“I put the question to all other reformers: Toward What End?”

I put the question to all other reformers: Toward What End?

The following was  was written by Rich Gibson, who teaches at San Diego State and is part of the anti-high stakes testing movement in public education. This post was to an on-line discussion about raising consciousness and getting teachers and parents organized, but it applies to much of our work.

“It is good to see people beginning to lay out positions prior to the Fresno gathering, meaning we are taking this moment seriously.

So, let us stake out areas of agreement and disagreement and see where we may, or may not, coalesce.

At the outset, I want to restate my respect for anyone engaged in resistance to the regimentation of schools via regulated curricula and high stakes exams, in beating back the military, and especially those who want to overcome the system of capital that lies behind all that.  Disagreement is not disrespect and, so far, many of us have found that friendship over the long haul arches over our differences.

That said, I disagree with those who want to disconnect capitalism, imperialism, war, and the trends in school that capital creates, like the Big Tests and the military recruiters.

I disagree with those who see this US government as anything but a weapon for the rich, and executive committee for the wealthy.  Urging people into electoral work, into the courts, etc.  merely lends credence and support for a state, a government, that is flatly on the other side, the enemy of the mass of people including most students.

That teachers are largely unaware of the nature of government speaks to their own mis-education, especially in colleges of education, but also to the limited privileges teachers have, like health benefits.

I am interested in building a mass base of class conscious people (who, for example, recognize that the working class and the owning class have only contradiction in common), people within a caring community, people who are willing to take serious risks and at the same time are willing to see that discipline and organization are necessary to reach into a world where we can live reasonably creative, more or less equitable, free lives.  I want people to become less alienated, more responsible for our own histories, if not our birthrights.  I want to get rid of capitalism.  That is a pedagogical and practical project.

I put the question to all other reformers: Toward What End? If that question is unanswered, then all that happens is more of the same, perhaps in new forms, running on capital’s many treadmills: nationalism, hierarchy, mysticism, racism, sexism, irrationalism, more wars, etc.

Opposition to curricula regimentation, high-stakes exams, child abuse, can only be carried through if it is connected to the source of those problems, to capital and its need for a docile, uninformed, work force and witless military.  Winning gentler Big Tests and more “progressive,” scripted curricula, without building a base of people opposing capital itself, is not winning.  Even abolishing the No Child Left Behind (which is not going to happen) without an educational project that takes on capitalism is a hollow victory.

I see work in schools and in the military as central to that work for peace and justice in the de-industrialized US.  There are other key places, like the immigrant worker rights movement, but schools and the military are important because they are anchors to daily life.

Any plan of action, tactics, needs to be rooted in a careful examination of our current situation, both in general (an international war of the rich on the poor intensifying, and within that imperialist wars), and in specifics (in San Diego, for example, the heavy presence of the military, the connections of all schooling to the military industry, and the racist border, etc, or In Detroit the racist collapse of the entire city).  The general cannot be split apart from its particularities; they interact.

Of course, there are some answers in history to our current situation, but those answers are very limited, and are especially useful only in our criticism of past movements.  Our situation is quite different from what people have faced in the past.  We are in the midst of a technologically powerful empire that is not about to give up its domain with a whimper.

This is not the British Empire (which went out with fewer bangs but plenty of massacres in Africa) that had the US to hide behind and manipulate.  It is not Germany in the thirties when people could look to the USSR or the US.  It is not Japan in the thirties when people could look to the Chinese Red Army.  It is not the US mired in Vietnam in the sixties; the Iraqis are not the sane peasant nationalists of Vietnam.  Rome did not have the Bomb.

While there are some similarities to our context in the past, we are mainly in a unique, and very difficult, position.  The emergence of fascism in the US as a popular movement is quite real (80 million Christian fundamentalists, a historically illiterate population, a culture industry thriving on the “300,” misogyny, racism, the celebration of violence, coupled with nationalism and the direct rule of the rich).

The civil rights movement and the freedom schools of the 50’s and 60’s are good examples of both what can be done, and what should not be done.  After all, the civil rights movement, as Bob Moses honestly portrays in Radical Equations, was easily diverted from a mass movement for jobs, against racism, to a voting rights project directed by foundation grants.  While it would not be hard to find a dozen movements that turned out to be what they claimed to set out to oppose, surely the US civil rights movement would be one of them.  All those movements, from the Soviets to the civil rights movement, lost sight of the project of going beyond, transcending, the inequality and exploitation that capital requires.  Why do that again?

ACORN today is little more than a Rockefeller Foundation diversion–hardly an exemplary movement.

Myles Horton was, I think, more honest.  I suspect he would argue that we must connect the particularities of people’s lives today with the larger realities, like war and the emergence of fascism.  Or perhaps not.  It is hard to tell, Myles Horton was a reformer, above all, but he was not blind to his surroundings, and he was usually surrounded by Marxists of one kind or another.  What are the social conditions that might change Myles from a reformer to one who wants to transcend the system of capital? Well, maybe the reality of the brink of WWIII, financial collapse, the eradication of civil liberties, the clear exposure of all governments as corrupt, violent, unable to serve the need of masses of people, and impervious to reformist change.

Jean Anyon’s work has been pivotal in understanding education policy.  Her comment that “doing school reform without doing social and economic reform in communities is like washing the air on one side of a screen door,” stands as a lighthouse for beginning any discussion about education reform.  Her political economy of the Newark schools was path-breaking.  But her hopeless thought in “Ghetto Schooling,” that the only way out of the schools/community crisis is for the rich to give up their money makes no sense—as it is the result of a failure to really critique capitalism and its transformation.  The rich are not going to give up their money, and they are far less positioned to do that than they were in the 1960’s, when the US was still an ascendant capitalist nation.  Now the US is in rapid decline, badly positioned against imperialist rivals like China.

What is possible in Newark and Detroit and elsewhere is that people are positioned so they must fight to live, as in the California Grocery Strike, in the Detroit teachers’ wildcats, the student walkouts against this war, and the massive Mayday strike last year.

At issue is whether people will be able to make sense of the fights they must make, or will they make the same errors and lose, again? That is a question of education and organization.

Organizing 101 is not merely listening to people and synthesizing their problems as social, not merely individual, problems; but also having a sense of where you want to go, and being able and unafraid to communicate that.  A good part of the reluctance to talk about capitalism is the fear that people will either not understand, or be scared off by it, that they have to be walked through to the reality of capital on baby steps.

That’s not true in my experience.  This process of one-step-at-a-time teaching and learning surely seems odd when it comes from people steeped in Whole Language, ie, a desire to withhold the real Whole (capitalism) from people in order to walk them through a process (sound out the parts of the social system but never view the whole of it) which it is assumed they cannot understand in discussions or in reading.

The idea of hiding one’s politics (if that is the case, and if it is not, then just what are one’s politics?) is commonplace on the left.  To make a small leap, it winds up with the people who need to know about left politics not knowing, and the people who do not need to know, like the cops, knowing all about it.  Such was the CPUSA, the SWP, and many others.

I agree with Kathy Emery (whose book with Susan Ohanian says nearly all that needs to be said about capitalism and education) in that we need to build close personal ties with people, real principled friendships, especially anti-racist friendships, and that the Education Roundtable petition is a good starting point for organizing.  It can, as we have seen, expose the absolutely corrupt leadership of the NEA and AFT, for example.

The petition does not, however, ask people to take control over their own lives, to be truly class conscious.  Instead, it asks others (corrupt politicians on the Gates’ payroll for example) to act for us and, at the end of the day, that will not happen.  Nor is it an especially good idea to have an mass of education school grads writing the national curriculum, especially not when more than 90 percent of them are white and middle class.  There is not going to be a good national curriculum until there is sufficient strife to cause an elite retreat, as in the sixties when the curriculum got briefly interesting.  In the absence of a social movement, of organization: nothing.  Power only bends to power.

The US ruling class is not going to be voted out of the Iraq oil fields and it is not going to be petitioned out of the school mind-fields, the pipelines for wars, militarism, and voluntary nationalist servitude.

It is possible that civil strife will hasten the retreat of the empire, in schools and out.  Surely the invasion of Detroit by the 82nd Airbourne, recalled from Vietnam in 1967 to fight Americans, would be a good historical example.  Thousands of jobs, indeed tens of thousands of jobs, were won as a result of that uprising.

Even so, however, this situation today is much different, the empire’s rulers much more desperate and even more ruthless because of that.  Witness what was done to New Orleans when racism merely connected to nature.  Imagine what would happen if Detroit went up again.  It might.  For black people in the US, the situation is already nearly intolerable.  What will educators do?

There are debates about how organizing is done.  One can seek the lowest common denominator of complaints that an organizer finds in a community, build a centrist base around that, and see where it goes.  This, however, abandons a broader outlook and typically winds up with, at best, very short term effects, a la Alinsky.

The better way to organize is to organize the left, find the more antiracist, more militant, more internationalist, more dedicated people, organize them and have this left move the center.

Boycotts of the tests and driving military recruiters off campuses–all that has already happened without sophisticated structures and lines of communications—though surely it would be better if those elements were in place, and if we could successfully link the boycotts to freedom schooling on or off campuses.

Test boycotts, or driving military recruiters off campuses, do not happen because they are simply announced, but are the product of many factors, including working with parents and students over time, walking door to door in communities, building reputations, taking smaller actions like demanding toilet paper and books in Detroit or exposing the recruiters’ lies in San Diego.  But any action at some point requires some one to get it going, and far too few teachers have been willing to gird up the courage to halt what is obviously child abuse.

Teachers do not have to be missionaries for capitalism, and schools its churches.  School workers have far more freedom than most other workers.  Self-censorship, however, remains powerful in schools where freedom is typically overwhelmed by (often unwarranted) fear; a real inversion of any educational effort.

Teachers now participate in the oppression of kids, and themselves, as we see wages and benefits attached to test scores—as we predicted a decade ago.  Part of the reason for that is that thinking teachers have few people to talk to, are isolated, and they know they do not have the power to defend putting real critical thinking into classroom reality.  Isolation and fear can be answered by organization.

The Rouge Forum is the only organization in the US that has not only linked capitalism, war, and schooling, but has also led conferences that include school workers, profs, k-12 nd university students, parents, community and cultural activists, and rank and file labor leaders—and led test boycotts, massive walkouts against the war, helped organize demonstrations against the wars and racism.  Take a look at the recent Rouge Forum conference in Detroit http://www.rohan.sdsu.edu/%7Ergibson/rouge_forum/EducationActionPostConference.htm.

There are many voices inside the Rouge Forum: Democrats, anarchists, libertarians, marxists, Greens, four troops in Iraq, profs in the UK and South Africa, teachers in the Caribbean, students from the US now in Oaxaca, unaligned students and teachers, etc.

The leadership of the Rouge Forum is shifting to younger people and a more open, transparent, structure is under discussion.

We have organized people across the divisive boundaries of union membership, race, age, occupation, and nation.  We created a community where educators can meet with others who share similar, intelligent, views—and where passionate debate is mediated by friendship.

We have conducted action-research about the US unions, especially the school unions, and demonstrated how the organizations are structurally incapable of meeting the crisis at hand (dividing people more than uniting them), why it is their leadership is completely corrupt (bribed by the high salaries, more than $450,000, that imperialism offers them in exchange for promoting the nationalist idea that school workers, politicians, and the US Chamber of Commerce have common interests), and most importantly, we helped people work inside the unions, and out, for justice and peace.

We have led strikes in schools and supported strikers (like the California Grocery strikers) outside schools.  We recognize that without the working class, a schools-based movement cannot sustain itself.  But students can surely initiate resistance, as can school workers, especially when hope is eradicated from schooling: France, 1968.

With an “injury to one only goes before an injury to all,” outlook, we have learned how to defend our friends (as the unions surely will not) on the job and off.  Our collective, online and in person, has helped school workers keep their ideals and still teach.

We already have a more than a decade of experience of how that can be done.  We have also offered self-criticism about where we went wrong.  We have joined a variety of community groups in coalitions against the war and in developing real, practical, strategic plans.  http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~rgibson/strategicplanningSD.htm 

We have attempted to link test boycotts with freedom schooling, with only a little success.

We’ve had fun, using guerrilla theater to disrupt the workings of the Testistos, organized regular social gatherings around films and books, promoted artists and musicians in the movement.

We have researched the tests, the scripted curricula, and published extensively in books, the popular press, and academic journals.  Our web page gets 32,000 “hits” a month and serves as a useful research tool (www.rougeforum.org).

We have supported Substance News, edited by George Schmidt, as a central voice for education and community activists, a voice of our own.  We can never rely on the good graces of the corporate press.

We continue to work in many community based groups.  Many if not most of us recognize that coalitions that seek to combat a ruthless enemy that has a centralized command system can be shattered like glass under pressure and will not prevail; nor do we support the identity-politics movements that reduce social movements to the lowest denominators of human life, divided along lines of nation, sex/gender, etc.  We recognize the need to fight racism and to demolish the divisions among us, before they are used to demolish us.

We struggled to combat the individualism and careerism that is endemic in the academy and among middle class school workers, resulting in a fear of organization and, hence, more powerlessness.

The founders of the Rouge Forum have demonstrated in practice that we are not out to be somebody, to become icons, but rather we have sacrificed to collectively do something important.  We recognize that organizing is always humbling.

There is room in the Rouge Forum for nearly any educator, student, community or cultural activist, and parent who wants to find a place where they can exert the creativity they cannot exercise in other parts of life, and where what we do actually counts.

You are welcome to join us.  Just email rgibson@pipeline.com 

Should the US choose to attack Iran, and many indications are there that say the ruling class will as they must have that oil and regional control (http://www.umich.edu/~twod/writing/z_iran_28apr06c-wkg.pdf ) , then our situation will probably change dramatically, with an even more rapid attack on civil liberties coupled with sharpened economic assaults on life in schools and at work, that is, a draft becomes more likely, freedoms to teach or organize on campuses will diminish, wages and health benefits come under attack, as the war costs come home.  That could lead to a profound economic crisis, or not, and it could also rachet up propaganda for a fascist mass movement.

Such is our current situation.

There is a story about a frog in a well who became an expert on what it believed was all of the sky.  Our current context demands an organization that can see a larger sky than the one viewed from the bottom of a well.

All the best, r “


1 Response to ““I put the question to all other reformers: Toward What End?””

  1. 1 Harold Bell April 2, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    What a powerful article I shared it with all the teachers in my family and with many of my friends

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