Every issue in society turns
up in school. Virtually every citizen has regular contact with public education.
Surely schools should be good training grounds for social activists. They
have in the past. China's Mao, Albania's Hoxha, Peru's Guzman, the Christian
Jesus, were all once teachers. Alabama educators played leading roles in
the civil rights movement. "Freedom Schools" changed lives all over the
south in the 1960's and, one hundred years before, "Freedman's Schools"
set up mostly by black women and northern activists, laid the foundation
for the black colleges that exist today. The movement against the war in
Vietnam gained continuity from professors. Recently, teachers in Uruguay,
Mexico, and Uganda led general strikes. Every activist was once a student.
Besides, kids are compelling. It is hard to be blissfully ignorant of the
crisis in society and watch hungry kids walk into your classroom every
But now schools must go beyond
being training grounds for activists; they must become the focal point
of progressive action, sites of partisan work. Since school is where the
people are who will be vital to any organization for change, young people
13 to 18, the thinking bayonets,it should be a pivotal crossroad in the
effort for democracy and equality. Moreover, schools, along with safety-net
social service agencies, may soon be among the few remaining places of
regular employment in the U.S. The question is not whether activists should
concentrate action in schools, but how deeds should be directed.
In form, the key is to link the
people whose common interests are, at least materially, most alike: school
workers, poor and working class students and parents, in a reasonable sequence,
based on resources and interests. In every instance activists should seek
to communicate to the mass of people lessons which they will carry forward
to further experiences in even more serious struggles to come.
Let us first examine these ideas,
review a broad outline of democratic goals, then turn to introductory organizing
tactics, and examine liberating ways to teach and struggle in school.
No one has successfully synthesized
reformist and revolutionary work in the schools. Activists vacillate between
the absolutely revolutionary demand, "SMASH THE SCHOOLS", and petty reforms
without discovering the link between the two. Either we get fired revolutionaries
or Maryland teachers playing out scripts for politicians.
Practical experience shows that it is not so much finding the right demands, but building deep personal ties, identifying and working compelling issues, and good literature like Kozol's work on inequality or Shannon's on literacy (Pat Shannon, "Broken Promises" and "The Struggle to Continue") that forges lifelong democratic activists, organizers. Even so, many people will not be convinced immediately. We should decide what it is hoped people will learn.
A critical thinker in our society
must be prepared to address these issues:
1) The government is no neutral
but often a tool of the rich, and, in the case of the schools, the government
is the boss. Liberals see the state, government, as an ally, a solution
to the problem. Marxists want a new state. But whichever philosophy is
locally prevalent, it remains that workers (teachers most parents, students)
and their bosses have little in common. Collective struggle brings dignity
and, sometimes, victory. Even so, there can be no real question that we
will have to struggle, consciously or not, for the rest of our lives.
2) Racism, sexism, and nationalism
mean death. These common ideas divide workers who could otherwise make
gains if they were united against a common enemy. Only integrated struggle
defeats workers' oppression. There are, indeed, immutable dividing lines
in life, not based on race or sex or country, but rooted in the competing
interests of social classes.
Unity of the many strata of the
working class is necessary to win anything. Material divisions among workers,
based on sex, educational background, skill training, or whatever, function
in much the same ways as racism. Every successful reform fight, and the
goal of virtually all the battles worth reviewing, has been integrated
and had a goal of working class solidarity, narrowing false differences.
3) Militant collective ACTION
at the work site is far more effective than any kind of action, like lobbying,
filing arbitration cases, bargaining, speechmaking, etc., away from it.
This isn't simplistic syndicalism. Flatly, teachers made their most significant
gains from their (direct) job actions of the late '60's and early '70's.
Passivity was the other side of the coin from the Reagan attacks of the
'80's. The strength of any workers' organization is revealed in its ability
to exert direct control over the work place. Only action, wherever it may
be, can provide the practical lessons which can teach new methods to win.
4) Leadership is critical. Nothing
happens without leaders. But pacesetters must not stand above the rank
and file. Leaders must describe their analysis of the surroundings, a vision
for the future, and stand accountable. Anything less is a hustle. What
is required is a mass movement, ready to act, with many virtually autonomous
leaders---not another coup.
If we can press forward many,
if not all, of these ideas to the mass of people, and if we win the leaders
of those people to the democratic movement, we will make remarkable gains.
What is it to understand democracy?
Equality? Perhaps we can turn to a disillusioned communist, Lewis Corey,
for guidance. Corey, really Louis Fraina, an Italian immigrant, founded
the American Communist Party shortly after the Russian revolution. He participated
in the initial meeting of the Communist International. But, after a series
of twists and turns, Fraina left what became the Soviet-dominated "communist"
movement, wrote a book called the "Decline of American Capitalism" under
the name of Corey, and gained such respectability as a scholar that, absent
even a high school diploma, he became a full professor at Antioch College.
There, he ruminated on the questions of capital, democracy, and communism.
He concluded, in part:
"Democracy goes beyond any particular socio-economic order. It is older than capitalism...Democracy broadens from a form of government to a way of life. Its starting point is popular soverignity; the right of people to choose a government without resort to conspiracy and violence. Among the means to implement popular soverignity are freedom of speech, assembly and organization and the freedom of political action. Arbitrary power, whether economic, political or moral, is tyranny. No claim to power is justified by birth or privilege, creed or race. Power must be diffused and shared among the people and checked to prevent its abuse. Inalienable rights that no government or institution can violate include personal liberty, freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, intellectual and religious liberty. They include, too, the right of people to share fully in economic, cultural and moral gains: the right to social justice.
"Hence the democratic equality
of rights under the law broadens to become an equality of economic and
educational opportunity. Men are not free if they are economic dependents.
Social problems cannot be solved in a democratic, rational manner if the
people have not attained a high educational level. All institutions are
bad that magnify and stratify the differences among men to create invidious,
oppressive distinctions of class or caste; natural differences in a democratic
social order serve only to promote functional and cultural variety. The
right to live is inseparable from the right to work under conditions of
democratic opportunity and independence, a functional distribution of income
that permits neither rich nor poor, conditions that allow each person freedom
to choose and change his work.
"Democracy is drained of its
meaning and vitality if an economic oligarchy controls the people's means
of making a livelihood, if political and economic democracy do not reinforce
each other. No institution is superior to man. Man serves the community
to serve himself by means of democratic co-operation and freedom, not by
subjugation to compulsion and force. Tyranny and totalitarianism thrive
on metaphysical ideas that make man the object of history, institutions,
and power instead of making him their master. We return to our starting
point: democracy is popular soverignity in forms that make soverignity
work in all fields of social activity.
"All the democratic procedures
and values combine to make for a free life. Democracy promotes tolerance,
fraternity, and justice; the moral awareness of other people's right to
life, liberty and happiness; the decency, integrity, and dignity of man
who is meaningful in his own sight and in the sight of other men." ("The
Unfinished Task," Lewis Corey, p. 46)
Given the 1942 publication, Corey's
gendered language must be excused. His vision is worth the long quote.
His prescience gives meaning to labor historian David Brody's sophisticated
call to a battle for "industrial justice" and his reminder that all struggles
for equality have grasped that there is a them and us. (David Brody, "Labor
Crisis in Perspective" in "State of the Unions", 1990). In short, we must
know where we are headed and share tactics on how to get there.
Democracy, if it is to have more
substance than student governments, must finally be based on full production
which, in turn, can only be based on consumer purchasing power and consumption,
a dramatic decrease in profits, and a massive reinvestment in the national
superstructure, from roads to basic industries like steel. This will never
be accomplished by a cynically false alliance of business, labor and government.
There is sufficient proof of that experience. What is needed is a mass,
multi-racial, democratic movement of poor and working class people able
to enforce its demands on the job and in the streets, the same place victories
were won in the thirties. School workers, in touch with every element of
every community, should play a lead role.
In my mind, I need to title people who affirm Corey's combination of political democracy and economic justice. Here foreward, I call us democratists. Now, complete with title and concrete goals, we can turn to each group and attempt some speculative plans.
Some teachers will lead. Many,
like their Russian counterparts who struck against the earliest days of
the Soviet Revolution, were fired in mass, and replaced by parents; will
not. (See Anatol Lunacharsky, "On Education") But if students, who will
probably be far more volatile as a group, must be reached, teachers must
be won. Students flow through the schools. As an abstract group, they're
always there. But as individuals they are not. Teachers, in contrast, are
in schools as INDIVIDUALS, for many, many years. Some teachers will teach
entire families, even generations, of kids. Teachers are fundamental in
reaching the young people, just as many professors were key in providing
impetus and leadership to the anti-war movement in the sixties.
Of course, teachers themselves
spend plenty of time in school; in the school of education, in college.
Future teachers abound in universities and the unions front-load programs,
the Student NEA and AFT. Senedero Luminosa, the Shining Path of Peru, built
major sections of their organization in this way. Whatever one may feel
about their goals or tactics, there can be no serious question about their
organizational success. This is a call for less talk and more action in
the educator ranks, a vision that schools workers can organize with some
deliberateness and discipline.
Students in colleges of education
are open to a wide range of ideas. Many of them come from working class
backgrounds, though frequently that's just what they're trying to escape.
It's no small struggle to keep education classes bound to day to day reality.
College can make things ethereal, incomprehensibly abstract, distant from
life, work, and class struggle. But future teachers know, to one degree
or another, what school was like for them. And they know that it's a real
world. Many of them seek a coherent way to view it.
School workers and future teachers can be won to fight for workable literacy programs, for example, while they are in college, which will force a confrontation with a system that, as a matter of design, deliberately keeps more than a quarter of the population illiterate. Literacy programs necessarily raise many of the issues outlined above, racism, the state, and the questions of alliances or action over talk. There is plenty of evidence to show that literacy programs without politics simply do not work. In contrast, the liberal Paulo Friere has had considerable success in literacy work that links reading to empowerment, challenges to illegitimate authority. Finally, literacy programs that work require deep ties with the student---another desireable link---and teachers frequently learn from their students.
Both the NEA and AFT take positions
on a wide variety of issues, the former more liberal than the latter. NEA,
for example, takes a sharp stand against the Klan, even devotes a section
of its staff to research and action against "extremist groups" and publishes
some worthy anti-racist PR. There would be nothing especially untoward
about organizing a school workers' local, or the Student NEA or AFT to
taking ACTION against the Klan. To cast a still wider, and wiser, net;
school workers' unions and students could collectively support strikes
of local workers, a show of solidarity that might remind the AFL-CIO why
it ostensibly exists.
Of course, teachers can lead and recruit teachers, both in the context of the unions and simply in building alliances with students and parents (indeed, it was the actions of the kids and their parents in the rebellions of the late 60's which gave leadership to the teacher movement for collective bargaining).
The whole language movement could
be a viable focal point for organizing. These dedicated people meet regularly
all over the county trying to find ways to make education coherent and
linked to life.
Within the unions there are several
demands that could be raised which address our goals noted above. For example:
1) End the racist pay scale system.
Teachers are now paid on ludicrous salary schedules that stretch pay increases
over twenty to thirty years. In reality, this only serves to drive down
income over a career but, more importantly, the wide range of the pay scale
creates vast material differences between teachers. And the typically last-hired
minority teachers get paid least of all.
This division weakens teacher
ranks when it comes time to fight for increases for everyone and the split
is used, by bosses and cynical union leaders alike, to pit teachers against
one another in contract ratification votes. If educators must accept any
pay difference at all, it should be merely for an apprenticeship period
of, say, one year. Then let the pay be the same. Bosses and the union leaders
will fight this bitterly, not a bad scenario.
Related to this is the call to
end the incredible split between teacher pay and the pay for their union
representatives. NEA "Uniserv Directors", that is, union bureaucrats, average
well over $50,000 a year. National staff earn more than $70,000, nearly
three times a typical teacher's pay, with far superior benefits. The campaign
alone for the national presidency of NEA cost more than $1/4 million. There
is no reason a union leader should make more than the average pay of the
rank and file. And there is no reason for these positions to be career
jobs. Put a cap on the number of years any one person can serve in a union
2) Broaden the teacher unions. Invite parents and students to the meetings. Unite the teacher and school support worker unions into one. Both groups are required to educate a kid. Both have the same boss. Both are necessary to guarantee winning job actions. Teachers should learn to take leadership from support workers.
3) End the racist requirements
to enter the teaching ranks. An all-white teaching force controlling a
population of color is simply unacceptable. There is no demonstrable reason
why minority aides could not rather quickly demonstrate the ability to
teach. Teachers wages will not be slashed because of the infusion of more
teachers, some of them absent the annointing credentials, into the ranks.
Pay is rooted in the ability to tussle for control of the work place, a
factor likely to be enhanced by he injection of more working class adults
into the profession. Demystify teaching. Let the secrets out. Bring an
end to teachers' craft unionism and open up the ranks. Full pay and free
tuition for student teachers at work in the classroom.
4) End evaluations of teachers
based on students' performance on sexist/racist standardized tests. There
is no defense for the tests any longer. There is an abundance of literature
to show that they only measure class, race and sex. But we're seeing more
standardized testing, not less. Teacher complicity in this intensification
is traded for phony "cooperative efforts" schemes which, by giving teachers
control over the color of their classroom walls but no control over class
size or pay, fundamentally disempower teachers.
5) Halt the cooperative effort
schemes and get on with unionism. No pay differentials. Abolish the positions
for administrative spies, "lead teachers" and the like. Return to bargaining
where workers and bosses recognize their real material differences. No
contract, no work.
When there is a strike, strike
to win. Be prepared to spread the action. Organize across school district
and state lines to insure mutual support. Be equally prepared for no support
and even sabotage from union officials. If the AFT and NEA are merged,
surely massive strike support is one reason to justify it. Hold the unions
to it. Call rolling strikes that escalate and involve an increasing number
of districts or are used as a threat to defend those immediately involved
in a job action.
Seize buildings. Schools, with
their large grounds, are hard to defend against scabs. The sit-down is
the most effective tactic--especially in unity with parents and students.
Mid-year strikes are not effective and are often seen as attacks on the
community. If there must be a strike, whenever possible, strike the opening
of school. And, at bottom, link the needs of students, teachers and parents
at every turn. Don't call strikes that surprise parents. (See the appendix
for suggestions on job actions).
In addition, school workers should have an initial vision what a strong local educators' union looks like. If I were to create my ideal local, it would look something like this:
is a unity of purpose of communists, people who use the schools, and educators,
at least superficially. All are involved in the struggle for knowledge,
gaining and testing the truth. Students and parents both look for coherent
answers to the problems around them. We should LISTEN to them and see how
our principles fit their issues. Only partisan activists can sensibly explain
the world without advising people to shut down their minds and rely on
faith. But the people will only hear us when we discover what's motivating
Parents, students and educators fit
together like a bow and arrow. Parents are the bow itself. The school workers
are the string, providing the tension, while the students are the arrow,
ready to be propelled into the future.
That convenient analogy could have
been written in 1952. It doesn't work today. As American society disintegrates,
and many aspects of social life are demolished well before any full-blown
economic collapse, nice little analogies, dialectically tempting as they
may be, simply will not work. Reaction, , means the arrow can be pointed
at our heads.
Life grows more complex, complexly
worse, Kids work after school, sometimes at school, many of them forty
hours a week. Most kids in working class areas come from single parent
homes. Frequently that parent holds two jobs. Housing is in sufficient
crisis where overcrowding in a home, or in an apartment building, makes
contemplative study nearly impossible. Drugs are injected into every aspect
of working class life. More complex, worse.
If we are to reach this generation
of children and their parents we can do it in several ways: on the job
struggle around issues of mutual interest, like the school strikes against
the Oil War, intervening in personal crises, in literacy or bi-lingual
programs where we provide a critical service and make friends, and, where
we can, actually replacing school with classes of our own.
The Freedom Schools designed by civil
rights workers in the south were permanent inoculations of reality for
most of the people involved. There is really no reason why small radical
even charter schools couldn't create superior forms of education in every
subject area, A year long class on dialectics, as it works in math and
the humanities would likely be unforgettable for kids and teachers and
There are lessons as well to be learned
from the Black Panthers' Breakfast for Children program from the late '60's.
This is considerably different from a soup kitchen. It is designed to really
serve the critical needs of people who, because they must work cooperatively
in order to help build the breakfast program, can become a strong base.
Combined with a simultaneous early childhood education program, the free
breakfasts could become an effective, and easily defended, weapon.
You know school. You were there. Now
your mission is to change it. What you do in school counts. Today, as our
world fills with tensions, declarations of generations of peace before
and after the carpet bombings, messages of harmony as life is more sharply
color coded, calls for education from barbarians like Dan Quayle; there
is more openness for a dialectical and materialist understanding of the
universe than ever before.
If we are to cement our work in school, we should bring together our teacher, parent and student cadre for a long weekend to discuss their own proposals for action in the schools as well as our long term vision for what constitutes a communist education. Their goal should be a common international plan of study and action that will allow teachers to meet their potential
working on this article I referred to several books by Paulo Friere (Including
"Pedagogy for the Oppressed"), Ken Macrorie ("Telling Writing" and Twenty
Teachers"), Bowles and Gintis ("Schooling in Capitalist America") and Anatol
Lunacharsky who was the Minister of Education in the Soviet Union just
after the revolution. I drew heavily on Bowles and Gintis. There are several
good articles by Karen Wald about education in Cuba and their literacy
brigades. Scott Nearing's book, "Education in Soviet Russia" would be a
good guide for looking at what we will someday want from schools and how
we might run them. "Marxism and Education in Russia and China", by Ronald
Price, was a very helpful exposition of the basics.
I also enjoyed rereading "Summerhill", by A.S. Neill but couldn't find much application for it. "Freedom Summer" and "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" were interesting pieces on the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the relationship of the schools and the fights against racism. "Black Reconstruction in America" by Dubois and "Reconstruction" by Foner were helpful in demonstrating the efficacy of education when people see it as a tool for self-defense, or as a weapon to make gains. Bukharins' "ABC of Communism" outlines, in general form, the plans the Bolsheviks had, and quickly abandoned, for their schools.
"Post-Modern" educators like Henry
Giroux ("Post-Modern Education", "Education Under Siege") showed, on the
one hand, the possibilities for struggle in the schools and, on the other
hand, how the struggle could turn rotten under his anti-communist, class-unity
leadership. Michael Apple is probably the best of this bunch. People wishing
to rebut the post-modernists should refer to the "Communist" article, "Neo-Marxism,
Neo-Confusionism" or books by Frederick Jamison or Tony Judt. Gilbert Gonzalez'
"Progressive Education, A Marxist Interpretation" was both a helpful critique
of John Dewey and a clear exposition of classic Marxist thinking about
I did extensive research on Sendero
Luminoso. I liked the CIA's book best: "Sendero Luminoso and the Threat
of Narco-Terrorism". In matters of structure, minority leadership and bold
ruthlessness, PL could learn from them. It is important that most of the
SL leadership is now composed of Mestizo women.
Most of my history is working with
teachers. My weakest area here was developing my understanding of student
Finally, there is a great deal of information on the links between Albert Shanker of the AFT and the CIA. Next, I hope to write more specifically on school organizing and what we should see as democratic schools.