Chapter 3 Radical Teaching and Social Movements: Historical Legacies


Autonomy and Social Movements Today?



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Autonomy and Social Movements Today?

Each of the educational movements I have considered in this chapter explicitly recognized the need for institutional autonomy as part of educating for social change. These radical schools conceived of literacy in broad terms that included valorizing vernacular language, collective definition, and particular strategies for intervening in the existing hegemony. While writing and language skills were important in these institutions, it can be argued that they began in a different place from most academics. That is, each of these institutions began by responding to literacy needs of particular social movements. Formal language instruction was a tactical issue for social movements—that is, the schools recognized the importance of being able to write in official dialects in order to make their case in public forums such as newspapers. However, learning the official dialect was not a prerequisite for oppositional literacy. All of these schools emphasized that using academic language or even “proper English” could actually interfere with one’s ability to organize. Each school developed educational programs to speak to the communities they sought to serve and help develop the skills necessary for building revolutionary movements. While the Modern Schools and the Labor Colleges could not sustain themselves once the movements that had supported them had faded or had been crushed by the state and official political institutions, Highlander continually sought out emerging social movements. As shown above, Highlander’s goal was to eventually make its presence in social movements obsolete by helping foster grassroots leadership.



As movements against neoliberal globalization take root on campuses, in communities, and throughout the world, critical and radical composition teachers can benefit from the legacies of the educational experiments I considered in this chapter. In particular, how can critical and radical teachers rethink the relationship between classroom pedagogy and the literacy needs of social movements? Is it even possible to create autonomous educational spaces in this age of neoliberalism? Have colleges and universities become so intertwined with the needs of corporate America that they cannot be sites for radical social change? In the next chapter, I will discuss several recent developments in composition that offer possibilities for reconsidering questions of autonomy and social movements. Composition’s recent interest in service-learning, public and counter-public spheres, and critical technological literacy offer important bridges to reconnecting critical and radical pedagogy to the new mass movements against neoliberal globalization.

1 See, Hollis; Kates; Greer.

2 See Joyce Kornbluh’s A New Deal for Workers’ Education: The Workers' Service Program, 1933-1942 for an overview of these programs. In this text, Kornbluh argues that much of the workers’ education programs of the New Deal were grounded in Progressives’ faith in enlightenment rationality as the means to achieve labor’s participation in American democracy. Kornbluh states that “the link [Progressives] drew between reason and action was conceived of in naturalistic terms: reasonable people would discover a way to organize society and would act accordingly. In the process, they would naturally shed the petty interests and class entanglements that prevented social cooperation. The prerequisite for this happy outcome was not a political program or mobilization for collective action, but education in democratic thinking” (Kornbluh 22). The labor colleges that I consider here openly advocated for a positioned and politicized education.

3 Most of the texts I refer to below use the male pronoun as a generic pronoun. I have not changed, or placed a knowing “sic” next to these instances. I feel that any attempt to try to compensate for the use of the use of the male pronoun can potentially avoid the ways in which “he” or “man” did refer to a male subjectivity even though the intention may have been to be more inclusive.

4 Emma Goldman used this term to describe de Cleyre in her 1932 book, Voltarine de Cleyre, published shortly after de Cleyre’s premature death at the age of 45 (41).

5 Parsons was African-American, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, an active speaker and writer in the radical labor movement publishing “newspapers, pamphlets, and books,” traveling and lecturing around the country, and leading demonstrations for over fifty-five years (Ashbaugh 7-8).

6 See, for example, articles published in Emma Goldman’s magazine, Mother Earth Bulletin: a reprint of a circular issued by the International League of Rational Education, “Rational Education,” in November 1908; “Activity and Passivity of the Educator,” in March 1907, written by a future Modern School teacher, Elisabeth Burns Ferm; Victor Robinson’s “College Education,” in April 1907; Emile Janvion’s “Libertarian Instruction,” in June 1906. According to Paul Avrich, as established by Ferrer, the Modern Schools were “in the direct line of educational tradition which, rooted in eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century romanticism [and] involved a shift from an emphasis on instruction to an emphasis on the process of learning” (Modern School 7). Furthermore, Ferrer drew heavily on the work of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy (7).

7 Emma Goldman was careful not to over emphasize Ferrer as the “founder” of Modern Schools, while still acknowledging his role in the Modern School movement and how his execution fueled the formation of Modern Schools in the U.S. She writes, “Francisco Ferrer, the Anarchist and teacher? Yes, but there were other Anarchists and teachers: Louise Michel and Elisée Reclus, for instance, beloved by many…Francisco Ferrer, the founder of the Modern School? But, then, the Modern School did not originate with Francisco Ferrer, though it was he who carried it to Spain. The father of the Modern School is Paul Robin, the latter-day Dr. Pascal,--old in years, with the spirit of Spring, tender and loving, he taught modern methods of education long before Ferrer. He organized the first Modern School at Cempius, near Paris, wherein children found a home, a warm, beautiful atmosphere. Again, there is Sebastian Faure and his Beehive. He, too, has founded a Modern School, a free, happy, and harmonious place for children. There are scores of modern schools in France, yet no other man’s death will act as a fertilizing force as that of Francisco Ferrer” (Goldman, “Ferrer” 276).

8 For an excellent analysis and social history of the radical movements in Barcelona in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, see Temma Kaplan’s, Red City, Blue Period. Her text does not discuss Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna, but provides an sense of the strong social and cultural traditions of radicalism that formed the context of the school.

9 For the most extensive treatment of the Socialist Sunday Schools, see Kenneth Teitelbaum’s, Schooling for “Good Rebels”: Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920.

10 In 1910, the International League for the Rational Education of Children—an organization founded by Francisco Ferrer that was influential in the Modern Schools—issued a manifesto addressing the decision to focus on education. Toward the end, the manifesto stated, “It will, perhaps, be objected that to realize our ideal of education completely, a social transformation must first be accomplished. We know it. But we also know that even within the narrow framework of present constraints and difficulties, we can do much. Our domain, because it is that of education, escapes to a certain extent the iron laws which elsewhere hem us in” (“International League” 158).

11 See, for example, Elizabeth Ferm’s article in the March 1907 issue of Mother Earth Bulletin, entitled “Activity and Passivity of the Educator.” In that article, Ferm argues against what she calls the “pedagogue” who seeks to “make and leave an impression on the child. The pedagogue is interested in the history of human affairs, but not in the affairs of the humans who form the class room” (Ferm 26). Ferm argues instead for the “educator” as the libertarian teacher. She writes, “The educator is the very antithesis of the pedagogue. The educator deals with and interprets to the child his present experience; the relation to the present moment, present hour, and present day to the child’s life” (26).

12 Montgomery states that working class activists “persistently sought to foster a sense of unity and purposiveness among their fellow workers through the spoken and printed word, strikes, meetings, reading circles, military drill, dances, athletic and singing clubs, and cooperative stores and to promote through those activities widely shared analysis of society and of the paths to the ‘emancipation of labor’” (2).

13 Kate O’Hare, a co-founder of Commonwealth College, a southern labor college, made similar arguments. She argued that “our public school system has developed into an efficient method of molding and shaping the growing generation to the ideals most useful to the exploiters of labor” (qtd. in Altenbaugh 88).

14 During the political turmoil at Brookwood Labor College in the late 1920’s caused by factional splits and conservative attacks against, both Dewey and Counts raised money to keep the college afloat (Altenbaugh 209-10). Both men also donated money to Commonwealth College and Counts served on the college’s advisory board. While the labor colleges had tremendous respect for Dewey’s pedagogy and drew heavily from his work, they did not always see eye to eye. Dewey, Counts, and other progressives were considered very much on the liberal end of education reform.

15 While this chapter deals only with independent labor colleges, it is important to note that many of the pedagogical practices and educational theories of the labor colleges owe a debt to several other workers’ education projects that predate the founding of the colleges. Some of the most ambitious examples were educational programs for women workers. These included the ILGWU’s Educational Department under the direction of Juliet Poyntz and Fannia Cohn and the National Women’s Trade Union Leagues’ education programs. Both sought to train women workers as labor organizers and union leaders. Both also saw the necessity to address the specific needs of immigrant women workers. These programs not only trained women workers as organizers and union leaders. They also provided a “counterpublic” space in which women were recognized as women workers within labor unions that were male dominated and often delegitimized women labor activists. The NWTUL also worked closely with feminists, providing a gendered critique of industrial cultural along side a class critique. For more on the ILGWU’s educational programs see Susan Stone Wong’s, “From Soul to Strawberries: The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union and Workers’ Education, 1914-1950.” For more on the NTWUL’s educational programs see Robin Miller Jacoby’s, “The Women’s Trade Union League Training School for Women Organizers, 1914-1926,” and Kathleen Banks Nutter’s, The Necessity of Organization: Mary Kenney O’Sullivan and Trade Unionism for Women, 1892-1912.

16 From Brookwood’s Twelfth Anniversary Review (Kates 96).

17 For the founding of the Workers’ Education Bureau, see Altenbaugh, pp. 38-39 and Howlett p. 54. For an overview of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, see Rita Heller’s, “Blue Collars and Bluestockings,” in Sisterhood and Solidarity.

18 For an excellent history of the National Women’s Trade Union School and Mary Kenney O’Sullivan’s role in founding the school, see Kathleen Banks Nutter’s, The Necessity of Organization: Mary Kenney O’Sullivan and Trade Unionism for Women, 1892-1912. See also, Robin Miller Jacoby’s, “The Women’s Trade Union League: Training School for Women Organizers, 1914-1926,” in Sisterhood and Solidarity.

19 Susan Kates suggests that while a high percentage of the students were women, they may not have had the same educational experience as men. This was owing to the pervasive sexism within the labor movement and the lack of an explicit commitment to feminism among Brookwood faculty and students. Kates writes, “most of the labor leaders who were educated at Brookwood and achieved prominent leadership positions in the labor movement were men. While male labor leaders (and Brookwood graduates) such as John Brophy, William Green, and Len DeCaux speak fondly of the school in their biographies and autobiographies, female labor activists (and Brookwood alumni) such as Peggy Dennis, Rose Pesotta, and Constance Ashton Myers are notably silent on this subject and make no mention of ever attending Brookwood at all. This silence in itself is curious and suggests that these and other women may have experienced Brookwood as another kind of learning environment entirely” (Kates 93).

20 The labor radicals who helped found Brookwood at the 1921 conference openly argued that the AFL must be reformed and one of their strategies was to “bore from within;” that is, to radicalize the rank and file, organizers, and leaders through education and overturn the existing structure of the AFL.

21 As Richard Altenbaugh argues, “The radical founders and supporters of the labor colleges, influenced and supported by progressive educators, saw education as playing a role in social change. They thought that pedagogy should involve students as active participants, encourage inquiry, and emphasize praxis. As part of the dialectic, such pedagogy was to become a liberating experience, both intellectually and socially, rather than an exercise in domination” (Altenbaugh 130).

22 Likewise, Caroline Abrams DeCaux recalled, “what made Brookwood so useful to me was precisely that much boasted absence of any one ‘ism’…To take this dissent away…is to strip the school of its greatest asset” (qtd in Howlett 230).

23 While both men helped found Highlander, Don West only remained at the school for one year. Even though the both remained committed to educating for social change throughout their lives, Horton and West did not see eye to eye on the role of the institution, how decisions about the school’s programs should be decided, and how closely the school should ally itself to political organizations (Glen, Highlander 33). West left Highlander in April 1933, and went on to found the Southern Folk School and Libraries in Georgia, and worked to support the struggles of Communists throughout the 1930s (33).

24 For a brief overview of Highlander’s history see Glen, “Like a Flower Slowly Blooming,” especially pages 31-43. The bulk of the essay is interested in the ways that Highlander’s work has helped contribute to the building of an Appalachian movement beginning in the mid-1960s. For a more thorough history, see Glen’s book, Highlander: No Ordinary School and Aimee Horton’s The Highlander Folk School: A History of Its Major Programs, 1932-1961. In addition to these more scholarly works, shortly before his death in 1990, Myles Horton published an autobiography, The Long Haul: An Autobiography that chronicles the founding of Highlander and Horton’s life-long involvement in the school. Of particular interest to critical educators is We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, a dialogue/interview with Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Aimee Horton’s text offers an excellent description of Highlander’s major program between 1932 and 1961. The four major programs she covers are its early community programs for poor Appalachian residents, 1932-1939; Highlander’s residential and extension programs for training union leaders with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1932-1947; an extension program that expanded its workers’ education programs beyond its residential programs to work directly with workers in the field; a short-lived and only moderately successful attempt to work with Appalachian and Southern farmers in forming a farmer’s union, 1944-1950; and finally, the most well-known of Highlander’s programs to train leaders for participation in the Civil Rights Movements, 1957-1961. Glen’s article “Like Flowers Slowly Blooming and the last chapter of his book, Highlander: No Ordinary School, document Highlander’s shift to building a broad-based Appalachian movement beginning in the early 1960s.

25 See John Glen’s bibliographic essay in Highlander: No Ordinary School, pp. 379-401.

26 Horton also referred to his approach to teaching as two-eyed, “with one eye he tried to look at people as they are, while with the other he looked at what they might become” (Ayers 152-3). See also Myles Horton. The Long Haul, pp. 130-132.

27 See, for example, John Glen’s description of Highlander’s involvement with the miners’ strike in Wilder, Tennessee, during the first year of the school’s opening (Glen, Highlander 29-33).

28 Horton wrote, “I took a hard look at utopian communes, which appealed to me because of their spiritual;, religious, and economic background. After I visited many of them over two or three years, I decided they were not close enough to what I wanted. They had withdrawn from the larger society and had only demonstrated what you can do if you withdraw. They don’t demonstrate what you can do to change society. So I discarded utopian communities as escapist” (M. Horton Long Haul 30).

29 See also, Horton and Freire, We Make the Road by Walking, pp.43-44.

30 Highlander’s use of music and song was most notable during its Civil Rights work in the 1950s and 60s. Some of the most famous songs of the Civil Rights movement such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” were taught to participants of Highlander’s Civil Rights workshops. While many of these song originated as African-American spirituals and labor songs, Highlander included them as part of its solidarity-building programs (A. Horton 243, Glen, Highlander 172). .



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