Chapter 3 Radical Teaching and Social Movements: Historical Legacies



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Chapter 3

Radical Teaching and Social Movements:

Historical Legacies
I refuse to add my voice to that of the ‘peacemakers’ who call upon the wretched of the earth to be resigned to their fate. My voice is in tune with a different language, another kind of music. It speakes of resistance, indignation, the just anger of those who are deceived and betrayed. It speaks, too, of their right to rebel against the ethical transgressions of which they are the long-suffering victims” (Freire, Freedom 93).

Radical Teaching from Below


Ever since I began teaching composition there has been one question, one problem, that has stayed with me. As a radical teacher, I have wondered who it is that I am actually serving and how the classroom does or does not contribute to building social movements. Paulo Freire’s work has, of course, been crucial in my thinking about the role of literacy in political change. But most of Freire’s teaching was grounded in the communities of the oppressed: peasants, urban unemployed, poor post-colonial subjects. The majority of students that I have taught are literally worlds away from the people Freire worked with. As Cy Knoblauch suggests, critical and radical teachers in the U.S. face the challenge of defining a pedagogy that deals with the specific context of teaching students who in many if not most cases are from the “dominant culture” (14-5). Many radical and critical educators in this nation’s colleges and universities have been cautious and at times highly critical of appropriating Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed for the purposes of critically educating first-world college students. For example, Patricia Bizzell warns of “denaturing” Freire’s marxism by taking his ideas of “critical consciousness” or “dialogic pedagogy” out of the context of his commitment to revolutionary politics (53). Likewise, Kathleen Weiler argues that Freire is often read in the developed world outside of the material and political settings of Latin America and not as an easily transportable method (15). Indeed, I think that radical educators have taken very seriously Freire’s request that he not be “imported” but that U.S. educators “recreate and rewrite” his pedagogical theories (Macedo xiv). The questions that concern me have less to do with how appropriate it is to apply a pedagogy of the oppressed to more privileged, first-world students. Rather, I am more interested with who gets to define what counts as literacy; in other words, literacy for what and for whom?

Composition has long struggled with two apparently conflicting projects: educating students for critical democratic citizenship and ensuring students become fluent in the literacy practices of the existing social order—what Anne Ruggles Gere refers to as the opposition between the “equity and gatekeeping” functions of writing in higher education (122). Can writing teachers train students for “success” in a patriarchal, racist, capitalist social order, while at the same time help develop literacy practices that contribute to undoing that social order? What kinds of literacy practices do radical writing teachers presume are necessary for undoing the existing social order? Collaboration? Writing as a process? Cultural critique? All of these are important components of critical literacy, no doubt. However, I have wondered how these particular practices could be rethought from the vantage point of social movements.

Many on the left have been frustrated by the apparent lack of any identifiable upsurge in large-scale social movements during the neoconservative backlash following the 1960s and 1970s. This is not to say there has been a lack of activism or social movements. During the 1980s thousands of activists worked to end apartheid, resisted U.S. imperialist aggression in Central America, fought for gay and lesbian rights, struggled against homelessness, and protested against the austerity measures imposed by the Reagan/Bush administrations. In the 1990’s, there was an upsurge in resistance to the reimposition of the death penalty, environmental destruction, sexual harassment, and privatization. However, when compared to the mass mobilizations in support of Civil Rights and an end to the war in Vietnam, the post-60s period appeared marked by fragmentation and inactivity. This feeling of decline was further accelerated by the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989. Many on the left were already deeply critical of the Soviet Union as a desirable example of a socialist society; however, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became even more difficult to deflect and contest neo-conservative claims that capitalism had proven to be the only practical way to organize a democratic society.

In 1999, however, the bleak outlook for radical politics suddenly changed. In November of that year, over 40,000 activists—union members, feminists, environmentalists, anarchists, socialists, anti-death penalty activists, indigenous rights advocates, and others—converged in Seattle, Washington, to bring a halt to the meeting of the rule-making body of the neoliberal trading regime, the World Trade Organization. Many people, including many on the left, were completely taken off-guard by this new movement. There appeared to be no central leader, no unifying slogan that could be easily packaged into evening-news sound bites, and seemingly no precedent. Instead, WTO delegates and the world were given a glimpse of a highly decentralized, heterogeneous, yet surprisingly organized anti-corporate globalization movement. These new activists were media-savvy, radically democratic, and privileged direct action and civil disobedience over more traditional mass marches.

The rise of this, or I should say these, new movements poses new questions for radical teachers that can contribute to a rearticulation of critical pedagogy—an adjustment that takes into account the literacy needs of these new social movements. Critical and radical teachers have made good use of marxist, feminist, queer, and anti-racist theory, but I continuously come back to the question of how these critical and radical theories contribute to building social movements with the power to transform society. One of the problems critical and radical teachers face is a lack of experience in directly working in social movements. That is, critical pedagogy has been articulated, in large part, as a critical academic praxis. Over the past few years, however, it seems that a growing number of critical composition teachers and scholars are looking for ways to connect classrooms and communities through service-learning, participatory research, and public writing. In addition, composition scholars such as Karyn Hollis, Susan Kates, and Jane Greer have recently begun to examine historical examples of critical and radical education in workers’ education programs, activist rhetorics, and independent socialist colleges.1

In her 2001 book, Activist Rhetorics and American Education, 1885-1937, Susan Kates argues that critical education in the United States has a history that predates critical pedagogy. Kates argues that “many of the aims of critical education outlined by Freire and others were envisioned and enacted long before the second half of the twentieth century” through what she calls activist education (Kates xii). Activist education, according to Kates, refers to “rhetorical study that pursues the relationship between language and identity, makes civic issues a theme in the rhetoric classroom, and emphasizes the responsibility of community service as part of the writing and speaking curriculum” (xi). Unlike the institutional histories with which many in composition studies are familiar, Kates’s text focuses on critical educational experiments that took place both within and outside of the “official” institutional environments of early-twentieth-century colleges and universities. She examines educational experiments that focus on “particular student constituencies and the ways in which their marginalization in the larger culture became a focus of the course content, forming the basis for assignments that asked them to interrogate their status and that of other members of their community”: women in the case of Smith College; black Americans in the case of Wilberforce University in Ohio; and working-class men and women in the case of Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York (1). Each of these institutions “situated language and communication courses in explicitly political terms, offering students the opportunity to turn their attention to the causes of their own disenfranchisement so that they might better intervene in the project of helping other women, African Americans, and members of the working class to improve their own circumstances in society” (Kates 13-4).

Kates opens up lines of inquiry for present day radical and critical composition teachers in so far as she demonstrates how questions of the politics of teaching and literacy were addressed in the past. As she argues, “if we do not have a sense of the ways in which some of our present concerns have been addressed or ignored in the past, the solutions we attempt to generate will suffer as a result of our failure to attend to the educational treaties, curricula, and educational policy generated in other times” (19). As Paulo Freire argues it is crucial to foreground the specificity of the present historical moment because “it is in the concrete, dynamic, and contradictory present that the battle is waged from which the future emerges” (Letters 153). However, past struggles also “generated a culture of resistance as an answer to the violence of power” (87) and by “understanding its contradictory movements, it is possible to perform better in the present” (153).

I am interested in building on Kates’s project of recovering legacies of activist education and considering if and how they may be useful in rethinking radical teaching in the present moment. I think this is particularly important in the light of the emerging social movements against corporate globalization. How can radical and critical educators contribute to building these movements and prevent, as much as educators can, the pitfalls social movements have historically confronted in the face of what seems at times to be impossible odds? Kates’s study considers a range of educational practices from the more liberal—Smith College—to the more radical—Brookwood Labor College. In this chapter, I want to extend her inquiry by considering some of the more radical, extra-institutional educational experiments in the U.S. during the first part of the twentieth century. While Kates studies a range of critical educational spaces, I want to look at how radicals turned to education to assist the literacy needs of radical social movements. Admittedly, the activist education experiments I will look at are at times deeply problematic, contradictory, and idealistic, but they share two common characteristics: they emerged from below, and they insisted on the need to remain autonomous. That is, these critical educational practices grew out of the concrete needs of participants in social movements who turned to education as a means of strengthening and expanding them. Furthermore, each attempted to create “free spaces” or “autonomous zones” outside the immediate control of dominant institutions.

In particular, I will be looking at three radical educational experiments that grew out of early twentieth-century radicalism: the Modern School Movement, the Workers’ Education Movement, and the Highlander Folk School. The Modern School Movement was founded by anarchists, most notably Emma Goldman, and was inspired by the Moderna Escuela founded by the Spanish anarchist Franscisco Ferrer at the turn of the century. Following Ferrer’s execution at the hands of the Spanish government for his political activities, Goldman and others turned to establishing Modern Schools in the U.S. to continue his work and to build on an anarchist movement that was gaining ground.

The Workers’ Education Movement that I will be examining is distinct from the more widely known workers’ education programs of the New Deal Era. The New Deal workers’ education programs were either government-sponsored or were established in cooperation with colleges and universities.2 In contrast, the Workers’ Education Movement I consider was established by and for the left-wing of American labor unions, best known for founding several labor colleges between 1900 and 1940.

Finally, the Highlander Folk School was founded by Miles Horton and Don West in rural Tennessee in 1932. Highlander, by far the most successful of the three, still exists today as the Highlander Center for Social Research outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, despite years of harassment by the government and right-wing organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Studying these historical examples can open up questions for how radical and critical teachers of composition conceive of literacy and the relationship between social movements and composition in this neoliberal era.



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