Tuesday, February 26, 2008

FEBRUARY DISCUSSION FORUM: Empowerment and the Failure of Progressive Education

[Note: this summarizes and extends on an argument made in this forthcoming article and in a book I am currently revising. Related discussions can be found at educationaction.org]

Perhaps to most, probably to many, the conclusions which have been stated as to the conditions upon which depends the emergence of the Public from its eclipse will seem close to the denial of realizing the idea of a democratic public.

--John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

Fights for decent housing, economic security, health programs, and for many of these other social issues for which liberals profess their sympathy and support, are to the liberals simply intellectual affinities. . . . [I]t is not their children who are sick; it is not they who are working with the specter of unemployment hanging over their heads.

--Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals

The field of education is often a decade or more behind intellectual developments in other fields. It is perhaps for this reason that the full impact of revisionist histories of progressivism (e.g., Fink, McGerr, Rauchway, Sinyai, Southern, Stromquist) has yet to emerge in our writings. It is important to understand, however, that the cumulative impact of this new work represents a fundamental challenge to the proponents of progressive democratic education. What these books show is the extent to which the progressives were trapped within the horizon of their own privileged experience. Collectively, with more or less sophistication, they developed a vision of a democratic society that expressed the utopian hopes of middle-class professional work-sites, families, intellectual dialogues, and social gatherings. Few had any significant experience with the less privileged. And even those who did, like Jane Addams, held tight to a vision of a democratic society where everyone would be able to collaborate intelligently and caringly with each other, where stark facts of unequal POWER would cease to rule.

From the perspective of turn-of-the 20th Century progressives, those with less privilege and education appeared much like children, to be taken care of until they grew into full citizenship by internalizing the advanced practices of democratic engagement that grounded the dreams of privileged reformers (so did the upper class, but they had less influence there). On this point, thinkers as divergent as Walter Lippmann and John Dewey were essentially in agreement, even if Dewey had much more hope and respect for the less educated. Everyone had much to learn, but the ignorance and practical limitations of the lower classes in terms of their capacity for true democratic participation was a if not the crucial impediment to true democracy.

The progressives did accomplish much that was significant for the impoverished in America. But the key word is FOR. It is difficult to point to any significant accomplishments in actually empowering people who looked and spoke and acted differently than them.

Progressive educators today are the inheritors of the progressivism of yesterday. The focus of progressive education research is on making our classrooms places for holistic learning and collaborative engagement. And these are quite wonderful goals. But they have little or nothing to do with empowerment. The fact is that skills for collaborating with equals are only useful when one is working with equals.

(The progressive dream of our society as a room full of people from different places and experiences that all learn to work together and benefit from their unique capacities is increasingly proving to be just that: a dream. To his own chagrin, Robert Putnam of “Bowling Alone” fame found that relational “social capital” is built most effectively in places where people are similar, not where they are different—he sat on this data for quite a while to see if he could figure out how to interpret it differently, and he couldn’t. Research on power inequalities in classrooms indicates that one achieves some equality of participation not when you treat the less powerful like unique individuals but instead when you “empower” them as representatives of particular groups.)

The heroes education scholars look to are people who think and act like we do. We have generally failed to be self-critical enough to ask why we find particular approaches to democracy and inequality compelling. We look to Dewey, but almost completely avoid what Gramsci would call the “organic intellectuals” of labor movement and the field of community organizing.

The Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example. The collaborative, non-hierarchical visions of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the similar vision of Myles Horton and the Highlander School are often held up as shining examples of democratic empowerment. Almost always obscured is the fact that the leaders of these groups represented the educated elite, mostly from the North. Further ignored is the fact that SNCC fell apart when indigenous working-class members began to assert themselves and their distinct cultural model of empowerment. It is at least arguable that many of the most effective actions of the Movement in the South emerged more out of these indigenous practices than from Baker and Robert Moses’s SNCC or Horton’s Highlander (see Hill).

Of course SNCC and Highlander were critically important. And Dewey was no ignoramus. Instead the key point is that these progressive visions are most useful as supplements to practices of collective empowerment that have been developed in contexts of inequality. Ironically, there is no real way to understand the real usefulness of these progressive visions until we can honestly bring them together with working-class and other models of empowerment on some level of equality. Each side, I believe (and there are more than two sides, here) has the potential to inform the other. But we can’t do this if we know little or nothing about the alternatives to progressivism that progressivism might inform.

Empowerment for those on the bottom is a collective and not an individual accomplishment. The problem is not a lack of knowledge. Even the most profound critical examination of oppressive social forces is not of much use if you don’t know what to do about what you have learned. (In fact, knowledge of this kind, by itself, is often quite disempowering.)

There is a paradox, here, of course. On the one hand we need to be more respectful to indigenous practices and ways of seeing. We need to seek out and value “organic intellectuals” who reflect the best and most effective practices of these communities. On the other hand, there is much too little happening to contest oppression and inequality in America. There are, in fact, skills that people in oppressed contexts need to learn if they are even going to begin to resist.

The problem with progressives was not that they wanted to teach people who needed to learn. The problem was that they tried to make “others” into mini-versions of themselves.

In the end, I think one useful criteria would be: what is the minimum that people need to learn for them to become empowered? What is the smallest intervention in someone else’s culture that we can make that will actually be effective? I am not under the illusion that these are easy questions to answer.

We know this, at least:

Many of our children grow up in cages; lie in bathtubs at night in fear of stray bullets; curl themselves into fetal balls from the gut-wrenching terror of post traumatic stress disorder; steel themselves from the pain of rotting teeth, wake coughing at night from treatable asthma; and tolerate school as long as they can with the full knowledge that it won’t do much for them just as it didn’t for their parents and neighbors.

These kids are not hopeless victims. They are often quite sophisticated in their analyses of their own conditions. But in most cases they also don’t really know what to do to change the futures they can see so clearly ahead of them.

So, a call to action:

1) Middle-class, professional education scholars should take some time to consider the possibility that we find progressive visions of education compelling because of who we culturally are as much as because of some inherent relevance in these theories and practices themselves. (Note: I include most scholars from working-class backgrounds in this broad call—success in any cultural milieu requires people to take on the characteristics valued there. Counter-intuitively, it may in fact be true that resisting middle-class ways of thinking is easier, in a pragmatic sense, for those of us who are the most thoroughly initiated into this culture in the first place. No one will ever accuse people like myself of not being able to play the academic game.)

2) Every once in a while, all of us should reflect on the fact that, regardless of how pissed off we are that we didn’t get much of a raise this year, we are some of the most privileged people ever to walk on this planet. In what ways does this privilege affect our work on a daily basis?

3) We should acknowledge that schools are usually places where less privileged parents feel unsafe and judged. Schools are not likely places for scholars, teachers, and working-class people to meet on any level of equality.

4) Education scholars whose work is not relevant to student and community empowerment should stop for a moment and justify to themselves why they have chosen the topics and focus they have. (You don’t need to justify this to someone else, just to yourself). Repeat as necessary.

5) Courses on the history and philosophy and sociology of education, at the least, should include works from the world of community and union organizing that reflect visions of education linked directly to collective empowerment from the perspective of impoverished and working-class people.

6) Graduate students should be encouraged to look beyond traditional visions of “learning” and “democratic education” to explore practices of empowerment focused on collective action. Ask them: “Who will this help and how?” “Maybe this will help kids do math better, but will that fact really help them much in their lives?” “Is education about ‘learning’ or about life success? And if it isn’t about life success, then why bother?” (Of course, it is possible to use mathematics education in empowering ways (see Moses). Again, in the end they need to justify it to themselves, not to established scholars, although established scholars may need to choose who they have the time to work with).

7) Scholars at top universities should explore innovative ways to find people who may not have great GRE scores but may have the experience and inner fortitude to produce unique and powerful work that can shift the field.

8) We should ditch the term “social justice.” Social justice is a goal, not a practice. You don’t teach social justice, you teach practices that will help you achieve social justice. Focusing on social justice often allows scholars to spin wonderful utopian visions of a beautiful world without thinking concretely about how it will be achieved.

9) The field of education as a whole should support a range of creative efforts that explore how more effective practices of student empowerment might be initiated in traditional public schools given the severe limitations such efforts will inevitably face. These efforts might include ways of concealing the teaching of practices of leadership and collective action within efforts that at least seem non-threatening to the powerful.

10) Scholars working in alternative education settings that can allow more radical efforts should explore ways for engaging students more directly in social action projects in ways that might educate them about how to resist power and oppression. (The fact is, students should be required in every school to master practices of community empowerment just as they are required to master mathematics).

11) Schools of education should find a way to integrate efforts to foster community empowerment into their offerings. Most important would be the development of new or adapted programs that ensure long-term student enrollment in these areas. Only when there is student enrollment that requires the hiring of professors with expertise in community organizing and engagement can we hope to escape the limitations of “faddism,” especially given the increasing economic pressures faced by most universities. This would require a fundamental rethinking of the “charge” of schools of education. It would involve a willingness to embrace challenges of “education” that emerge in the community and not just in schools. And it would necessarily include the acknowledgement that significant and durable school reform is unlikely to happen in impoverished areas unless these communities are empowered to demand, supervise, evaluate, and maintain these innovations.

12) Scholars interested in these issues in schools of education should join together with scholars in other fields with similar interests to form collaborative teams to share knowledge and develop multidisciplinary projects. (Other key areas would include: social work, public health, sociology, urban studies, communications, etc. I’m currently part of a team developing a Ph.D. in Public Health at my university, and the group has agreed—so far—to focus on knowledge of community empowerment as a key goal.)

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