“Of all our institutions public education is the most important. Everything depends on it, the present and the future. It is essential that the morals and political ideas of the generation which is now growing up should no longer be dependent upon the news of the day or the circumstances of the moment. Above all we must secure unity: we must be able to cast a whole generation in the same mould.”
–Napoleon Bonaparte, on the importance of state-controlled public schooling as a form of mass indoctrination
“If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what is happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.” — Assata, page 207
Thirty-four years ago this November 2, in 1980, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, with the help of comrades wielding .45 caliber pistols. Successfully avoiding a national “manhunt,” Shakur ultimately fled to Cuba, resurfacing there in 1984. Condemned by US authorities and mainstream media as a “cop killer” for her alleged role in a 1973 shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike,1 Assata was granted political asylum by the socialist Castro government, in light of extensive evidence that the former Black Panther Party member (like many activists in the age of COINTELPRO) faced unjust and racist persecution in the United States, and was being targeted for her revolutionary politics. Assata remains in Cuba to this day, where she has long maintained her innocence of any crime but that of seeking to overthrow the racist, imperialist, patriarchal capitalist system. For that “crime,” Shakur proudly pleads guilty.2
In May 2013, the FBI, without charging any additional wrong-doing, added “Joanne Chesimard”3 to their top ten “Most Wanted” list of “Terrorists,” placing her alongside the likes of accused World Trade Center and Pan Am flight 103 bombers and Al Queda leaders.4 She is the first woman to make the list — and the only “domestic terrorist” currently listed in the “Top Ten.” Accordingly, the bounty on her head was raised from $1 to $2 million.
Shakur has not set foot in the United States for decades — and has issued only a handful of public statements from Cuba — yet her presence continues to be felt today, in part through the narrative she wrote in exile. Assata: An Autobiography (1987) offers us a vivid, accessible, personal, and yet theoretically astute narrative of one woman’s oppression, exploitation, alienation, and resistance, as well as a relatable account of explicitly revolutionary (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) consciousness in the making, and a damning exposure of police terror, courtroom corruption, and state repression. Nearly three decades later, Assata still poses a stark challenge to hegemonic institutions that sustain oppression in the US and across the world. Moreover, Assata does all this in ways that are accessible and emotionally compelling to readers, including those not previously familiar with or inclined toward such perspectives. I believe that contemporary radical educators and organizers have much to learn from this remarkable text, in terms of both its content and its method of presentation.
I had the chance to teach Assata: An Autobiography in 2013, in a course on “Memoir and Autobiography,” at a university serving a diverse and largely working-class student population from the Greater Boston area.5 I found the book to be one of the most thought-provoking works that I have ever taught. Most importantly, it engaged students as effectively as any avowedly left-wing work that I have used, winning students to sympathy and opening them to frank and nuanced discussions of advanced social and political issues. Assata is on some level a strikingly didactic, and ‘in your face’ work—as the opening epigraph to this essay suggests — engaging very abstract ideas as well as more immediate and ‘concrete’ situations, even directly exhorting the reader at various points. Yet despite (and perhaps in part because of) this motley mix — Assata: An Autobiography was, hands-down, the class’s favorite work of the semester.6 What was it about Assata that enabled its radical resonance?
For starters, students were just blown away by the history here — that there had ever been such a (bold, revolutionary, popular) organization as the Black Panther Party in the US, that “violent” participants in that movement could be as eloquent and reflective as Shakur, that the US government had rained down such vicious repression on them, right here ‘at home.’ Being confronted with such a spectacular, shared, historical blind-spot helped students begin a sustained discussion of the political and social role that official schooling and dominant history has played in US society, and in their own lives, a topic that Shakur herselfdirectly engages through her narrative.
Students generally were struck by how Assata (and the Black Panther Party as depicted in the text) wasn’t advocating violence or “hate” against white people, as they had been taught to expect, but rather targeted their antagonism much more narrowly — and politically — against the structures and agents of oppression and exploitation. One white working-class student from South Boston expressed pleasure and surprise that he could identify with much of the struggle that Assata relates, as well as with her broader criticism of US social institutions, history, and ideology. Indeed, many students reported that they could relate personally to Assata’s criticisms of workplace, neighborhood, and school struggles, despite their varied historical, cultural vantage points. Her critique of financial exclusions, petty corruptions, and bureaucratic alienation resonated powerfully. One student volunteered that he felt inspired by Assata to return to radical politics, something he had been exposed to and interested in, but not involved in lately.
Students unanimously reported having a much more favorable response to Assata, this work by a “Top Ten Terrorist,” than to the acclaimed memoir of current US President, Barack Obama, whose Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press 1995, 2004) most students found to flop by comparison, both politically and stylistically.7 (We read this text immediately after Assata.) It’s an interesting moment when a class comes to the collective realization that they find the life story and the expressed views of an unreconstructed revolutionary socialist — an “anti-Amerikan” activist and accused “terrorist” fugitive — to be more compelling, relatable, truthful, and admirable than those of the current Commander-in-Chief.
But of course, as fascinating and shocking as the content of the book was and is, the text’s form played a crucial role in shaping student responses to that ‘content.’ It was not just the radical ideas to which they responded so positively, but the particular presentation of those ideas in and through Shakur’s text. Several students emphasized how the very structure of Assata functioned as rhetorical strategy, drawing readers into a serious and sympathetic consideration of radical and revolutionary ideas that they might not otherwise have taken to heart.
The structure of the text
In a sense, Assata’s structure juxtaposes a narrative of Incarceration, focusing on the years 1973-1987, with a narrative of Education, focusing on the years 1947-1977 — what we might call a “struggle for freedom” set against a “struggle for consciousness,” though of course the two struggles are deeply interrelated. Opening with the immediate aftermath of her shooting, capture, and brutal hospital interrogation by New Jersey State Police in 1973, the Incarceration narrative follows Shakur’s legal struggles, as well as her confrontation with jail and prison conditions, police terror, and a series of biased “kourt” cases and judges.8 The intervening chapters follow her life, from birth9 through early childhood, elementary and high school, through various jobs and through (sometimes humorous, sometimes death-defying) explorations of the street life of New York City, with a consistent focus on her education, understood in the broadest terms.
The two narratives effectively merge near book’s end, as Shakur’s account of her education turns to an account of increasingly revolutionary activism in and around the Black Panther Party. This then turns to an account of her life underground, after police violence against the Party escalates, bringing us up to the present of her capture, imprisonment, trial(s), and eventual conviction.10 While necessarily leaving undisclosed the details of her escape, the book ends with a moving account of Assata’s daughter (whom Shakur conceived and gave birth to while incarcerated) and her own mother joining her in Cuba, after years of forced separation. In a Postscript, Shakur reflects on her experience in socialist Cuba, and on the current prospects for world revolution from the sober standpoint of the mid-1980s.
Students found that the stark violence and injustice to which Shakur is subjected in the Incarceration sections inclined them towards a more sympathetic and attentive engagement with her life story, including her turn to radical politics, in the Education sections. At the same time, the coming-of-age story, by relating the struggles and development of an inquisitive and strong-willed child coming up against a racist, sexist, and class-stratified America, inclined them to be (even) more sympathetic to the grown rebel woman, as she is subjected to egregious abuse in courtrooms and prison cells. At the same time, we explored how the different sections do not merely contrast but connect on deeper levels; Assata’s struggle against the state echoes her struggles in the streets—just as her education continues behind bars, through conversations with fellow prisoners.11
Conversely, the text reveals how Incarceration in “Amerika” extends well beyond the prison walls; indeed the schools she attends operate in a highly racist and punitive manner, foreshadowing penitentiaries. As Assata’s fellow prisoner, Eva (honored by Shakur in a poem as “the rhinoceros woman”), puts it, for black people in the US, to be on the street is still not to be “free.” Eva tells Shakur: “You’ll be in jail wherever you go” (59), prompting Assata to reflect that she “has a point”:
The only difference between here [the Middlesex county workhouse] and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards control here. I don’t have the faintest idea what it feels like to be free.… We aren’t free politically, economically, or socially. We have very little power over what happens in our lives. (60)
The split form of the narrative then, while introducing a jarring dramatic effect between the present fixity of incarceration and persecution and the past freedom of education and development, ultimately works to complicate this opposition, towards an enriched, and collective, sense of the meaning of both Imprisonment and Freedom. That is to say, the more the younger Joanne/Assata learns about the world through her (comparatively) free explorations of it, and the more she grows connected to others through her investigations, the more she sees the constraints on both her own freedom and that of so many others, the more she learns about the historical and structural barriers to achieving freedom for these others…and for herself, insofar as she now feels connected to them. Insofar as her sense of self comes to include the situation of others, she realizes that she cannot get free alone, but only through participation in a collective (self) liberation. As she puts it on the cusp of her radical commitment, “I want to help free the ghetto, not run away from it, leaving my people behind” (154).
Poetry and revolution
Students were further moved by the way Assata uses poetry throughout the book, framing or interrupting the movement of her narrative. Significantly, these interruptive texts present Shakur to us as not only a “militant” activist, and not only a victim of state violence, but as a writer, and not just as a critic or polemicist, but as a lyricist: a creature of human emotion, imagination, and love, as well as intellect and organizational commitment. From within a situation where there is often painfully little that she can control, writing gives Shakur a means of imposing her ideas and will on the madness around her, while keeping that madness from wrecking her own mind.12
“Affirmation,” the poem which opens Assata, provides a powerful example of how imaginative writing usefully frames Shakur’s narrative for readers, establishing empathy while foregrounding key themes. I quote the poem here in full:
I believe in living. I believe in the spectrum Of Beta days and Gamma people. I believe in sunshine. In windmills and waterfalls, Tricycles and rocking chairs. And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts. And sprouts grow into trees. I believe in the magic of the hands. And in the wisdom of the eyes. I believe in rain and tears. And in the blood of infinity. I believe in life. And i have seen the death parade March through the torso of the earth, Sculpting mud bodies in its path. I have seen the destruction of the daylight, And seen bloodthirsty maggots Prayed to and saluted.
I have seen the kind become the blind And the blind become the bind In one easy lesson. I have walked on cut glass. I have eaten crow and blunder bread And breathed the stench of indifference.
I have been locked by the lawless. Handcuffed by the haters. Gagged by the greedy. And, if I know any thing at all, It’s that a wall is just a wall And nothing more at all. It can be broken down.
I believe in living. I believe in birth. I believe in the sweat of love And in the fire of truth.
And I believe that a lost ship, Steered by tired, seasick sailors, Can still be guided home To port.
This moving poem gives us a useful map of some of Assata’s major themes. Indeed, the very fact that Shakur opens with a poem – celebrating a belief in and a love of life – is significant; my students said they felt immediately pulled in by the emotional quality of the poem; it wasn’t what most expected from a “militant black revolutionary” let alone an accused murderer or “terrorist.” “Affirmation” immediately prompted them to read Assata’s radical political trajectory as a product of emotional experience, as well as intellectual argument, an expression of love, hope, and affirmative belief, not only of hate or criticism (though her book, justifiably, contains plenty of both).
“Affirmation” also charts what we could call a dialectics of Oppression and Liberation — a key nexus that lays the basis for Assata’s remarkable revolutionary optimism. As she writes, “I have seen the kind become the blind, and the blind become the bind,” lines which are soon followed by the supplementary statement: “if I know anything at all, // it’s that a wall is just a wall // and nothing more at all. // It can be broken down.” Here, Assata calls attention to the (dialectical) fact that the ultimate basis of what appears to be solid and perhaps immovable “objective reality” (“just the way it is”) is in fact nothing more (and nothing less) than the product of human consciousness and feeling, as embodied in the practices this consciousness and feeling sustains (or disrupts). She asks us to reflect on the way that people give up their own human vision and sympathy, making themselves into—or allowing themselves to be made into—objects, stripped of meaningful will or subjectivity. Not only does she speak of the “bind[s]” that hold people and systems of oppression in place as ultimately constituted by the “blind” — that is, those who are unable to (or who refuse to) “see” — but she marks how many of the “blind” were themselves previously “kind.” Oppressors are not oppressors by fate, by nature, nor by “race,” but by training, through the “lessons” they learn (and fail to unlearn). The flip side of this dialectical insight, of course, is that, given the correct transformation of consciousness and human feeling—a return to kindness from blindness, so to speak—the “binds” and with them the “walls” can be broken down, dissolved, and the people trapped by them, set free. (Shakur’s own life trajectory as a prison escapee speaks powerfully to the concrete possibilities of such freedom.)
Assata’s depiction of the state, including the “kourt” system and the police as well as other ideological state apparatuses, is radically critical and even shockingly blunt — she refers to cops as “pigs” routinely and unapologetically, likening state police to fascists, even outright Nazis in some cases. And yet she also calls attention throughout her narrative to various cracks and openings in the would-be totalitarian “pig” system, highlighting moments where an element of humanity manages to slip through, where the kindness, solidarity, or just plain decency of a person, even one who may technically be working for the “other side,” plays a crucial role in sustaining Assata’s spirit, even saving her life.13 Unredeemable systems of oppression exist, but so do small acts of human kindness, and these small acts matter.
For example, in the first narrative chapter, while Assata lies handcuffed to a hospital bed, shot through the chest and the shoulder by police, without access to a lawyer, yet subject to interrogation and outright torture, a man whom she initially identifies as a “black pig” turns out to be “not a cop but a hospital security guard…not at all hostile. His face breaks into a kind of reserved smile and, very discreetly, he clenches his fist and gives me the power sign.” Assata adds, “That man will never know how much better he made me feel at that moment” (6). Later in that same opening scene, at a moment of deep desperation, Shakur is able to persuade a nurse—again a state employee—to disobey her superiors and get word out to Shakur’s lawyer and family, an act that may have saved her life. Assata is peppered with such small and often surprising acts of human solidarity.14
To underline the point: Insofar as the “walls” and “binds” are constituted by human beings (who are often facing some sort of oppression and exploitation of their own), Assata reminds us, there remains the potential for “kindness” and thus for solidarity to burst the binds, to bring down the walls.15 Thus, though Assata ultimately affirms the necessity for serious revolutionaries to take a sharp and unsentimental view of the enemy, cultivating the social, political, and, yes, the military basis foran (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) Liberation Army, and thus points clearly to her belief that the repressive apparatus in the United States cannot ultimately be defeated by peaceful means alone, her sharp antagonism towards the systems of oppression, and towards those “pigs” who actively operate positions of power within those systems, does not rule out the continued possibility (and perhaps even necessity) for the “un-binding” of those who constitute that system, through the clearing of vision and the rekindling of kindness. Assata’s assertion of the need for violent revolution does not bar but rather necessitates her openness to the potential of human transformation.
In this spirit, the wall-breaking, bar-bursting “violent” actions of a guerrilla insurgency, such as the Black Liberation Army aspired to ignite, may be seen as not primarily military, aiming at impairing the enemy apparatus and liberating particular forces or territories (though that is one important aspect), but as deeply symbolic, signaling and reminding those looking on that, in fact, “a wall is just a wall, nothing more at all. It can be broken down.” The goal of “violent” action would ultimately be to anchor, amplify, and sustain symbolic resonance among the people, which then may provoke and inspire proliferating thought and action, of various kinds. The function of revolutionary violence here—as opposed to what we might call ‘terrorist violence’—is thus not to render the world more polarized and fixed, but more porous, partisan, and change-able, precisely by shaking the ideological “walls” that act as a barrier to human thought and solidarity. Such “violence” ought not to aim to simply divide the world into “us” (the People and the Revolutionaries) and “them” (the “Pigs” and Reactionaries), but to divide the “them,” opening up new fronts within the repressive apparatus, as the previously inert “binds” are summoned back to conscious life (to sight and to kindness). In this sense, at least in theory, revolutionary violence can, when sharply focused against enemy institutions as embodiments of oppressive ideologies, open rather than close down space for human subjectivity, for thought and freedom, on both sides of the walls.
Revolutionary hopefulness…and humility
Alongside this striking revolutionary optimism — some might call it voluntarism16 — Assata’s opening “Affirmation” frames for readers another key theme that impressed my students: Shakur’s humility, her willingness to engage in self-criticism and to dramatize her own moments of ignorance, insensitivity, embarrassment, and shame as she struggles toward a revolutionary road. “I have eaten crow and blunder bread, and breathed the stench of indifference,” she writes, lines which admit that she has not only been the victim or the virtuous antagonist of systems of oppression, but has been subject to their influence as well. “Breathing the stench of indifference” goes in both directions here. It is not that Shakur has been able—through luck, enlightened leadership, the proper reading, or a superior nature—to avoid social contradiction, human failing, or toxic ideology (from internalized racism, to worker false consciousness, from historical ignorance and naïve patriotism, to consumerism, knee-jerk anti-communism, and, later, what she will call “revolutionary romanticism”). Rather, what distinguishes Assata’s revolutionary trajectory, and part of what made her so approachable for students, I think, is her willingness to admit mistakes, to recognize her own human ignorance and “blundering,” admittedly often only after others force it into her consciousness, and then to work to overcome these socially imbibed, inherited weaknesses, in theory and in practice. The starting point for revolutionary practice here is not a matter of achieving a standpoint of purity or perfection, a blueprint of what is to be done, or some Archimedean point above the fray, but a willingness to admit and to work through contradictions, with others, in light of a growing, if uneven awareness of a common history, a common goal, and a common enemy. It is an expression of critical love that begins with a deep belief that one is not fundamentally better or different (or separate) from the people one sets out to organize and to liberate.
Several students were moved by this depiction of Shakur’s own learning process, how her account is as much about the process of learning and self-transformation as it is about the particular content of lessons that result from it. Assata depicts revolutionary consciousness not just as a set of properly radical verdicts, but as an endlessly critical and self-critical advance in awareness, a matter of experimentation and experience, and of reflection on that experience, a matter of listening to others and learning lessons, negative and positive, from failure as well as success.
In a final paper, one student discussed eloquently how Assata models for readers this often- difficult process of working through the shame and “cognitive dissonance” that radical critique can provoke in those who ‘ought’ to be open to it. When confronted with a radically new and paradigm-shifting idea about the world—even an idea that seems intellectually convincing and ethically compelling—many people will suppress rather than respond positively to that idea, paralyzed by a sense of shame that they remain at some level attached to the very practices, institutions, and notions that they would now have to denounce.17 Without an avenue to work through this shame and dissonance — feeling in a sense judged rather than liberated by the new notion — the subject may lapse into paralysis and cynical resignation, failing to pursue the opening into new theory and practice.
Students attested that they found Assata’s approach to resonate with what they themselves have experienced when they have been confronted with radical criticism of dominant ideologies and institutions — ideologies and institutions which they have spent much of their lives being taught to identify with. They found that Assata, rather than preaching at them, was working through these ideologies and attitudes with them. The difference was crucial.
Arguably, the paralyzing effect of such shame-inducing cognitive dissonance may reach its pinnacle in a country like today’s USA, where capitalist penetration of public and private life — politics, culture, consciousness, intimate relations — has reached unprecedented levels, only dreamed of in the 1960s. Mental prisons have proliferated alongside the literal ones. Who among us today can claim to be beyond the psychological reach of myriad fantasies constructed by capital, though we aspire to the mantle of ‘anti-capitalism’? To what extent have most young people (or for that matter, their would-be teachers) incorporated capitalist commodity culture into their very identities and life-goals? How could people not? Assata confronts and yet transcends the often-paralyzing discourse of ‘complicity’ with the dominant culture by at once acknowledging — and dramatizing — Shakur’s own embeddedness in various backward ideologies and destructive practices, but also foregrounding her self-transformative efforts to overcome them, as part of a larger working through of a contradictory historical inheritance. Shakur’s emphasis on her own self-activity—both her mistakes and her breakthroughs — played an important role in getting students to see this revolutionary neither as a “victim,” nor as some “hero-saint” to be put on a pedestal, but as a complex human being, not fundamentally different from themselves. This point further helped discussion of the text to move beyond an identity-politics frame, allowing students to connect personally with the types of “Amerikan” problems that Shakur parses across her own life, while acknowledging important differences in historical experience as well.
This article was first published at Red Wedge Magazine, this is the first part of a longer essay that will appear in full in the November issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, an issue devoted to the topic of Mass Incarceration.
The gunfight left Assata’s comrade, Zayd Shakur, as well as State Trooper Werner Foerster dead. Assata herself was seriously wounded during the attack, having been shot in the back. [↩]
Assata has made several public statements from exile in Cuba, including a 1997 Letter to Pope John Paul II, issued following reports that the FBI had pressured the church leader to petition Fidel Castro to expedite Shakur to the US. This letter can be found online, including at Democracy Now, where it was first broadcast. [↩]
This is Shakur’s legal name—she refers to it as her “slave name.” [↩]
The class met once per week, for three hours in the evenings 6-9pm—many of the students having put in full days at work before attending. [↩]
I base this assessment on the quality and enthusiasm of class discussions (lecture-guided and spontaneous peer-to-peer responses), on the quality and content of the students’ writing on the text (both weekly response papers and final, formal essays), and on an end-of-semester poll. Of the ten students in the class, half picked Assata as their “favorite” of the semester, while the other half all placed Assata in the top two or three works (of ten) that we read together. Fully half of the students elected to do their final critical essay on Assata. [↩]
Unlike my students, mainstream critics have lavished praise on Obama’s Dreams from My Father. For a serious radical critique of Dreams, see Barbara Foley’s essay “Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father” in Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice. The 2014 convention of the Modern Language Association featured an entire panel focused on the literary legacies of Obama’s book. [↩]
Shakur spells the word always with a “k,” as in “kangaroo kourt.” [↩]
As Shakur writes at the start of her second chapter: “The FBI cannot find any evidence that I was born…. Anyway, I was born” (Assata, 18). [↩]
It’s worth underscoring here that all the charges that ostensibly justified Shakur being pursued by New Jersey police on the Turnpike either ended in acquittal or were dropped. The sole charge for which she was ever convicted—a conviction that remains dubious—concerned actions which allegedly transpired following, and were prompted by, this aggressive police pursuit. Shakur maintains her innocence and there was no physical evidence to establish that she fired a shot. [↩]
Similarly, Shakur’s only child is conceived inside a courthouse cell, where she and her lover/co-defendant Kamau are locked alone for verbally protesting abuses in the courtroom to the point that the judge orders them excluded from the scene of their own trial. She gives birth in prison as well, after a protracted struggle to get access to decent medical care. [↩]
Indeed, reading Assata drove home to me how important it could be today, in this age of mass incarceration, to use writing as a means to help imprisoned brothers and sisters keep their minds and hearts alive, through letter writing and inmate book programs… pending a more radical abolition of this “New Jim Crow” system. [↩]
Lest we lapse into romantic fantasy, it’s important to note that such acts, in Assata, are not carried out by any actual police officer, but by personnel such as hospital security guards, nurses, doctors, and others who, though they may be employed and instructed by the systems’ rulers, are not themselves sheer agents of repression. [↩]
These acts of course are in addition to the countless acts of conscious solidarity that constitute the sustained legal and political campaign to free Assata, the efforts of which are discussed at length in the “Incarceration” chapters. The present essay, with my focus on radical pedagogy, will tend to focus on the “Education” chapters. [↩]
Again, the word here is potential, not inevitability. The openness of revolutionary potentiality is not an occasion for confidence, passivity, or spectatorship, but for renewed activism, outreach, and an all-sided seizing of contingent opportunities. [↩]
For a compelling philosophical reconsideration — and defense — of the much derided term voluntarism, see the work Peter Hallward, e.g. his essay. “The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism,” Radical Philosophy 155, May/June 2009. [↩]
To refer back to Shakur’s opening poem: it can be not only radicalizing, but traumatizing and embarrassing to recognize that what you have been “saluting” for most of your life, are little but “maggots.” [↩]
“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”
— Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
“Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former.”
— Horace Mann, leading proponent of the “Common School” movement (1881)
During the 19th century, many large-scale changes in society were causing concern for wealthy elites in the United States. The growth of industrial capitalism had driven large numbers of people into urban areas, where poverty and abysmal living conditions were creating widespread unrest. Millions of people were immigrating to the United States from Europe, which stimulated xenophobic/nationalist fears about the destruction of American culture and the introduction of radical political ideas (e.g. socialism/anarchism) by foreigners.
It is not a coincidence that the modern penitentiary, public schooling, mental hospitals, and police were all developed during this time. A similar ideology underpins all of these developments — an elitist one which sees most people as troublesome and ignorant, and in need of centralized scientific management by state institutions. Prisons and public schools ostensibly serve very different purposes. Prisons are perceived as a brutal punishment for the most vile and unethical members of society. While few people nowadays see them as having anything to do with “rehabilitation”, they are nevertheless believed to be a “necessary evil” — cruel perhaps, but needed to protect society from the darker side of “human nature”. Schools, on the other hand, are seen as playing a crucial role in early childhood development, instilling children with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. Schools are seen as a fundamental right that all young citizens are not only entitled to, but should be forced to partake in for their own good (and for the good of society). In reality, however, these two seemingly distinct institutions are both outgrowths of the same set of social forms — i.e. industrialism, scientific management, and corporatism (the merging of the statist and capitalist bureaucracies — “regulated” capitalism). Both schools and prisons are centralized statist institutions which confine people against their will in a state-run facility, in order to “remake” them (on an industrial scale) into obedient citizens, zealous patriots, and hard workers for the benefit of a wealthy ruling class.
“Good republicans … are formed by a singular machinery in the body politic, which takes the child as soon as he can speak, checks his natural independence and passions, makes him subordinate to superior age, to the laws of the state, to town and parochial institutions.”
— Noah Webster
The public school system as we know it today is mainly a product of what was known as the “common school movement” in the 1830s and 1840s. The idea of a common school is something that is nowadays completely normalized, but at the time was revolutionary (and widely resisted): a nationwide network of state-run facilities that all children would be forced by law to attend, and which would teach a common body of knowledge (chosen by state bureaucrats in education departments). These schools were seen by their proponents as a means of indoctrinating the poor (especially immigrant populations) with values such as obedience, Christianity, nationalism, and industriousness; and of preventing the spread of radical ideas such as anarchism and socialism. Social scientists had determined that many of the problems with the poor lay in cultural and genetic defects that promoted laziness, disobedience, and ignorance. Schools were seen as a way of systematically destroying this “culture of poverty” by ripping poor children away from the negative influences of their families and communities, and teaching them sound moral values and prepare them to lead successful lives as industrial workers.
When the movement for compulsory state schooling was in its earlier stages, large sectors of the public were strongly opposed to having their children taken away and indoctrinated by the government. In order to ensure that parents would hand over their children to be raised by the state, laws were passed to make state schooling compulsory — the compulsion being that of the police, courts, and prisons, and of children being taken away from their parents who are accused of “neglecting” them for not sending them to school. Resistance was particularly strong amongst socialists and anarchists who saw these schools for what they were (instruments of ruling class control), and attempted to create radical alternatives such as the Ferrer Schools and Modern Schools. The founders of these schools not only took issue with the nationalist/capitalist propaganda that was taught in public schools, but also with the authoritarian structure of schools themselves. The radical alternative schools not only wished to teach critical histories, anti-racist science, communitarian values, and other things that were not taught in state schools, but they also wished to serve as prefigurative models for the revolutionary society that they hoped would replace the capitalist system.
“Our educational system is not a public service but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist.”
–Upton Sinclair, “The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education” (1923)
But the violent repression of radical social movements during and after World War I essentially neutralized organized popular resistance to the corporatist ideology pushed by the “progressives”, and the radical educational projects were largely destroyed along with the anarchist/socialist movement that created them. Public schooling in the United States experienced explosive growth during the corporatist “Progressive” era (around the same time that similar fascist movements were spreading across Europe). By 1920, 28% of all US children between ages 14 and 17 were enrolled in public high schools. By 1930 this number had increased to 47%, and by 1940 two thirds were enrolled. Over the years, this history has been erased, and nowadays most Americans see public schools as a basic human right, something that societies would disintegrate without, rather than an oppressive form of government intrusion into family life. A majority of Americans today, while feeling that public schools need to be reformed/improved, generally agree about their necessity and desirability, and willingly submit their children to be raised by the state.
Public schools are viewed as a means of economic advancement and social mobility within the capitalist system. The fantasy is that if everyone has access to a “good education”, then they will be provided with the necessary tools to “succeed” in the work force. The problem with this, of course, is that instead of teaching people how to dismantle the capitalist system and create a cooperative/egalitarian society, this strategy seeks success within it (based on the false assumption that the cause of poverty is lack of education or effort, rather than violent exploitation and oppression by capitalists). State-run schools will always be used to promote the interests of those who control the state (i.e. the wealthy ruling class). As Assata Shakur points out “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” The liberation of the working class from capitalist oppression/exploitation will not come from “better educational opportunities” offered to them by the state. It will come from revolution that dismantles the state and capital, including the state-run indoctrination facilities known as public schools.
Spending six hours a day for twelve years in a place where they have virtually no say in anything, where being governed is all they know, a profound passivity becomes normalized, the hopelessness of submission becomes fixed deep below the child’s skin. It is a perfect preparation for the consumerist future that awaits them.”
— Isabelle Fremeaux / John Jordan: “Anarchist Pedagogy in Action: Paideia, Escuela Libre” (2012)
This is not to say that education is not important, or that there should be no schools. The corporate media debate surrounding public schools generally presents two options: the “liberal” option, of increasing funding to state-run schools and reforming them to provide a better education for everyone (b) the “conservative” option of shutting down all of the state-run schools and replacing them with for-profit capitalist “educational services” firms. Anyone who criticizes state-run schools is automatically assumed to be in the “conservative” camp, promoting privatization, or worse, the complete lack of educational opportunities. But there is also a third option: cooperatively-run free schools, coupled with a wide range of learning activities that take place outside of the school/classroom environment. That is, it is possible to criticize statist compulsory schooling and yet still support universally available free education. The question is, will this education be compulsory and controlled by the state/capital, or will it be voluntary and controlled by the people and communities who use it?
“Let us suppose ourselves in a village. A few yards from the threshold of the school, the grass is springing, the flowers are blooming; insects hum against the classroom window-panes; but the pupils are studying natural history out of books!”
–Francisco Ferrer (1909)
What does free education look like if it is not administered by the state? Unlike centralized statist models of education, there is no single blueprint that can be used to describe all education in an anarchist society. Education takes place in many different settings — in homes, community organizations, kitchens, reading groups, free workshops, factory floors, forests, art studios and science labs. Thus it’s important not to conflate schooling with education. Education can also take place in schools, but modern compulsory schooling has monopolized the claim to education in such a way that other forms of learning are not valued as much as time spent in a classroom under the tutelage of “experts”. Much of the knowledge that keeps our society functioning was not learned in schools (cooking, bicycle repair, child raising, gardening, etc), and when we are seeking to create radical forms of education, we must value these forms of learning that take place outside of the classroom, because society literally could not function without them.
But what is perhaps most the important difference between statist schooling and anarchist free schools is the structure of the school and the perceived role of education in society. Education is a central component of any revolutionary movement. Revolution is not simply the destruction of the currently existing order, but also involves building a new society based on solidarity, mutual aid, liberty, equality, etc. The creation of this type of society requires the active cultivation of these values in our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, etc. Thus radical education is not only about learning skills, facts, and abstract theories. It is also about learning how to live cooperatively as autonomous beings in a free society of equals. This is why one of the central features of the anarchist school movement is that they not only allow children to determine the content of their own education, but also put them in charge of the administration, maintenance and operations of the schools themselves and allow them to make collective decisions and resolve conflicts through communal assemblies. Rather than the industrialized, top-down model of schooling that teaches children to be obedient and dependent upon authority figures for guidance, free schools teach children to be creative and independent and to work in solidarity with each other to come up with their own solutions. Unlike statist public schools where values are taught but not clearly identified (very rarely, if ever, will you hear a public school teacher say “We’re trying to inculcate you with nationalism and teach you to be submissive to authority figures.”), in anarchist schools the values above are made explicit and children are taught to critically analyze their own and each other’s behavior to ensure that they are living up to these values. Here you will hearing children not only openly discussing concepts such as solidarity, conflict resolution, and communal responsibility, but actually practicing them on a daily basis.
Instead of teaching children to blindly follow authority figures and work in a capitalist economy, our schools need to teach rebellion against illegitimate authorities and how to live in solidarity and cooperation with other members of society. Public schooling, since its beginnings, has always been opposed to this goal. Radical education means the abolition of state schooling, and its replacement by anti-authoritarian, free alternatives that are run by the community and the students themselves.
* Avrich, Paul (1980) The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States; Princeton University Press.
* Haworth, Robert H. (ed) Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education; PM Press
* Nasaw, David (1981) Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States; Oxford University Press and Spring, Joel H. (1994) The American School: 1642-1993; McGraw-Hill International
* Rothman, David J. (1971) The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic; Little, Brown, & Co.
* Spring, Joel H. (1972) Education and the Rise of the Corporate State; Beacon Press
* Spring, Joel H. (1994) The American School: 1642-1993; McGraw-Hill International; p. 34
* Suissa, Judith (2010) Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective; PM Press
The revolution will not be cited. It will not have a bibliography, or a title page. The revolution will never happen in the seclusion of the ivory tower built by racist, sexist, and classist institutions. Professional academic researchers in the social sciences of many colleges and universities exploit the struggles of oppressed peoples. Oppressed peoples are left stranded with little to no resources after researchers leave their communities high and dry.
Researchers steal value from oppressed peoples by making them the subjects of theoretical research without lending them access to information that could better help their communities. Articles, books, and dissertations written about marginalized populations are written for academics, not working people, and as such have little impact on the people whose lives are the subject of this research. Liberal academics and social scientists are more concerned about developing the wealth of academic literature than addressing the immediate material concerns of the communities they research. […]
Liberal academics and social scientists need to understand their effect on the communities and people they study. Oppressed people who are put under the magnifying glass of academic research have to live with real consequences after the researcher leaves. This is especially true in the field of women’s and ethnic studies — where class, gender, and race consciousness are a part of the research process. Researchers leave behind a stranded community with little to no resources to help them organize movements that will create real change.
Tim Wise, a well-known anti-racist writer and activist receives thousands of dollars for speaking at various colleges and universities about the impact that white privilege and white supremacy have on communities of color. Wise has yet to give back to these communities in any real or substantial way, such as offering resources and support to the various communities he speaks of in his writings.
Researchers in the fields of women’s and ethnic studies entering oppressed communities without any desire to change serious inequities are in direct contradiction of their supposedly “progressive” fields. Women’s and ethnic studies were created out of the social movements of the 1960s. The aims of the people who started these fields of study were to catapult a movement of better access to education for people of color, poor people, and women.
These goals were met in conflict with a desire in academia to concentrate knowledge among groups of specialized elites, instead of a focus on popularizing this knowledge for the greater good. Try reading any academic text from your local women’s studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies, or anthropology department. The texts are almost always written so that only academics can understand. Some students and scholars call it “acadamese.” It is writing that needs to be decoded before it can be understood. This is what inaccessible language looks like in academic texts written about oppressed groups, but not for them.
Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy discusses the importance of “ordinary language” in social justice work in her speech given at Hampshire College in 2001:
I think it’s vital to de-professionalize the public debate on matters that vitally affect the lives of ordinary people. It’s time to snatch our futures back from the ‘experts.’ Time to ask, in ordinary language, the public question and to demand, in ordinary language, the public answer.
Roypurposefully writes for oppressed groups of people by writing in “ordinary language.” Ordinary language becomes extraordinary when groups of people who have been historically “othered” are able to read something that connects to their lives. Academics who use “ordinary language” are able to encourage oppressed groups to consider their own agency in the fight for social, economic and political justice. Their advisors and colleagues constantly berate academics that attempt to write in ordinary language because their writing is “too accessible.”
Academics use academic language and jargon to centralize knowledge and power in their hands. Academics would lose a certain amount of power if everyone had access to the same knowledge that they do. The division of labor in the ivory tower reinforces capitalist modes of production through individualized research and study that is hardly ever shared with those it most affects. This is how academia operates knowledge in the form of transactions that create restricted, instead of shared knowledge.
Liberal academics become gatekeepers of knowledge by reinforcing ideas that knowledge should be bought and sold instead of shared among communities that are studied. In turn, serious activists who wish to create a world without capitalism and other forms of oppression are secluded from their communities through work in the non-profit sector. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence Collective’s’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” touch upon the issue of revolutionary praxis among intellectuals in Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO):
Progressive NGOs use peasants and the poor for their research projects, and they benefit from the publication – nothing comes back to the movements, not even copies of the studies done in their name! Moreover, peasant leaders ask why NGOs never risk their neck after their educational seminars – why do they not study the rich and powerful? Why us? The NGOs should stop being NGOs and convert themselves into members of socio-political movements.
The fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals can emerge from the burgeoning radical social movements which can avoid the NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.
It is time to stop depending on NGOs and academia to create revolutionary praxis for us. They won’t. It’s up to us, the oppressed peoples of the world to demand resources for our communities that are being studied by those whose lives are spent in ivory towers. The revolution starts from below and works its way to the ivory tower. Only then will education be free and accessible for all.
Wikipedia is the 6th most trafficked website on the Internet, with hundreds of millions of visitors per month. Many individual articles receive tens of thousands of visits per month. (For example, the article on global warming receives 500,000+ views per month, the one on the military budget of the United States gets 58,000+ hits/month, and the article on surveillance gets 40,000+ views per month.) This is larger than the circulation of many newspapers and magazines. Wikipedia articles are often at the top of search engine results, meaning that they will often be the first site that people look at when they are seeking to learn about a new subject. Because of the high traffic and visibility, and the fact that anyone with a computer and internet access can edit it, Wikipedia can be considered a form of participatory mass media.
Like other forms of mass media, content on Wikipedia can have a significant social impact by shaping people’s beliefs about the world. A strategically placed photo, chart, quote, or paragraph can expose thousands of people a day to critical information that they would never hear about in high-school textbooks or the nightly corporate news. Given the amount of effort that is expended to try to gain a TV spot that might be seen by a few thousand people for one night, it’s disappointing that more activists are not working to gain a foothold in Wikipedia, where they can reach thousands of people per day, perpetually.
For example, take a look at the article “Paramilitarism in Colombia“, which covers the history of right-wing death squads in Colombia, and examines how they have been backed by the U.S. government and multinational corporations. Because of the content that Wikipedia editors have added here, people visiting the article will learn about the role of U.S. counterinsurgency experts in creating the paramilitary groups, see photos of massacres committed by paramilitaries, and learn about their role in cocaine trafficking — things which are almost never mentioned in the media dialogue surrounding the civil war in Colombia. This article receives 2500-3000 visitors per month, which could (especially when coupled with work on related articles such as Plan Colombia, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, etc.) have a significant impact on the work of human rights activists who are working to end the violence in Colombia, by informing thousands of people about what is happening there and what the real roots of the problem are.
Anyone who is interested in educating people and shaping public opinion should seriously consider learning how to edit Wikipedia, and begin working on topics related to their own activist work. There are literally hundreds of thousands of articles out there that need to be edited and improved. For instance, social justice activists could target articles on poverty or prisons. Privacy groups could target articles on surveillance technologies. These changes will augment the efforts of people doing activist work “on the ground”, by exposing tens of thousands of people per month to accurate information regarding the issues they are working on. Wikipedia is a powerful tool for raising public awareness … and it’s free and open for you to edit it. Take advantage of this!
People who are interested in learning more about Wikipedia can feel free to contact me with any questions about how to get started. In the near future, I plan to write more about how to edit Wikipedia, where to find good references for articles, and some of the challenges that Wikipedia editors might face when trying to edit Wikipedia articles (such as organized censorship/propaganda teams and systemic bias).