of, but there is always resistance, and it is in this interaction that change is made, change which will happen-for the better--- if we can outfox the destruction of wisdom.

Part of that is remembering how rational knowledge is constructed. My former neighbor was a shrink. I once interrupted his lawnmowing to ask him, "Just exactly what is it, Roger, that you do?" Roger raised his left hand high over his head, out to the side, and wiggled his fingers. "I get them to watch this," he said, "While I do this," and he lowered his right hand to below his waist and wiggled those right fingers, and he chuckled.

Part of the construction of reason is understanding how knowledge moves from what appears to be, to what is, or from appearance to essence.

This presentation is a compilation of two papers, each available here in hard copies, and online. On paper is about Overcoming Fascism through theory and action in schools--its history especially as it relates to the Nazi Holocaust. The other paper is called, Can Communities of Resistance and Transformation be Born from the Social Context of School? My talk, then, is about transcending fascism, overcoming capitalism and imperialist war, epic heroism, ideas rising not out of the mists, but from a careful analysis of what is. My thesis is that schools are central to this struggle.

This is as good as it gets with capitalism. This is all capitalism has to offer: endless war, irrationalism, racism, massive unemployment, the ruin of our natural resources, the assault on reason--all in the name of profits. Today, every local tin-pot warlord has learned he needs a nuke, as the US may come, and every big state feels empowered to strike first, just in case.

In 1999, I wrote in the social studies journal, TRSE, "if you are teaching middle school now, you are looking at the soldiers in the next oil war." It was easy to see this war coming, but not THESE wars. Nobody could predict the vile terrorist attacks on September 11. And I make no crystal ball claims now. Only Cassandra had perfect prescience.

However, I list these as interrelated international and national social and economic tendencies, all existing before September 11 2001:

*Booming Inequality within the US, and between the US and the world (Johnson, 1999),

*Segregation deepening within communities and schools (Orfield, G., Yun, J. !999),

*Irrationalism-rising power of religious fundamentalism in school and out (Jenkins, 2002; Ohio Plan, 2002),

*Regimentation of society via spectacles, surveillance, and the suspension of common civil liberties (Foner, 2002),

*Rising authoritarianism on the job and off, as the vertical discipline of society sharpened. This was especially easy to see in schools (Bayot, 2002),

*Militarization of the schools and society (Goodman, 2002),

*Technology leading not to better lives for all but to massive worldwide unemployment and overproduction, meaningless jobs repetitive jobs dominating the future for most kids (Feaster, 2002),

*A mystical economy built on Ponzi schemes like Enron, an economy that was unraveling with the NASDAQ collapse,

*A deepening divide of town and country, with masses of people being driven off the land and arriving in cities, homeless and hopeless,

*A cultural attack in North America, designed to heorize the military and to eradicate memories of Vietnam (Franklin, 2000),

*The privatization of the military, increasing leadership and dependence on mercenaries, secret companies, while special operations forces work under the guidance of corporate leaders (Wayne, 2002),

*The incarceration of two million people in the US, inordinately black people. (NYTimes April 11 2003)

*Government less and less as a neutral arbiter of disputes, more and more a weapon in the hands of the powerful (Lipsitz,1994, p.59).

September 11, the despicable terrorist attacks and what followed , was both a qualitative shift in our social context, and a bright light illuminating what was already going on that went often unnoticed.

September 11 and the events that followed confirmed at least two related contradictions:

1. The contradiction between global capital and the national base of capital's personifications, the people who seek to ride the process. Capital, a system that rules people, is ever on the prowl for the highest forms of exploitation, of raw materials and resources, of markets, and of labor, people. Capital, as an international system which has now invaded the entire planet, knows no boundaries, but its history is bound to a national base, countries. The capital system requires the protection of national armies-which come at odds with one another in an almost infinite variety of ways. Within countries, capital is represented, personified, by people who, from time to time, possess capital and ride it, until someone else does a better job at exploitation. At every level, all are at odds with all and, in some areas, this chronic war results in either kakistocracy, the rule of the worst conceivable leaders, or Talibanization, the rule of the most irrational and depraved.

Oil is now central to understanding current events and this contradiction. Oil wars play out with the battles between Unocal, Chevron, of the US; Bridas from Argentina, Russia, the countries of the Middle East oil fields, the new central Asian nations, Nigeria, Indonesia, Colombia, Venezuela, Japan, and China, among many others. International capital, as a system, is in discord both with pure individual selfishness and the need for a national army (Klare, 2001, p90; Yergin, 1991 p.722, 753; Rashid, 2001 p45; Lindquist, 1991, p77).

It appears that US leaders (who have close ties with oil interests) now seek to resolve that contradiction by invading the world, everywhere from the Philippines to Central Asia, Iraq, and Columbia and unannounced more to come. So, the U.S. seeks to resolve the national/global contradiction by extending its global rule, by invading the world, with permanent bases everywhere, under its national base. Positioning against China has to be seen as a significant part of this effort to construct uninterrupted hegemony (Meszaros, 2002, p29).

As an aside, we may have seen the last of the counterfeit wars of national liberation, which have so captivated the left for nearly a century. One such war after the next, while challenging forms of imperialism, never led to either a communist ethic, nor a communist practice. Now, perhaps the snake oil will no longer sell, maybe the people will only fight for something much more than a new boss--or maybe not. Surely the Columbian FARC is running a successful guerilla campaign beneath the National Liberation rubric, but should they succeed (and best of luck to them), perhaps their rank and file will quickly demand more than a dominated job. Clearly, the question to all now is: How to truly abolish the wage system-root it out hook, line, and sinker?

2. The invasion of the world will create another contradiction, the deepening inequality that the wars' costs will lead to intensified suffering among the poorest section of U.S. society and the poorest people in the world. As the economy and efforts to reify a Master /Slave relationship grind on the daily lives of poor and working people, they will fight back, developing wisdom as they go, as they always have-and must.

Nevertheless, there was an outpouring of witless nationalism following the terrorist billionaire's attacks that has to be troublesome, even if it was in fact superficial. There was, for example, no rush to enlist in the military, even though hundreds of thousands of people waived flags at baseball games. There was no patriotic purchase of stocks, and there has been no patriotic outpouring of enlistments for Iraq, even though that was urged by the White House corps. But appearances are important, superficial as they may be, as they can be transformed into something else.

Capital invaded the world, leaving nothing untouched. The most recent century was the first time in history when there was nowhere to run, as the residents of the Falklands/Malvinas discovered when British jump-jets began to bomb their sheep farms. Now, it may be that capital, if we can take it as a personification of itself, could not tolerate areas and people which it created, debased, and de-civilized, that is, barbarized, to a point where they were briefly out of its reach, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., and capital felt compelled to recapture them to rationalize them into systems of its accepted behavior: wage slavery.

This is, then, an international and national society, steeped in inequality, segregation, irrationalism, heading for a sharp financial crisis, with the most powerful of the nations promising the citizens of the world perpetual preemptive war-- the highest stage of what is fairly called capitalist development.

In sum, what is afoot now can best be understood in the context of an intensified international war of the rich on the poor. There is a word for the direct rule of the rich, coupled with the promise of war, the suspension of civil liberties, racism as public policy, irrationalism assaulting reason, a culture writhing in violence. I will leave it to the reader to name the combination of these chilling tendencies. No, I will name it: Fascism.

Such a world, such a nation, is going to make peculiar demands on its schools. No external standard, and no high-stakes test, can stand outside this social context.

One tendency is worth examining a little deeper in regard to the role of school. That tendency is deindustrialization. Basic industrial production is indeed taking place, and in connection with agricultural labor and the struggle for knowledge, social and scientific, industrial labor makes our lives possible. But industrial production has been nearly obliterated in North America. It has been shipped overseas, outsourced.

Since 1970, more than one million US auto workers lost their jobs, probably forever. Another million steel workers, and miners, and in rubber and feeder plants were permanently laid off. Labor analyst Doug Henwood estimates that there are 700,000 industrial jobs left in the US. I think he is wrong by about one-third, but let us take that figure as it is (Henwood, 2002).

I offer four postulates which I think are firmly grounded:

1.Factories, once central to civil life in the US are closed, for the most part.

2.The numbers of industrial workers in the US have been slashed to strip the industrial working class of their potential, for the time being, of being serious agents for social justice-even though some industrial workers, dock-workers for example, occupy vital crossroads of capital and can shut them off if they choose.

3. Since the industrial workers, especially those in the Congress of Industrial Organizations were the people who won in the 1930's what we take for granted as civilized life, things like Social Security, the 40 hour week, rights to organize, exercise free speech and assembly, and child labor laws; the absence of their jobs is important.

4. The remaining industrial workers, on one hand, belong to unions so corrupt, undemocratic, racist, and captivated with nationalism that there is no reason to believe that they will soon be leaders for social justice. This has been true for decades (Adamic, Brecher, Serrin). On the other hand, the remaining industrial workers in North America are remarkably privileged, in a relative sense (not to discount their dangerous jobs), and they know it--indeed many of them have been steeped in the AFL-CIO culture which suggests that American workers do better because other workers do worse. Lastly, this work force is aging, and has done nearly nothing at all while hundreds of thousands of their comrades lost their jobs. The only real experience of the key industrial sectors of the AFL-CIO is retreat and loss, a habit which will be hard for them to break, even though they will be more and more cornered as war costs and production demands crunch on their lives.

From that I submit this:

Schools are now the central organizing places of North American life. More people organize their lives around school than any other force in North American society. While schools do not garner even 1/10th of the federal military budget, schools are in every community, everywhere, offering food, knowledge, free space, medical care, and hope-real or false. The military is isolated, deliberately, and does none of that. The tax system is widely distrusted, and social security still directly influences only a small portion of the population. Teachers are also able to exert the most creative control over their jobs, more than any other group of workers with medical benefits in the US.

Reflecting the social shift, teachers are now the most unionized people in the United States. With 3.9 million members the school workers unions are nearly three times the size of the next largest unions, SEIU and the Teamsters. Educators in the NEA have some union democracy available to them, unlike most unionized people, as indicated by their 1999 rejection of NEA's leaders' plans to merge them into the AFT-AFL-CIO (Diegmueller, 2002; Gibson, R. 1999).

This means that what teachers and related school workers do now counts more than ever before. This is true not solely because their jobs are located in the central organizing point of North American life, jobs which cannot be outsourced, but because most of those teachers are working with those sectors of society which are most exploited, most oppressed; communities of color and immigrant communities. It should not be lost on us that these communities are likely to be both explosive, and, especially in the case of recent immigrants, experienced in the powerful social struggles in their earlier homes.

While the world appears to be more divided than ever by the wars of all on all, it remains that the revolutionary processes of capitalism have united us in unprecedented ways through systems of exchange, production, technology, transportation, and communication. How can we make that unity dominate the disunity that now prevails?

As Jean Anyon has demonstrated, doing school reform without doing simultaneous economic and social reform is like washing the air on one side of a screen door. It will not work. But doing social and economic reform also requires a context, a goal, and for us that goal must be to overcome, go beyond, transform, metamorphasize, capitalism. This is as good as capitalism gets, and it is unacceptable.

The main things taking place in school, besides segregation and the destruction of curiosity, are standardization and testing. There is a direct line from standards to tests to deepened segregation to mindless nationalism and the willingness to die for Exxon. Resisting those tests is resisting fascism.

Even so, real school reform, which will allow reason to transcend irrationalism built into the social structure, and also allow equality to overcome inequality, democracy to go past authoritarianism, necessitates deep social transformation.

Beyond resistance, schools at least claim to struggle for what is true, and the key question facing humanity now is the question I began with: What is it that people need to know, and how do they need to come to know it, in order to be free, creative, connected, communal, inclusive, and unafraid? The substantive side, and the pedagogical side, surely cannot be split apart, as 90 years of sham socialism should teach us--whatever it was that masses of people should have known was clearly not learned as they hardly resisted socialism, and they hardly burst out of its capitalist veneer (socialism was never much beyond the nationalization of the working class) when it fell apart. At issue here is a massive international change of mind, coupled of course with huge upheavals, but a change of mind that will outlast the uprisings and transcend into something worth the fight. And such is the task of schools: massive changes of minds.

To do that requires three things that cannot be built into external educational regulations or their mates, the Big Tests:

1. The Critique of Tyranny and its transformation is ages old, but the metaphor of the Master and the Slaves is a lighthouse for understanding what it is people need to know, and how they need to come to know it, in order for all to be free. This is not only a study of contention, opposition (though it most assuredly is that, exploding notions that "we are all in this together, partners in production"), but a study of overcoming, transcending, transforming, that is, how we can start with what is and get to what ought to be. This goes to the question of how we keep our ideals and still teach within a society that suggests that may be impossible (Strauss, 2000; Gibson, 2002 ).

2. Wisdom, the grasp of the whole, totality, and the potentially profound understanding of the relations of people to each other and their universe-the vast possibilities when people's interactions are mainly friendly, cooperative. Wisdom is understanding the whole, its relations to the composite parts, and humbling action-since knowledge is partial, but not so partial it is paralyzing. Anatol Lunacharsky, leader of the revolutionary Soviet education system in a brief period before Stalin acceded to power, suggested that a good Soviet citizen would be one who could "play one instrument very well, but who could hear and understand the whole orchestra too." The task of intellectuals has, for too long, been to only construct reason. Now we must consciously connect reason to power. But in daily life, making friends and keeping them over time is a radical notion as well. (Lunacharsky, 1971, p23).

3. Courageous action. Fear, married to opportunism, is commonplace in schools now. It is reasonable to be afraid of job loss, the impact of tests, mindless nationalism, etc. How can we get beyond this fear? Courage is not standing in the school house door, berating the tests and the regulations--and getting fired. Courage is not merely making an ethical point, but getting enough power, and then using it, to make change. Part of the answer to the question that faces so many educators now, "How do I keep my ideals and still teach?" is found in gathering the power found in competent teaching, close ties with colleagues, parents, and students, and the courage of returning to work another day.

Ideas should be a key product of school. New ideas, which we sorely need, require some freedom to have them. Offering freedom to students takes courage.

Courage is developing the critique of tyranny and wisdom to the point of understanding what it takes to win, and then acting--in conjunction with the people who are losing most from the system of capital, and thus are likely to understand it best. Courage is recognizing that what people need to know and how they need to know it, in order to be free, is a process, not a dogma. We all have a lot to learn-and we need to try to learn with good humor.

Courage could mean taking a radical action like making several lifelong friends, or leaving a subversive flyer in a lunchroom, or teaching well , or concluding that one is always too busy to resist and resisting anyway, or visiting a kid's home to see a parent, or grandparent. Courage can indeed be refusing to give the test--en masse, or denouncing a tyrannical law, or ridiculing an enforcement bureaucrat who deserves to be mocked, or simply being patient with a colleague who has run out of patience. Courage can indeed be leading a wildcat strike matched with freedom schooling to discover what forms of education can thrive in the midst of civil strife.

The path to a loving society, a community where people can live creatively, consciously, collectively, and not merely democratically, is probably only possible through great suffering. We should not despair in that, because that is the home of hope. People who have suffered and struggled, in that process, they define themselves and achieve a standing that is unavailable to others. People who have suffered can transcend fear, the host of hate, because they will have had to truly move in understanding from what appears to be, to what is, to what can be--because the processes of their suffering gives them a better understanding of what is essentially a Master Slave relationship than the Masers can ever attain, and because their daily lives serve as proof to the Masters lies--- and in doing that they may be able to fashion a society that lives by the idea, which will require a massive international change of mind (and a calling off of the massive scientific industrialized slaughter), an idea whose time has come: From each according to their commitment, to each according to their need. This stands in clear opposition to what the zenith of capitalism today, summed up by Conrad in Heart of Darkness as the ultimate declaration of imperialism: Exterminate all the brutes.

Capital has nothing left to offer anyone. Even before the NASDAQ collapse, people with three SUV's began to notice that such good luck was just not fulfilling. Capital has inverted science, consider the huge scientific advances in weaponry and gas-masking, while 25% of the kids in parts of New York City are cursed with environmental asthma. Capital is attacking all that is beautiful, from rationality to aesthetics---the drooling fundamentalist snake-handling top office-holders who cloak the breasts on statues. But overcoming the processes of capital is going to require a massive change of mind-an urgent change if we are going to go beyond industrialized slaughter.

Changing minds is the daily life of every school worker. What we do counts, more than ever. We will win. That will not happen by simple reasoning. The Masters will not adopt the ethics of the slaves. We will win by resisting, with a plan to overcome, and by learning from our resistance-outfoxing the destruction of reason and wisdom.

Just what is to be done will be the topic of the Rouge Forum Summer Institute in Louisville, June 26 to 29. I urge you to join us.

To Rich Gibson's Home Page