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Education for Social Change

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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.