Education for Social Change

The below lecture was presented by Dr. Daniel Chodorkoff, director of the Institute for Social Ecology, at the Annual Reunion of the Friends of the Modern School on September 20th, 1998. This article was originally printed in the Atlantic Anarchist Circle Newsletter, No.6 autumn 1998.

It’s really an honor to be here. It’s very humbling as well because, as Chris said, you all really do represent a legacy, a heritage, of freedom in education that is of more relevance and importance to the world today than perhaps at any time, certainly in recent history.

We face an unprecedented crisis of global dimensions, a social crisis, and an ecological crisis. I believe that they’re linked, and that if we are to find solutions to those interrelated crises, those solutions will only come out of education – and it has to be education of a particular type.

I would suggest to you that traditional education is not really education at all. What passes for education in our public schools and in most of our private schools, certainly in our universities and colleges today, is in fact a sort of training. It has very little to do with allowing for the unfolding of potentialities within the individual, which I see as the basis for real education. It is, rather, an attempt to create and to reproduce the structures of hierarchy and domination that are hegemonic in the larger culture. It is an attempt to train willing young minds to meet the needs of capitalism and industry by producing students who can unquestioningly go out and join the work force and become so-called “productive” members of society.

I feel that given the direction in which society is moving today, the ecological crises, the social crises that we face, the globalisation of capitalism, and the destruction of the environment that goes inherently along with that process, the last thing we need to do is reproduce that system.

We need instead to generate forms of education that help to transform that system, change its basic structures in ways that can address these interrelated crises that we find ourselves mired in. We have to understand that traditional education operates on three levels, and that those three levels reinforce each other. First there is the form of traditional education, which of course is intended to inculcate students with obedience to authority. They’re taught to sit in orderly rows in classrooms, they’re taught to respond to bells and whistles, they’re taught to never question the authority of the teacher. The teacher’s primary role in education is maintaining order in the classroom. It has very little to do with learning at all. Actually, that attempt to reproduce order, to create order, to create obedience to authority, to create compliant students who become willing workers is extremely destructive. And it’s related to the second level of traditional education, which has to do with the content – what students are actually being taught. Undeniably it’s useful for young people to learn how to read and how to write, how to do basic mathematical calculations. These are all things that will serve them well. But beyond that, there is a hidden curriculum, which is really an attempt to create in these students an unquestioning acceptance of the dominant culture. The a priori assumptions are to bring them into the very character structure of the students. And it has a devastating effect.

I’m a father of two little children, and it’s with trepidation that every day I put my little girls on the school bus and send them off to their public schools. I have certainly participated in alternative educational activities for my kids. However, my personal practice, unfortunately, is fraught with contradictions, as I think many of us are because we live in a world that doesn’t offer a ready alternative for my children. I go off every day and earn a living so I’m unfortunately not able to stay at home and school my children that way.

At any rate I can tell you, as a parent, about the impact of that education, both the form and the content of that education. It’s been very detrimental to my kids, as it has been for generations of children historically in America. And it’s through the reproduction of hierarchy, through the acceptance of authority that the society, that the culture of capitalism, ensures it’s own survival. And it’s not something that’s going to change. I sat on the school board of our local school for two years and I tried my best to introduce reforms, to raise basic questions about what we were doing with our kids there. And I can tell you that within professional education today there is not a great deal of receptivity to these ideas. Though there is wave after wave of reform, those reforms are largely driven by the needs of industry and by the central corporations. The so-called “Goals 2000” reforms are perhaps the most recent attempt to change our schools. These are completely driven by a corporate agenda, and I find that horrifying.

And more than ever, we are seeing the corporate agenda and the corporations themselves enter into the classroom; as pre-programmed, packaged curriculums make it very easy for a teacher; using these “enrichment” opportunities for students, to bring home the message of capitalism and the corporate world. I saw this very strikingly yesterday. I took my little girls to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. We went into the Hall of Biodiversity, their latest exhibition hall. It’s a multimillion dollar exhibit that’s sponsored by the Monsanto Corporation and Citibank and the Rockefeller Fund, and so on and on and on. I can tell you that in this whole huge hall, with millions of dollars worth of exhibits intended primarily to educate young children about the need for biodiversity and the ecological crisis that the planet is facing – and it is a crisis – in this whole hall there was not a single mention of corporations and not one word about capitalism. And yet as a social ecologist I can tell you that this ecological crisis can be traced directly back to corporations and capitalism. And yet none of this enters into the discourse to which our children are exposed. And there were busloads of kids going through this hall with well-meaning teachers, no doubt. But this basic outlook is never challenged; it’s never questioned. And thus the hegemonic nature of capitalism is reinforced.

This brings us to the third level on which we have to understand traditional education, and that is the intentionality with which children are educated today. It’s not an intentionality that’s particularly concerned with the individual students and their needs and their well being and the unfolding of their particular potentialities. It’s rather a cookie-cutter model of education, which is intended to reinforce the agenda of the corporation and the capitalist system.

So what is the alternative? If we accept the idea that meaningful social change will only come about through a process of education, which is of course one of the underlying beliefs of anarchism, then we need to look very carefully at what constitutes a radical education. What would be an education that’s adequate to bring about the kind of social change necessary to revert the engines of destruction that are literally eroding five billion years of biological evolution on this planet? What would constitute a radical education? I would suggest to you that the same categories that we use in understanding traditional education have to be applied in our understanding of radical education. For an education to be truly radical we need to examine the form that that education takes. We need to examine the content of that education. What it is that is being taught? And, very importantly, we have to understand the intentionality with which this educational process is being put forth. Why? Towards what end? There is not a single solution or a single model that would constitute a radical education. As we know from looking at people who have examined childhood development, early childhood development, and adolescent development, there are various developmental stages at which particular kinds of education are appropriate.

Certainly at the level of elementary education I would suggest that the primary developmental need of students, of children, is the type of free and unfettered development and education that you were lucky to have experienced in the Modern School. And that’s very rare today. Certainly as Jerry Mintz [coordinator of the Alternative Education Resource Organisation -ed.] has pointed out in his work, as Chris has pointed out in his talk, there are oases around the world, there is a free-school here or a free-school there. But in general these noble experiments are isolated and the number of children that they reach is extremely limited. And that’s very unfortunate, because at this formative stage in children’s development the most valuable thing that we can offer them is freedom to explore, and resources they can use in that exploration. But this is not something that figures largely in the scheme of traditional education at all.

As we progress developmentally we can begin to also look at ways in which the content of the education becomes important. As students go through our high schools they are taught with text books that talk about Christopher Columbus as discovering the New World, and say very little about the oppression and the slaughter of Native Americans that accompanied that age of discovery. We see very little said about the effects of colonialism and imperialism around the world. Rather, we celebrate the great warriors and conquistadors who brought the benefits of European civilisation to the rest of the world. I would suggest that a radical education really has to invert that concept, and we have to look at the deleterious effects. We have to ensure that our students are exposed to a history that reflects a critical view of modernity and the development that we so blithely assume to be inevitable. Students need to know the history of movements like anarchism. Students need to be exposed to the lives of people like Emma Goldman, and this is not a part of a standard curriculum in any high school that I know of today.

This question of content is closely wedded to the form of the education. And if we are truly to create students who are able to think critically, draw their own conclusions and then contribute to a larger project of social change, it will only happen if they are given an adequate grounding in this kind of history, if they’re given the tools that they need to be able to critique the contemporary economic system. In this Biodiversity Hall, for example, at the Museum of Natural History, there was a little mention made of over-consumption. That was really put on the individual – we are all greedy consumers and that is why we have an environmental crisis. It’s because each one of us consumes too much. It’s because the world is becoming overpopulated. But there was no mention of the fact that the world today contains 500 billionaires, and that those billionaires have an annual income equal to the poorest 45% of the world’s population. That’s quite an omission, and it suggests an analysis that is inadequate, that does not prepare young people, or anyone for that matter, to make sense out of the mess that we’re in today. In fact, it mystifies it and ensures the continuation of the system in which the elite benefit from the continuation of that system. And that’s very much the intentionality of modern traditional education.

So the question of content becomes very important. At the Institute for Social Ecology we take a very different approach, and in fact our curriculum is one that encourages students to think critically about all of these areas, that exposes them to this hidden history, that attempts, if you will, to explode the myths of modernity. It encourages, and in fact demands, that students look critically not just at the impact of their individual decisions as consumers, not just at how they pollute, does not “guilt-trip” them regarding the fact that they aren’t recycling enough aluminium cans. Because in fact the pollution created by the entire population of this room over a lifetime is insignificant compared to the pollution created by one day of production at the International Paper Plant in Glens Falls, New York. We need to develop educational processes and curriculums that encourage freedom, that encourage unfettered development, and that give students exposure to the ideas, the concepts, and the critical understanding that will allow them to begin to deconstruct the mythology supporting the current system, if we are ever to deconstruct that system and replace it with something positive and life-affirming.

That brings me to the final level on which I think a radical education has to operate. And that is intentionality. We have to be very intentional about what we are doing. Believe me, there is a great deal of intent that goes behind the theory that has produced traditional education. They know exactly what they are doing. We have to be equally intentional. I’m not suggesting here that we have to be dogmatic or ideological, that we have to limit expression or limit inquiry. Rather, we have to ensure that students are allowed to explore these subversive and radical ideas, that they’re given access to the resources they need to sort things out, and that they come away with an understanding that they can make sense out of a system that thrives on the fact that it’s incomprehensible! And there are ways to make sense out of it. If we fail to provide our students, our young people today, and ourselves for that matter, with this kind of outlook, with the ability to think critically and to think independently, to question authority and to view themselves not as passive consumers but as active agents of social change, then we’ll be making a tremendous mistake. We will be condemning the world to simply reproducing, in ever-deepening levels of degradation, the system that exists today. And I think that is our task. It’s not a simple task, it’s not an easy task, but it’s a vitally important task. It’s a task that all of you, simply by your experience in the Modern School and by your ability to articulate that experience, to talk about it, to share it with other people, have already contributed to.

In closing I would simply ask that you keep the faith. That we continue to spread these ideas, that we recognise that social change will only come about through a process of education, that education is not limited to the classroom or to institutions of higher education, and that each of us, as an individual, has a responsibility to serve as an educator. Thank you.

8 Replies to “Education for Social Change”

  1. dear sir, you have herewith furnished a crying problem of the world. i am fully agreed with your every words and the phrase” traditional education is not really education at all.” the pity is that modern generation is not craving for such type of education which creates an obstacle to earn money. modern edu. is not only career oriented but also money oriented. as a result the desired ambition of the student is fulfilled but the real value of education became tasteless. only family can play a pivotal role to minimize this problem …

  2. It is clear that Dan belongs to the movement of critical pedagogy that has been developed from the works of Friere, and Illich. I would like to extend the ideas and apply them to the education of the poor majority.
    A Critical Pedagogy
    PEDAGOGY OF THE POOR in a world where Education is Schooling.

    In the future, there are increasing demands for different priorities to rule social life and economies across the globe. For example, the search for oil has to be controlled and required to take account of local conditions. It is no longer acceptable for oil companies to move into an area and drill, and let the oil-water waste to leach into the soil and the rivers. Nor for exploration companies to ‘frack’ oil sands and oil shales…..that is, inject water into strata and set off explosions, and cause quakes! Rich countries, such as Saudi Arabia or South Korea or China will not be allowed to move into other lands and buy up farm lands for crops for their own home populations. In these situations local communities will be advised to find out how to stop exploitation. This will need opportunities for education and learning.

    As someone who worked in the education industry in the UK for forty years, I have to accept that many debates about education are rooted in the societies of Western Europe and the USA, where schools and colleges have been built, pupils are waiting to go to school, and teachers have been trained, and are ready to teach.
    The conventional views in these societies are that ‘schooling’ is the most effective way of either maintaining standards or improving standards of performance, or skill levels; or bringing about changes in social attitudes; monitoring the values of pupils and bringing about changes in behaviour. ‘Schooling’ involves teachers directing pupils to behave in acceptable, approved, legal ways: the standards are set by the officers of the government, and applied by the school system under the rules of a National Curriculum. ‘Schooling’ does not involve the pupils making choices nor exercising preferences. It is based on pupils doing as they are told, and being punished if they do not. The long term effect of this approach is that we are all conditioned to behave according to the rules when in the presence of ‘authority’, and behaving differently when amongst our families and friends or colleagues. Such inconsistencies are totally unacceptable in a world in which social changes are the keystone to ‘a better world’. It follows that ‘schooling’ is not an effective way of educating our citizens.

    Ivan Illich wanted to de-school society,1971, and did not identify ‘learning’ with ‘schooling’. In fact he saw the reverse. By being forced to go to school, the pupil is thereby “schooled”; the pupil confuses teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to repeat something. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Schooling – the production of prescribed knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock… making school compulsory, [people] are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;… that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society, that is: of his social value. Friere called this ‘a banking model’ in which pupils accumulate sets/lots/deposits of knowledge,and take exams to prove their value.
    The vast majority of people who are demanding ‘an education’, today, as well as social changes, live in the ‘developing world’ and are poor, trying to survive on less than $10 a day and more likely $1 a day. The debates should be about, what are the relevant forms of educational provision for over 6 billion people; including 2.4 billion children; 1 billion starving, and 2.6 billion without secure water supplies?
    Should these peoples be schooled? Or educated? And by whom?
    Their prime concerns will be survival, day to day? But as more and more international corporations and government agencies penetrate the lands of the Amazon, the Yangtze, the Nile, the Ganges, the Andes, the tundra of Canada and Russia, the hot deserts of the Sahara, and Australia, and the steppes of Russia, China, and Africa, and the cold lands of Greenland, in search of more and more resources, the concerns of the indigenous peoples, and the poor majority, will be security and protection, human rights, property rights, alternative agricultures, alternative land exploitation, water use and sanitation, medical services, finances, and education. The indigenous peoples of the world can no longer live in isolation. They are being invaded by multi-national corporations and government sponsored projects for energy and minerals and foods. They need help to enable them to fight exploitation, and to preserve their sustainable lives, as well as to develop other systems of farming. They need to be ‘educated’ and liberated! Not schooled and dominated.

    We have to think about the pedagogy of the poor, and the indigenous peoples across the globe. What will be the best provision?
    Problems emerge from the start. The officers of governments, and members of ruling families, have almost certainly benefited from the education services of western democracies, attended private schools, and gone to University in the west. Their models of best practices will be based on the formal institutions of the UK, France, Germany, the old colonial countries, and the USA or Russia. When faced with the tasks of establishing a national education service they will utilize the systems of the developed world, with their national curricula, formal exams, and educational meritocracies supported by examinations and recognized qualifications. They will introduce and develop systems of schooling that are not particularly relevant to their home countries.
    When we think about these characteristics of government education services, it becomes clear that they are irrelevant to many learners in the ‘developed world’ too, and totally irrelevant to the poor communities across the world. In fact, the education services that are currently in operation are best seen as systems of control and schooling.
    The pedagogy of the poor will require different ways of thinking about education and learning.

    Confucius [450BC] stated: Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.
    go to
    go to A Discourse: Social Ecology


    Dan’s reservations about education and schooling became heightened when he began to look at what was going on in his children’s school. As a parent, one begins to ask ‘what is going on? And why? Is this what I want my children to learn? Is this what they want to learn?
    As a teacher, one may wonder about what you are being asked to do? As a teacher, you may want to initiate new ways in your classroom. But you will always be subject to the supervision of the headteacher, and the inspector of schools.
    During the 60’s through 80’s there was a community education movement that led to the creation of community schools, free schools, and negotiated curricula. The works of Dewey were recommending experiential education; Bruner insisted on active learning; Friere established education as liberation; Illich demanded the de-schooling of society, and creating learning spaces and learning webs. But since the 90’s education authorities have insisted on national curricula, and regular testing and assessment. The authorities were demanding what they called ‘value for money’! that is, assessment and high grades.
    Now, in 2012, education is dominated by formality, teaching spaces, national curricula, and specified subjects, and examinations. All notions of open learning have been closed down.
    One way to initiate educational change in the light of social change is to base school work on ‘General Learning Outcomes’. The curriculum will be an expression of what we want to learn, and how to learn. What are the outcomes of our learning? There will be key skills at first, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Communities of learners in open dialogue will learn how to communicate, verbally, visually, auditory. Active learners will be problem solvers, learning by discovery, and applying the procedures of problem solving. The exploration of interpersonal relations will be learning as living, and experiential education, highlighting gender roles, racial stereotypes, class systems. Each learning circle will be involved in planning and decision making and exercising dialogue, negotiation, experiment, as well as reading and writing. At this time an important set of key skills and outcomes will be associated with computers/laptops, and the creation of virtual learning communities. For the first time it is not necessary for learners to be in the same space. You may be involved with learning the same skills and knowledge, but you can be anywhere with a reliable internet connection. The assessment of the effectiveness of your education will be based on what you can do; processes and procedures, in order to gain a positive outcome. It will not be based on the content such as subject knowledge. It will be based on General Learning Outcomes and key skills. For example, a learning web may want to identify how to analyse systems of agriculture so as to ensure the supply of cheap food. In order to pursue this problem, the learning webs will have to study crops, farming, economics, supply and demand, ecology, social ecology; and exercise skills of analysis, experiment, reading, interviewing, questionnaires, report writing, problem solving.
    By developing this approach to learning, we can ensure that the learners are free to experiment, to interact, to communicate, to solve problems. These outcomes are better than knowing a lot of facts and not knowing what to do when solving problems.
    Social ecology requires us all to identify and analyse, and solve old problems with new solutions.
    go to
    go to
    go to
    go to A Discourse: Social Ecology


    In case you think that these ideas, expressed by Dan, are ‘too modern’, it is worth reminding ourselves that they were also developed in the USA [1900 – 1950] by John Dewey, an instrumentalist, a pragmatist, who held that we learn through experience, by doing, and argued that greater emphasis should be placed on problem solving and critical thinking skills. Dewey emphasised that ‘teaching’ is too concerned with the delivery of knowledge. This needs to be balanced by a much greater concern with the students’ actual experiences, and active learning. He was an exponent of ‘experiential education’ based on project based learning, with the learners as active researchers.
    Later, the work of Bruner confirmed that the learner is active. Whereas ‘Teaching’ assumes that ‘learners’ are passive…..doing as they are told! Bruner emphasized that learning is a social process.
    What is learning? Learning is an active, social process in which students construct new ideas or concepts based on their current knowledge. The student selects the information, forms hypotheses and then integrates this new material into their own existing knowledge and mental constructs. This is a continual process.

    For a more detailed discussion of these ideas, go to A Discourse: Social Ecology……..chapter on Education.
    Go to for articles on Education and Social Change.

  5. Thanks for the comments. A transformation of education is a precondition for the creation of a liberated society. Traditional classrooms and “learning” focus on the production of obedient and compliant workers, and have little to do with educating the active citizenry needed to address the pressing problems we face.
    The “Hidden curriculum” is intended to reproduce the hierarchy and obsequius obedience to authority characteristic of the dominant society.
    In addition to Fiere,and Illich, the ideas of Dewey, George Dennison, Matt Hern, Ron Miller, The Albany Free School, the Sudbury Free School, and , of course, Summerhill, were all influenced by Fransisco Ferrer, the Spanish Libertarian educator who was executed before the Civil War. This tradition in education has a rich history which needs to be more widely known as it provides great insight and inspiration for those concerned with education for a free society.

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