Reimagining the School
A Glimpse at Participatory Education
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications.]
“Youth is the eternal chance for the bliss of humanity. Each time this chance reappears, and each time, humanity loses it. Again young boys and girls appear, full of energy and strength, with souls devoted to an ideal, ready to break through the blocked gates of heaven. Each generation has the opportunity to do a great deed in society, but the deed is different from generation to generation. But while youth prepares, society places its tiny goals in front of them and they are overcome by the urges of selfishness and arrogance. Some say that reality is stronger than ideals and that the youth do not have the power to change it. Some eras call out to the youth and demand of them not to surrender to this reality, to defend their beliefs and to do their deed. And they listen attentively, stretch in a great effort, and shake society's attempt to silence them and prevent the deed.”
~ Martin Buber ~
Introduction and a Dose of Humility
In this paper, I will attempt to give a brief reimagined look at the school as a primary educational institution, focusing mostly on youth (the definition of which is admittedly blurry, but – for the purpose of this paper – meaning around middle school and high school aged people). I will lay out a number of principles that must be accounted for in any expression of education that seeks to be democratic or liberatory, framing them within the terminology of participatory society, and backing them up with specific examples.
I will draw on my experience in the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, which has specialized in democratic education since its founding in 1913. Many suggestions come almost directly from my time as a leader in the movement’s year-round programming in New York City, its six-week summer camp, Camp Shomria in Liberty, New York, as well as its Israeli counterpart and Kibbutz Movement. In addition, I will draw from my experience as a high school teacher in a program I co-founded called Without Walls, which takes democratic, alternative educational method and content into middle schools and high schools in New York and New Jersey, and particularly in this case, as a teacher of weekly 9th through 12th grade Without Walls classes at The Hudson School in Hoboken, New Jersey. Beyond, I will draw from number of other educational contexts (such as Arab-Jewish coexistence programs and activist groups) in which I have built and facilitated community-based curricula dealing with group-building and community empowerment, as well as larger issues of race, class, gender, environment, consumerism, war, and others.
Still, it is important for me to note that there are educators far older and wiser than I who have written about this, and there are many who practice or have even built schools with very much of this in mind. My description of the shortcomings of educational institutions below are generalizations about the mainstream educational world, and there are countless educators and educational structures that have overcome an enormous amount of the problems facing education in our society. In fact, I have learned much of what I will present from these other institutions that do in fact exist. Beyond examples of schools or educational frameworks that practice many of the values noted above, schools are by no means uniform. A school with smaller classes, or a liberal curriculum, or a good teacher, can change a student’s life. I understand myself to be very much a product of small educational victories won in the face of an oppressive educational establishment; schools and teachers who make small departures from the educational establishment make very serious contributions to the building of a revolutionary society. There are many people around the world struggling very hard to create alternative, progressive, democratic schools, and there are many of them succeeding. In a more extended version of a piece like this, it would serve us all to look more closely at those frameworks to give them the credit they deserve, to learn from them, and to teach them as well.
Different schools, communities, age groups, genders, classes, etc. have different needs. There are so many aspects to education that ought to be treated in an in-depth look at reimagining education – from schools to community groups, from children to adults, etc. This essay is only a glimpse at what participatory education is and could be. It is a look at educational practices that have existed and do exist in various places all over the world, a step in connecting them to relevant revolutionary theory of today, and an attempt to popularize a movement for the school as an institution of dual power, which creates an alternative powerful enough to become the standard. Perhaps more than anything else, it is a challenge to contemporary revolutionaries to take this issue seriously, and to recognize that the educational world – with the school as one of its center points – is one of today’s most important battlegrounds in our struggle to win a participatory society.
Why Education, Why the School
We learn from our parents, from schools, from all sorts of community groups (churches, the scouts, soccer teams, etc.), from television, books, magazines, radio, and internet, from the city’s bright lights and advertisement billboards, from advanced capitalism’s patterns of production and consumption, and from the social norms passed onto us explicitly and implicitly by the people we encounter day in, day out. These are, whether we realize it or not, sophisticated educational frameworks that teach us (or socialize us) to be what we need to be in order to function in this society, and in order for this society to continue to function as it does.
Both in form and in content, these educational structures reinforce and reflect, produce and display the values of the current society. That education plays a vital role in upholding or taking apart the status quo is undeniable. Throughout history, educational institutions – whether in their explicit forms or their more insidious manifestations – have been a main foundation for the creation, maintenance, and reproduction of values deemed essential by the power-holders of society.
Perhaps the most impressive educational structure in today’s society, though, is the school. As many thinkers have pointed out, in this era at least, the school is the only framework that is completely mandatory from childhood through youth, for the better part of every day, for the majority of every week, for most people on earth. It is for this reason – and because essays are short and always should be seen only as the beginning of something else – that the focus of this paper is the school. It is by no means the extent of the educational apparatuses we need to critically think about, but it is a fair place to begin.
As revolutionaries, we should recognize the importance of educational structures as a place for struggle. In a defensive, reactive sense, we have a vital role to play in countering the forces within the school that uphold the dominant norms of society. In a positive sense, only when the school becomes reflective of the type of society we want to create, and a tool in the production of it, does our vision have any serious chance of success. Revolutionary education is fundamental to the change in consciousness needed for the creation of a movement to radically alter society, and for the change in consciousness needed to finally live that society – in a way that is participatory, self-managing, solidaristic, and egalitarian.
A Day at School
Students sit indoors in desks – small wooden or plastic structures that enforce a certain posture. They watch the natural world continue to grow outside their windows as they study those very phenomena on paper, through chalk, or in PowerPoint presentations, making the very real completely abstract, and the abstract the realest there is. They face forward, away from each other, side by side but separated by silence, their communication with one another totally mediated by other, more powerful parties. They are to arrive at a specific time, and they are released at another specific time, often to the sound of a bell, regardless of where they are in the course of the lesson or discussion. They raise their hands to speak and speak only when they are called on by the teacher, the sole participant in the classroom with power, placed in the room as a given, there to educate, enforce, and evaluate.
Outside the classroom, the teacher too goes through a process of evaluation before the principal, a boss. In this context, outside the classroom, the teacher – in large part regardless of intention – is often trapped, weak, beholden to a certain structure in which s/he has only limited input (such as the norms of the school, the practices of other teachers, systems of grading, fears for her/his students regarding what the “real world” will be like for them, desire to keep her/his job, etc.). In turn the principal is beholden to structures outside the school, which s/he upholds whether out of desire or as a consequence of a similar internally difficult thought process. The principal therefore imposes those norms and structures on the teacher. The teacher may be more than happy to play the social role designated to her/him; conversely, the teacher may be a would-be revolutionary, intending to allow the students relative freedom and respect. S/he may accept the guidelines set by the principal with full agreement, or with the intention of avoiding them whenever possible, but this ability will be highly constrained in most circumstances, and her/his agency is limited within the structures set forth. A bound administrator oversees a bound educator, and after this display of power (or lack thereof) takes place behind closed doors, the teacher returns to the classroom.
At this point, the teacher is all-powerful. S/he is to present the world however s/he considers appropriate, and is avowedly apart from the students. The students sit, and the teacher may sit, stand, pace or even leave the room. The professor professes the truth, which s/he presumably already knows and is no longer in the process of learning, especially not from the students themselves, who are in turn required only to learn but not to teach. The students frantically scribble the words of the teacher, knowing that – whether what the teacher says is useful or productive or not – it is on the basis of their capacity to most fully absorb and regurgitate the words of the teacher (or the text presented by the teacher – or the state government) that they will later be categorized and ranked. They are asked to recite or recount what they have “learned” and they are graded, rated inevitably against one another (there are, after all, regulations, aren’t there?). They listen to “experts,” fear incorrectness, and employ creative thought only as an exercise, but not in the service of change. They learn how to “behave,” and every oppressive social relation they are taught is justified as preparation for the “real world.”
The students travel from classroom to classroom, from subject to subject, teacher to teacher. They often travel together through the school day, the same students, perhaps friends, sometimes sharing classrooms and hallways for many years, but they are – for the most part and as far as the school is concerned – irrelevant to one another other than in moments when they are put in competition with each other. What solidaristic relationships the students forge with one another emerge in their break periods or outside the school, and are not fostered by the school itself, which sees each of them as individuals and temporary clients in the system ultimately funneling them out of the school. If they are strong enough in the face of the immense political, economic, and social pressures conspiring against them, the students may have a life that is social, creative, communal, egalitarian, independent, and experimental, but they do this not through the school, but in spite of it. It is not a mystery why, in many of these solidaristic relationships cultivated outside the school’s walls, the target of great ridicule, fear, or anger is often the school itself.
The School Reimagined: Principles and Structures for a Participatory Education
The school, as the place where youth spend most of their time every day, and most of their days every year, should be both a site for struggle for a better society, and the living out of the values of that society in the day to day. Just as the school today reflects the dominant social norms of our society, if we are interested in changing all that, the school should become a reflection of and experiment in the world as it should be. If society should be marked by principles such as self-management, diversity, solidarity, and equity, so should the school. If society should be egalitarian and progressive, so should the school. If society should be critical, dialogical, and dynamic, so should the school. If society should be communal and intentional, so should the school. This means that the school must be revolutionary, not just in content, but in form.
Below are suggestions for principles and institutions on which a participatory school should be based. They are constructed within the parameters set by Albert and Hahnel’s vision for a participatory society, but they are expanded and reworked to make them applicable to education in particular. Furthermore, many of these points relate closely to ideas regarding revolutionary communalism, which I presented in my essay “Revolutionary Communalism: Where Vision and Strategy Meet.”
1. Communalism, Solidarity, and Collective Struggle Inside and Out
The world is a network of interrelations between people. People are part of groups, always, whether those groups are accidental or intentional, whether competitive or solidaristic, whether individualistic or communal. Whereas the school today teaches individualism and competition, it should teach communalism and solidarity.
It seems not so controversial to claim that it is well within the responsibility of the school to give attention to individuals, to empower them, to address their needs and circumstances. Although schools do not often fulfill the mission of creating space for individuals to flourish within the educational system, this has been a focus of educational reform for some time, and there are many progressive educators involved in this struggle. Still, this focus deals only with the students as individuals, which is still very much within the parameters of the school as a liberal, individual-based institution.
The liberal school teaches us that everyone should be entitled to their very own everything, and that people should only overlap with one another up to the point where they conflict, and no further. A communal education, then, sees the importance of individual autonomy, but also embraces and confronts the points of conflict between people. It is in these spaces of overlap and through challenge and struggle that people grow from each other; in that process, individuals become part of real, intimate groups. The educational process should be for the empowerment of the individual and the group.
As I wrote in my essay on revolutionary communalism, revolutionary collectives are made up of people who develop a shared worldview, cultivate intimacy with one another, act on the world together, see themselves as part of a movement or in solidarity with communities around them, share resources in some way, learn together, practice collective decision-making, are autonomous and self-managing as a group and as individuals within the group, and live intentionally and flexibly re-assessing their communal life. On one hand, the group is a unit for inward change in the lives of the people in the group, in their struggle for intimacy, growth, and empowerment. On the other hand, the collective struggles outwardly, with the group as a mission-and-vision-oriented body capable of enacting social change in the communities outside of itself. A collective – and perhaps any group or organization – justifies its existence both by struggling inside itself, and by struggling outwards as well. The school is in a remarkable position to facilitate these processes.
Practically speaking, the school day should set aside time for the creation of a community as emphatically as it sets aside time for learning history, science, or anything else. The life of the group, its living center – the relations between the individuals, between the individuals and the center, and between the group’s center and the world around it – should be given attention and time. The students should be provided the space to check in about their lives, share their feelings, give each other criticism, accept it themselves, learn about one another, learn about themselves, help each other grow, and make decisions together ranging from educational to cultural and more. They should also be given the space and the tools to develop initiatives together that fulfill their needs as active agents in the society around them. The teacher should be a facilitator, both of the internal group process, and of the development of a collective project outwards. The school should facilitate both the communal development and the activism on the part of the students as a vital part of its mission, and it should be empowering the students to make communal decisions at the end of their formal educational path.
Beyond all this, there is no reason to assume that the communal process should end at any given point. School should be the site of constant revolution, and it should give its students the tools it needs to continue to develop in a self-sustaining way beyond class periods, beyond the school day, beyond formal education altogether. Perhaps the development of collectives in school could be more than educational, but actually life-altering. Perhaps school can transcend its role as a conveyor belt of information and training and become an institute for the development of communities that grow and flourish long after the students have left the school.
If we believe that people could use more intimacy, less alienation, and a greater sense of community in their lives, we should give them space and tools to develop that lifestyle in school. If we believe that people should struggle for a better world in groups, we should give them the chance to do that with the school as their headquarters. If we believe that school is part of life and not a departure from it, it should be simply one step in a life-long process. Let us not waste youth. It is certainly our greatest hope.
2. Equity and the Teacher as a Guide
As a site with potential for profound social change, the school should be marked by a sense of equity between all of the participants of the educational process. This doesn’t mean that no one has power; in fact the illusion of non-power often leads to even greater inequalities in power and say. We should be honest. Not only does the teacher have authority in relation to the students, but also students have different power dynamics amongst themselves as they self-manage. The point of equity is not the absence of power or say in one another’s lives, but that all forms of authority are forced to prove their worthiness, are challenged, and are held accountable.
Obviously, the students should practice equity between themselves, understanding one another’s needs and abilities, reflecting on them consciously, and making decisions that take into account all of the individuals in the group, as well as the collective as a whole. This equity among students should be manifested physically as well. Sitting in circles as opposed to straight lines is an obvious and easy way to make a room more democratic. Doing away with hand-raising and training ourselves to be patient and aware of each other is another step. Students giving feedback to one another is yet another. The list could go on for pages, but the principle behind the examples is important. Connecting to the last point about communalism and solidarity, as well as to the next point on self-management and collective decision-making, the equality between the students should be accompanied by accountability to one another. That is, a student should learn to do her/his individual part of the collective class project not because the teacher or the school will coerce her/him to do it, but because of s/he is part of a mutually-dependent collective of students and teachers. This shift in consciousness will necessitate a serious battle against the social norms adopted and accepted as human nature in our society, that people will only do things for fear of being punished for not doing them, but this is a battle we should be excited to wage, and one that many societies and educational structures have proven can be won. We need egalitarian principles and structures to carry this out.
Perhaps more controversial is the relationship between the student and teacher, which should be just as egalitarian. In many youth movements, the equivalent of a teacher encompasses the complex balance between an educator, leader, guide, older sibling, authority figure, and friend. The teacher’s role is to empower the students – with educational tools, with experiential knowledge, with perspective – to take control of their own lives, to live self-managed lives both individually and collectively, to affect the world positively. Another concept to borrow from the youth movements is the idea of youth leading youth, which is the understanding that youth have a great ability to lead themselves and each other, and that this facilitates a constant revolution in the content and form of education. The teacher must be youth, or must facilitate, empower and defer to it.
The teacher must, in this intricate balancing act of mentor and authority figure, educator and friend, navigate her/his way in and out of the group. In some senses, the teacher should be separate from the group. With this distance, the teacher is able to look further ahead at the group’s process, can act as a resource to trigger progression, can serve as an impartial mediator in conflicts, and creates a situation where the students can more comfortably develop their own ideas, group culture, and collective intimacy (hopefully, the teacher will have a collective of her/his own). In another sense, though, the teacher should see her/himself as very much part of the educational process. This closeness is what makes the teacher legitimate to the students, accountable to them, able demand the same accountability from them, able to truly understand them and facilitate their growth, and open to be understood by them and changed alongside them. The educational process should be as transformative for the educator as for the student, should be part of her/his mission in the world.
The teacher is not perfect, has a lot to learn, and should be challenged like every other source of power in society, in this case by the students. For the most part, the teacher’s authority stems from having had experiences that put her/him farther along the same path the students should travel. In terms of an educational curriculum, the teacher’s authority comes from having more knowledge or more time dealing with certain ideas. In terms of a life path, the teacher’s expertise comes from the position of having lived out more of the natural decision-making periods throughout life. The most important source of authority the teacher has, though, is her/his ability to live by the ideals s/he presents as valuable. Students learn from example, and more effective than anything the teacher will ever do or say, is who or what the teacher is. The teacher’s strengths as well as flaws should be included in her/his presentation to the students, making the teacher a realistic and relatable role model, rather than a mythical and inevitably false one. As part of this general idea of representing the values of a good society through teaching, the educational system should present something holistic by hiring teachers that span across all sorts of demographics and experiences. One practice that definitely goes a long way in promoting balance within the student collective is that it be guided by a team of two teachers who facilitate together and balance each other out in terms of style, personality, gender, and any other relevant characteristics.
To practice equity between students and teachers, they should regularly evaluate one another as partners in the educational process, in face-to-face individual and collective contexts, and anonymously. They should also evaluate each other to other people or bodies in the school, to ensure accountability to the wider community. Furthermore, in terms of mutual education, students should be regularly given opportunities to share, present and teach on subjects, not only because it is valuable in and of itself or because it is a practice of self-management (to be covered next), but because it is a tool that teaches equity. The teacher must listen as well as speak.
The teacher should earn the right to lecture, to give her/his opinion on the development of the group, to bring texts or games that trigger the group’s self-education. The students, too, should earn their right to self-manage, to critique, to choose the next step of their journey. The teacher should be accountable to the students, and the students to the teacher. The students should learn from the teacher, and the teacher, likewise, should learn from the students. The relationship between the students, and between the students and the teacher(s), should be personal and intimate, honest and critical, respectful and egalitarian.
3. Self-management, Collective Decision-Making, and Youth Leading Youth
If we want society to be made up of people who can make their own choices, and are capable of living in a self-managed environment, they must be given the opportunity to self-manage throughout their entire lives. This experience in self-management should be seen not only as training for a participatory society to come, one that the student will have a hand in building, but also in the actual living out of that society in the day to day. That is, the participatory school in general, and self-management in particular, are institutions that are worthy not only of our attention for the future, but good enough to want to live out now. The school is the perfect space for this, and it should be run by the people who participate in it, from students to teachers, administrators, and staff members.
In our society, and in most industrialized capitalist societies in general, youth culture is taking a beating. The contexts that do exist for youth to live, play, and learn in – from school to soccer practice – are still managed by adults. Here, again, we can take a tip from youth movements, which are intricate systems that enable self-management by youth for youth (still going relatively strong in Israel, as well as some Latin American countries). Like the youth movement, the school – as well as other educational frameworks outside of it – should be a location of self-management for students, and the greatest principle that can be adopted by the school in this respect is youth leading youth. Just as the teacher has a role in the lives of the students because of ability and experience, so too the students have a role in each others’ lives, and especially in the context of older students guiding younger students. Youth are more likely to learn from their peers, and their peers are most likely to understand what they are going through, as well as grow from the experience of guiding others.
Classes should participate in curriculum building and give feedback to teachers. Student councils should create and cultivate a true youth culture. Student bodies should participate in disciplinary decision-making. Student representatives should participate in logistical decision-making at the school, including space issues, finances, and hiring. Students and teachers should evaluate each other. Students and teachers should discuss homework or projects together, only to be held accountable to what they agree to do, thereby empowering students to eliminate busy work but also to be consciously part of the process of designing and agreeing to work that they truly recognize as furthering their development, which makes them far more likely to hold themselves accountable to actually doing it. Older students should be more responsible for their own education, and they should also take responsibility for parts of the processes of younger students. By the time of graduation, the student group should be a self-managing collective capable of sustaining itself educationally, culturally and in any other realm the group sees itself continuing to function in – potentially as a sort of revolutionary or other collective for a time to come.
Every step of the educational process should be a further development of the group’s autonomy from the adults that facilitate its development, actualizing progressively more and more aspects of youth leading youth. Every year in the student’s process should be one of greater responsibility and decision-making power. For example, if in ninth grade the students are giving feedback about the group’s process and advice to the teacher, then in 10th grade they should be empowering a council of representatives to meet regularly with the teacher to track the progression of the group and address issues that come up. In 11th grade that council should be the one initiating the process and turning to the teacher as a guide, a resource, and a facilitator that can use her/his status as slightly outside but near the group to reflect its process inward. In 12th grade, members of the group should be continuing their own process while facilitating that process for younger students, perhaps for middle-schoolers. The process should be one where the success of the teacher should be marked by her/him becoming less and less active in the center of the group as the group progresses. A good teacher wants the students to go on without her/him, and wants to serve as the jumping-off point for their education such that their lives will be better, their potentials will be greater, and their process will go further, because they started their process with her/his experience. They, in turn, will have students whose processes go even further than their own.
Youth have a lot to learn from one another. They must be presented with the means to self-manage. As teachers, we want our students to eventually become our partners in something larger. A key point in actualizing that is empowering them to take control of their own futures and presents. Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today.
4. Diversity and Balance in the Content, Method, and Life of the School
As noted before, the school should be a mirror for a democratic, participatory, egalitarian society. It should practice those norms for the future, and for itself.
In terms of content, then, the school should be diverse and balanced. This is already something that liberal education has imagined for us. All ideas should be discussed, and all perspectives should be aired. However, one of the downfalls of liberal education is that it claims to be non-ideological. That is, a certain number of ideas or perspectives are discussed, and the outcome of the teachers’ position seems to be neutral – only fact, not opinion. This is never the case. The choices regarding what text to read, whose version of history to accommodate, the way to hold a discussion, the laws of science deemed important, the questions posed, are never neutral. The participatory school, then, should be open to many ideas, but it should have a position. Only by clearly marking a position while being open to others does the teacher make it clear that nothing is neutral, allowing the student to develop her/his own position. Although the student will always be influenced by the stance of the teacher, the liberal alternative of pretending that the teacher’s position is not a position at all but rather a neutral fact, handicaps the student from understanding that s/he can think something different. Therefore, the school should be diverse in the points of view it presents, and it should find a balance between presenting every opinion and taking a stand on one to allow students to make a conscious decision alongside or against it. We should trust our students to be able to develop their own opinions on things if presented with information and given the tools to carry out their decision-making.
Diversity and balance also have a part to play in the methodology of education. Students learn differently from one another, and the process of education is just as important as the product of it. The school’s educational methodology should be creative and dynamic. Education should have a multi-method approach, from lecturing to facilitating discussion, from movies and music to books and texts, from experiential learning outside the school to laboratories and classrooms, from serious and heavy to fun and exciting, from projects as individuals to projects as groups, from study to games. Learning about different systems of governance, for example, can come from a book or text, but it could just as easily come from a movie, a song, or a creative, interactive activity. In one activity we have facilitated in Without Walls and Hashomer Hatzair, the teachers split the class into three groups and give each group the same task (something artistic perhaps, like decorating their classroom, or building a model city). Each group is given a different style of governance: the first elects a leader or leaders, the second has a leader chosen for them (or through a thumb-wrestling match), and the third just functions with no leadership structure. They do the activity in their separate groups, thinking the focus is the product itself, not knowing the other groups have different structures of governance, and only later having a discussion revealing the point of the activity and spending time discussing which form of governance worked best for them. This is one of a thousand examples of creative, interactive methods to teach specific ideas and inspire democratic discussion on them. There are participatory ways to learn anything from trust to calculus.
Finally, diversity and balance play an important role in the running of the school, in its life. If we value an equitable distribution of empowering and fulfilling tasks in society at large, that should be the case in the school as well. The faculty of the school should function as a collective, and the students, as full members of the educational community (albeit in a different capacity) should be part of it too. The school could be a day-school, or a boarding school (and there are pros and cons to each experience), but nonetheless, when the school is in operation, it should be an egalitarian, self-managing, solidaristic community – both a living-space and a workplace. Students and teachers alike should have a balance between meetings to manage the school, time for learning (yes, teachers too), time for teaching others (yes, students too), and time to clean the bathrooms, prepare meals, take the younger students out to the park, set up the coffee machine in the morning, or any other tasks that make the school run. The school should function like a participatory society in itself. It is, again, a place that students and teachers alike spend so much of their time. It would be a shame to squander it in the reproduction of oppressive social norms rather than using it as a breeding ground for new norms and the place to practice them throughout ones life.
Furthermore, as noted earlier, this development of a collective life at school can be looked at as an educational experiment from which to draw the tools, knowledge and inspiration to carry forth into the rest of one’s life. Alternately, it can be seen as the beginning of that life itself. The school’s foundation as a community reflecting the type of world we would like to see grants it the unique position of being – at the very least – an armory for the weapons needed to create it, and – ideally – a staging ground for the battle itself.
5. Efficiency and Visionary Realism
An efficient participatory school is one that is visionary within the context of reality; it prepares people both to live in the world as it is, and to change it.
There are often two positions held on the role of the school in the lives of youth. One position is that the school should prepare the students to function effectively in the context in which the school exists, the way the world is. The other position is that the students should learn to live in the world as it ought to be, or learn to change the world into what it should be. These two positions are often put against each other, and for the most part, the first wins out, because even the idealists among us realize that were we to deny our students grades or have them boycott the SATS, they would find themselves severely disadvantaged immediately after graduation. Until we are part of a movement large enough to sustain its own structures of dual power, this will continue to be the case.
The efficiency of the reimagined school is marked by its ability to navigate the middle ground between these positions. The school should teach about the world as it is, and it should prepare students to function in it. The school should provide students the tools they need in order to survive and prosper. At the same time, the school should pass onto its students the knowledge that there is always an alternative, that the world can be different. The school should prepare students to be active agents in the creation of a different society. It should be at the center of a movement of dual power that can ultimately grow to displace the norm.
The school should develop in the student the ability to cultivate a revolutionary life, which is essentially this balance – having an understanding of how the world is, being able to survive in it, possessing the capacity and will to dream up a better future, and holding the tools with which to forge it.
When is the School’s Tomorrow?
The suggestions and prescriptions above come in varying degrees of possibility and urgency. There are certain suggestions made here that could and should be put into action immediately, and some that have. For example, the Without Walls classes I teach weekly serve as spaces in which students learn in a circle without raising hands, do group projects, evaluate the teachers regularly, reflect on themselves and one another, participate in the curriculum’s development, choose a group community service project to carry out together, learn through a wide variety of different media, and cultivate an intimate group dynamic. In other words, there is a certain set of suggestions I made above that are not only entirely possible to carry out immediately even within the current school system, but are happening as we speak in schools all over the world. Of course, as always, some educational sectors (such as private schools), and some educational contexts (such as supplementary settings) are more privileged than others, and can therefore carry out more of a participatory education more freely. These sectors must be taken advantage of, and those of us who teach in the less privileged sections might have more leeway than we realize. In other words, this set of suggestions is theoretically doable within the current economic-social-political structure of society with some pushing and pulling, and a lot of practice. If enough students, teachers, and parents want this, they can have it in every public school, and we don’t have to wait for “the revolution.”
However, there are other suggestions I made – particularly with regards to doing away with grading, for example – that, for the most part, cannot be actualized until a much deeper and more encompassing change runs through society at large. Students in most contexts cannot afford to go gradeless because there are real implications for this in the current society in terms of further education, jobs, income, and other opportunities. Until the society at large strops grading us, the school will continue to grade. Some of these suggestions cannot be implemented until we demand a certain type of education, prove that it is better, organize to fight for it, and build movements strong enough to change the economic, political, and cultural realities that prohibit learning and living in a solidaristic, self-managing, and egalitarian way.
Conclusion: To Educators and Revolutionaries
Schools reflect the society and power structures of our current society. When we live in an egalitarian, self-managed, participatory society, school will look that way as well. Until then, most schools will look the way they do now, and the ones we found in opposition to the status quo, and in an attempt to change it, will run up against very real constraints.
We have a great amount of leeway in how we educate – potential that is for the most part underused right now – but we must still recognize that until we drastically change the material and social norms that govern the world outside the school, we cannot expect of our students to simply “remove their consent.” As long as you need to make money to survive or live in security and comfort, and as long as you need a college degree to make more money, then we cannot expect students to choose alternatives to that system that impair their ability to live financially-sustainable lives. As long as you need to identify in particular ways along kinship and community lines and obey particular political hierarchies in order to survive in society, it isn’t fair for us to expect our students to present radically different social norms that will make their lives in the society around them much more difficult. We have to change the world to the point that those conflicts are minimized, and while we struggle to create a new society, we have to recognize these very real constraints and challenges.
It is for this reason that educators seeking to revolutionize education should be part of movements addressing the other facets of society. Educational reform (or even educational revolution) alone will always be constrained by the norms and coercions imposed by capitalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, racism, and other oppressive systems. Educators hoping to create schools or other educational frameworks as models for egalitarian societies, or breeding grounds for them, must realize that unless they are linked to movements fighting actively for social change on all those other levels, their potential will always be stifled. Education alone is not revolutionary, because we can only expect of our students to live up to the example we set, to sacrifice what we have sacrificed; if we are attempting to change the world by being teachers, we are communicating to our students that a world of teachers will make a revolution. In this, we forget movements that address the real needs of people on a variety of different levels.
At the same time, the reason we live in a society that looks like this is ultimately that people consent to it. That might sound silly, given the violence and brutality with which many people are treated in order for this set of relations to continue. Still, we are hopeful about the possibility for revolution, and that is because we realize we have the power to change society if people arise with the will, desire, and tools to do so. The consent, then, which people implicitly give for the maintenance of the system as it is, is a product of education – from the television and the billboard, to the family and the school. Revolutionaries hoping to change society into a participatory, self-managing, egalitarian one must see the school as a very serious battleground, where change can be triggered and actualized. Not only that, but revolutionaries should build their own movements with participatory educational structures as well, rather than building movements with revolutionary intent that borrow educational structures from an authoritarian society.
Revolutionaries, then, must fight in the schools, and take participatory education into their movements, just as educators should fight in the streets, and take the streets into the classroom.
If today’s school is an indoor factory, where students sit in rows facing the front, then it should become a garden where they sit in circles, looking at one another in the eye. If today they must wait for the teacher to call on them, tomorrow they should speak freely, regulating themselves, with the guidance of a teacher as a facilitator, an educator, a friend, a guide, an older sibling. If today their study is dominated by rote memorization and rehearsal of “fact,” or the use of creativity to defend the dominant norms of society, tomorrow it should feature the creative use of information to develop new things, new ideas, new values. If today school is a mandatory chore removed from one’s social or cultural life, it should become infused with play and it should reflect the lives students lead and hope to lead. If today’s school is a sorting platform for different races, classes, and genders in the maintenance of oppressive power dynamics, it should become a tool for the deconstruction of those oppressive divisions in our society altogether. If today’s school is silent and mechanized, it should become a place of dialogue and change. If today, the school is a place where the student is powerless and sedated, it should become a site of the most profound experiences of self-management and collective decision-making. If the school now is primarily focused on the acquisition of credentials to move forward in competition, it must become both a place to gather tools to change the world, and a place that empowers the student to live in the world justly. If in today’s school youth are separated and alienated in preparation for a life of the same, it should become a place for intimate community and collective struggle, where students collect tools to change the world, and practice a better way to live – both for the future, and because it is simply time better spent that way.