Education for Social Change




This essay by ISE co-founder and board chair  Dan Chodorkoff was originally presented in 1998 at the annual reunion of the famed Modern School, based in NY City and New Jersey and founded on the  principles of the Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer. It has been updated and will appear in a forthcoming collection of Dan’s essays, to be published in 2014 by New Compass Press in Norway.

We face an unprecedented crisis of global dimensions, an interlinked social and ecological crisis. The survival of life on earth as we know it requires new thinking and creative solutions. Those solutions will only grow out of an educational process  – and it has to be education of a particular type.

I would suggest that traditional education is not really education at all. What passes for education in our public schools, in most of our private schools, and 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 unquestioningly go out, join the work force and become “productive” members of society.  Today more than ever students are being tested, sorted, and inculcated with the ideology of capitalism.  Students are being pushed to learn “practical” skills that will serve the needs of corporations. In fact, there have been recent calls for curtailing support of the traditional liberal arts curriculum, and investing our resources exclusively in training in math and science in order for our society to “remain competitive”.  One objection to providing exposure to liberal arts is that it produces graduates who are “open minded”, ready to ask questions rather than get on with the task at hand.

However this essay is not a defense of the liberal arts, or a call for a return to traditional curriculum and practices. In an era when even a liberal arts emphasis is being called into question we need to re-examine our basic notions of what constitutes an education.  What are we educating people for?  How can we equip people with the critical thinking skills required to change the trajectory of our culture? Given the direction in which society is moving today; the ecological crises, the social crises, the globalization of capitalism, and the destruction of the environment inherent within those processes, the last thing we need to do is reproduce the system.

We need instead to generate approaches to education that help to transform that system, change its basic structures in ways that can address these interrelated crises. We have to understand that traditional education operates on a variety of levels, and that those levels reinforce each other.  The problem needs to be confronted in a critical fashion, one that recognizes that beyond teaching particular skills and techniques, education reinforces the hegemony of capital and socializes students in the habits of obedience and acquiescence.  These behaviors are modeled day after day in classrooms and lecture halls, and students who fail to get the message are disciplined and humiliated.

The very form of traditional education is intended to inculcate students into a culture of unquestioning obedience and passivity. They are taught to sit in orderly rows in classrooms, they are taught to respond to bells and whistles, and to never question the authority of the teacher. In the early grades 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 the order of our hierarchical society; to create order, to create obedience to authority, to create compliant students who become willing workers is extremely destructive. It squelches initiative, discourages questioning, rewards conformity, and all too frequently determines, at an early age, whether a child will “succeed” or not.  These early forms of behavioral modification and a child’s reaction to them become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the higher grades and college and university, the perception of the student’s capacity, and, all too often, the students own self-image is shaped by these early classroom experiences.  The emphasis on obedience has given rise to a newly discovered psychological condition, O.D.D., Oppositional Defiance Disorder.  A basic developmental process of childhood, questioning authority, is now being defined as a disease! Critiquing, questioning, and resisting authority are seen as a sign of deep emotional problems.

The regimentation of the earlier grades is carried on with a vengeance as students’ progress through their educational career.  They come to accept the perspective of their teachers and grades are used as a cudgel to maintain their teachers authority.  At the University level huge lectures and the anonymity of the student reinforce the received wisdom of the dominant culture. Here, the emphasis on training for careers becomes a mania, and the pressure of paying back huge student loans tends to further narrow a student’s focus and sense of possibilities.  And colleges and universities are held in thrall by corporate interests, who, increasingly, through funding and co-operative agreement like partnerships and joint ventures, are defining the university’s research agendas and curriculum.

What are students 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 an attempt to create in these students an unquestioning acceptance of the dominant culture; the a priori assumptions of American exceptionalism are grafted into the very character structure of the students. It  has a devastating effect, both for the individuals being “taught” and for society as a whole.

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 when I took my elementary aged daughters to the Museum of Natural History in New York. We went into the Hall of Biodiversity, a multimillion-dollar exhibit that was sponsored by the Monsanto Corporation, Citibank and the Rockefeller Fund.  In that 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 the entire hall there was not a single mention of corporations and not one word about capitalism.  Yet as a social ecologist I can tell you that the ecological crisis can be traced directly back to corporations and capitalism.  None of this enters into the discourse to which our children are exposed. And there were busloads of kids going through the hall with well-meaning teachers, no doubt.  However this basic outlook is never challenged; it’s never questioned. And thus the hegemonic nature of capitalism is reinforced.

This brings us to another level on which we have to understand traditional education, and that is the intentionality with which children are educated today. It is not an intentionality that is concerned with the individual students, their needs, their well-being, and the unfolding of their particular potentialities. It is, rather, a cookie-cutter model of education, which follows the agenda of the corporations and the capitalist system.  It reflects and reinforces the class divisions that riddle our society.  By and large the children of the poor are educated for work in the trades or the service sector, and those of the wealthy sent to elite universities and prepared for management or professional positions.

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 social ecology, then we need to look very carefully at what constitutes a radical education. What would be an education that is adequate to bring about the kind of social change necessary to reverse the engines of destruction that are literally eroding three and a half billion years of biological evolution on this planet? How can we create 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. How can the structures of learning be altered to encourage creativity, questioning, and critical thinking? What forms would a liberatory education take?  Individual students have individual learning styles. No single approach meets the needs of all students, and students at different developmental stages respond to different approaches to teaching and learning.  However traditional classrooms are unable to provide the student-centered approach a radical education requires.  Such an approach undermines the authoritarian mechanisms that govern contemporary classrooms and replaces the cookie cutter agenda of modern “teach to the test” education and its’ hidden curriculum of obedience and discipline.  A student –centered education means that students are encouraged to pursue their interests, and teachers provide resources to aid them in their pursuit, help to identify important questions, help them acquire needed skills, and offer guidance and critique along the way.

There is not a single solution or a single model that would constitute a radical education. As we know from studies of early childhood development and adolescent development, there are various stages at which particular kinds of teaching and learning 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 is very rare today. Certainly 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 is 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.

Learning is not limited to the classroom; in fact a radical education must recognize that the local community and the natural world offer tremendous opportunities for learning.  Participatory and experiential learning are powerful adjuncts to more traditional forms of education. The stimulation offered by taking teaching and learning into the community and bringing the community into the classroom helps students engage with the larger world.

As children progress developmentally we can begin to also look at ways in which their interests as students evolve. Typically, the subject matter being studied helps to reinforce the hidden curriculum. As students go through traditional 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 the “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 civilization to the rest of the world. We valorize the founding fathers, but never mention that many of them were slave owners, and we never question why there were no founding mothers.

I would suggest that a radical education has to expose students to a hidden history; the stories of those who paid the price of conquest; those who traditional history has not given a voice. We have to look at the deleterious effects of colonialism. 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 resistance, to understand cultures that are organized around a very different set of principles than our own, to be exposed to the lives of people who questioned the status quo, 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, they mutualy reinforce the foundational hierarchy of our society. And if we are truly to educate 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 are given the tools that they need to be able to critique the contemporary economic system. Instead they are exposed to curriculum that offers an analysis from the perspective of the dominant culture.

For example, in the Biodiversity Hall at the Museum of Natural History there was an emphasis on overconsumption as a pressing ecological problem.  Blame was placed exclusively on the individual – the analysis presented suggested that we are all greedy consumers and that is why we have an environmental crisis. The crisis exists because each one of us consumes too much.  And the problem will become worse because the world is becoming overpopulated. The “greedy consumers” are to blame, whether they are driving SUVs in America or trying to find enough food to survive in Africa, no differentiation was made. There was no mention of the fact that the world today contains approximately 500 billionaires, and that those billionaires have an annual income equal to the poorest 45% of the world’s population. That is 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 are in today.  Rather, it mystifies it and ensures the continuation of the system in which the elite benefit at the expense of the poor. And that’s very much the intentionality of modern traditional education.

So 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, exposes them to this hidden history, and attempts 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, but rather how the dominant culture produces the conditions that make pollution inevitable. We try to provide an analysis that allows them to understand the underlying source of the problem, not  “guilt-trip” them regarding the fact that they aren’t recycling enough paper. Because, in truth, the pollution created by a reader of this essay over their lifetime is insignificant compared to the pollution created by one day of production at the International Paper Plant in Ticonderoga, New York. We need to develop educational processes and curricula that encourage freedom, that encourage unfettered development, and that give students exposure to the ideas, concepts, and critical understanding that will allow them to begin to deconstruct the mythology supporting the current system, if we are ever to change that system and replace it with something positive and life-affirming.

At the ISE we offer many different approaches to learning.  The ISE itself is an institution that operates through directly democratic decision-making, both in setting policy and programs.  Students are encouraged to participate in that process, gaining experience in the practice of democracy.  This institutional commitment to prefigurative politics was conceived of as an essential part of a student’s education. Involvement in the governance of the ISE gives students a real voice in determining all aspects of their education, and helps to create an environment of mutual respect in which they are truly empowered to help define the content of their learning.

We eschew testing and arbitrary measures of achievement, instead asking students to undergo a rigorous process of self-evaluation, and evaluation of their work by faculty members.  Rather than ranking and grading students these evaluations are our assessment mechanism.  They are individualized and qualitative, intended to help students recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and, most importantly, to help them further develop their insights and skills.  Classes are small and often are discussion based.  Faculty members serve as resources for students, not as authority figures sitting in judgment.  Study groups, a highly effective peer learning approach, are encouraged.  Most students undertake independent studies on topics of interest, drawing on resources both within the Institute and the larger community.

Students in campus-based programs also take part in weekly community meetings that are forums for addressing issues that arise related to community life and course work.  Discussion is wide-ranging and concerns are discussed face-to-face.  Decisions are made that establish norms for campus life and policies related to the particular program.  This is another way in which the skills of direct democracy are taught, and the habits of open discussion and cooperative problem solving are reinforced.  Students, faculty, and staff set the agenda for the community meeting and bring forward their concerns.  This is another forum in which the ISE tries to break through the passivity and powerlessness that is the legacy of traditional education.

But we also recognize that education is not limited to the classroom. The ISE has worked with many different populations; traditional college aged students and adult learners, low-income Hispanic communities, Native American communities, rural Vermonters, community organizers, climate justice, anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, alter-globalization, Green, and Occupy activists.  We have offered a wide range of programs, both in higher education and utilizing a variety of approaches in popular education.  Since 1974 the Institute has created educational experiences that combine a radical institutional framework, radical forms of teaching and learning, radical content, and a radical intentionality.  We have insured that our programs are available to people regardless of their financial ability, and have tried, with varying degrees of success, to recruit a truly diverse student body.

In our popular education programs we have utilized a variety of formats, ranging from workshops, to single lectures, to conferences, to week-long intensive seminars.  Our programs have been based on our own campus and have been held at numerous colleges and universities.   We have also offered our programs in communities all around the country, from New York City to Seattle.  The programs in popular education have helped to inform the practice of contemporary social movements like those mentioned in the paragraph above, and connected people with the concepts of social ecology who might otherwise never have had that exposure.  These programs have generated study groups and helped to educate many key organizers in the perspective of social ecology.

Very importantly we have provided credit bearing and degree granting programs for both graduate and undergraduate students.  These courses of study present an alternative to more traditional institutions of higher learning, and are a forum for educating people who will become educators and organizers themselves.  In these programs students individually design a course of study that can include discussion based classes, lectures, experiential learning, community involvement, independent study, and research.  Often their studies include critical reflection on activist projects in which they are involved.  We integrate work in the community with work in the classroom and stress the interaction between theory and practice.

In addition to the radical institutional setting offered by the ISE and formats for teaching and learning that challenge the hierarchical arrangements of traditional education, the Institute’s programs also present radical content.  By insuring that students are exposed to a philosophical outlook that challenges the hegemonic nature of our current society, we lay the groundwork for them to develop an analysis from a perspective that is both critical and utopian, one that challenges the shibboleths of capitalism, and transcends the limitations of the given.  Course content focuses on alternative perspectives that can help us to build an ecological society. We give classes in nature philosophy that examine people’s relationship to the rest of nature from an epistemological and ethical perspective.

We explore hierarchy and domination in many of its manifestations; colonialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, and classism, utilizing anthropology, history, and sociology to deepen our understanding of those phenomena, and to analyze ways to combat them.  We look at politics from both a critical and a reconstructive perspective.  We study movements for liberation throughout the whole of history and try to extract lessons from both social movements and revolutionary movements that can inform our own practice. We look at the anthropology of egalitarian cultures to understand what truly constitutes the human potential.  We study the utopian tradition.  We explore the concept and history of direct democracy.   We try to unearth the “hidden history” of our own communities, and any active or vestigel manifestations of mutual aid and cooperation that might help in their reconstruction. We strive to help students “make sense” out of a world that seems increasingly beyond our comprehension; to de-mystify the self-serving explanations of capitalism as an expression of the “natural order”.

The Institute also gives classes in “applied social ecology”, often incorporating experiential, “hands on” approaches to learning.  We explore community organizing, both theory and practice. Students designed and built energy efficient buildings on our campus as part of their course work.  They have developed organic gardens for our own use and community gardens in the inner city. They have organized ant-GMO campaigns and campaigns for climate justice.  In the 1970’s we offered pioneering classes in solar energy and wind power in which students built systems that we used on our campus and in their home communities.  The ISE presented the first classes ever given in eco-feminism.  These classes provide practical skills that will be needed to create an ecological society. The highest expression of social ecology is the melding of theory and practice in an ongoing interaction in which each informs the other.  We seek to help create a praxis sufficient to bring an ecological society into being.  No easy task, but one that must be based in educational activities that can aid in the creation of a new sensibility and a new society.

Our curriculum is a reflection of what social ecologists see as the critical, analytical, reconstructive outlooks, and the concrete skills needed to participate actively in movements for the creation of an ecological society.  The problems that our society faces are so widespread, and they exist on so many levels, that there are many different points of entry into the struggle to bring about real change.  At the ISE we try to provide a framework that helps individuals to understand the underlying dynamics of those problems, and potential ways in which they can enter into that struggle. However there is no single prescription, or one size fits all approach.  Individuals and communities will have to determine for themselves the most effective strategies for change.  A diversity of strategies and tactics have grown out of our work, and a further refinement of the theories of social ecology is on-going in light of those experiences.

The particulars of our curriculum are focused on material that can empower and educate students to become active agents for socio-ecological transformation.  The form of education at the ISE, open, flexible, student centered, discussion and community based, non-authoritarian and developmental, is intended to reinforce the lessons of the curriculum.  The institutional setting itself is seen as prefiguring a co-operative, ecological society and, offering another level of education for the participants that reiterates the philosophy of social ecology.  The practice of organizational democracy is an important aspect of the education experience at the ISE.

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.  There is a great deal of intent behind traditional approaches to education. They know exactly what they are doing. We have to be equally intentional. I am not suggesting 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 are exposed to alternative views of the world, that they are given access to the resources they need to sort things out, and that they come away with an understanding that helps them make sense out of a system that thrives on its own mystification.

And there are ways to make sense out of it. Social ecology offers an analytical framework for inquiry, and a reconstructive vision for an ecological society.  The ISE strives to provide our students, and the larger community, with the ability to think critically and independently, to question authority, and to view themselves not as passive consumers but as active citizens; agents of social change who can make a real difference in moving us toward an ecological society

If we do not educate for social change we will be condemning the world to simply reproducing, at ever-deepening levels of degradation, the system that exists today.  At the risk of sounding grandiose, I would suggest that the real work of education should be nothing less than the transformation of the world. It is not a simple task, but it is a vitally important one. It requires a concerted effort and a willingness to challenge the a-prioris of our current system at every level.  We must continue to spread these ideas, recognize that social change of the magnitude required to create an ecological society will only come about through a process of education; that, while they are important, education is not limited to the classroom or to institutions of higher learning, and that each of us, as an individual, has a responsibility to serve as both a student, and an  educator.

Murray Bookchin wrote that “Every revolutionary project is an educational project.”.   However not every educational project is a revolutionary project.  Education for social change requires intentionality; a conscious effort to embody the principles of an ecological society in the form, content, and institutional structures of the education that we offer.  We need to re-envision teaching and learning in a fashion that can help us to re-envision a new, ecological society.