I have had an ambivalent relationship with formal schooling.
In a small town high school on the edge of the the cornfields of the rural US, my teachers gave a good student like me a lot of freedom. It was not unusual for me to skip class to organize school events, contribute to an “underground” student newspaper (I’m sure now that everyone on staff was more amused than threatened), or get into debates with school board members. Everyone knew that I was aiming for college, and I knew that I had to do enough of formal high school work to get there, but no one ever, ever talked to me about making sense of the *which* colleges might work for me. I figured out how to get to college pretty much on my own.
And that felt wonderful when I was 18, but I know only now that there were many other choices open to me.
My college was a pretty innovative place for a regional state school, and I designed my own undergraduate major, and then also enrolled in a University Without Walls program that allowed me to do a great deal of self-directed learning in the community. I figured most of this out on my own, too, and was pretty proud of myself for so rarely checking in with advisors.
And I know now how much I didn’t know then, and think back to how I would have done things differently.
After college, five of us moved to a very low-income community in Southern Appalachia to live in intentional community while we worked out how to contribute to positive change in the region. We were flat broke and had no way to earn money there, but we believed strongly in this non-materialistic leap of faith. We believed that our education had been about preparing us to build a more just world, not about getting jobs for our own economic mobility.
And I was shocked when new friends there doing similar work– friends who looked and sounded like us — instead talked casually about how their parents would be buying them their first houses when they decided to go back home and how they’d been given their cars as gifts. For all the good they were doing, these people had generous safety nets cushioning their choices. I had no idea at that point in my life that any parents bought house and cars for their kids. I was stunned that I was learning this amidst the deep poverty all around us.
And I was more stunned that these friends assumed that the five of us, who were literally living on faith that this would all work out, were just like them.
That is not a story of self-righteousness. It’s a story of academically successful young people committed to and well-read in social justice who still had no idea of the depth of inequality in their childhoods.
So when I think about anarchist education, I share with Maha Bali my concern about how our #moocmooc readings give no acknowledgement power differentials amongst human beings and about how this power plays out in positioning people around silence and voice, quite apart from formal government authority.
And Sarah wrote:
This picture of anarchism is not a world without rules, but a society without a ruler. Anarchy is not, as some have thought, a place of chaos, it is the freedom to think for ourselves.* It comes with a belief in the ability of humans to think for themselves, and to act from their conscience as an inner policeman rather than out of fear of punishment. I may be dubious that such a society can ever come to pass, but I hold it as an ideal and dream of a society where I can skip around and smell the pretty flowers.
Yes. I want to skip and smell flowers too :).
My theoretical grounding comes from sociology, and I’ve come to understand that power and status differentials are deeply embodied and played out in the thousands of encounters in daily life. Andrew Sayer says:
Condescension, deference, shame, guilt, envy, resentment, arrogance, contempt, fear and mistrust, or simply mutual incomprehension and avoidance, typify relations between people of different classes.
Betsy Leondar-Wright studied social class dynamics within a range of social movements in the U.S. and found
Two-thirds of members of anarchist groups came from the professional-range of backgrounds. Their mean class background was the highest of any movement tradition.
My young adult self believed strongly in much of what I read in the Shantz chapter for #moocmooc this week. And that young adult self had no idea of the deep class differences between me and others who shared those beliefs; nor did many of my more privileged idealist peers have any sense of the social distances between us.
My older self has read and taught and thought a great deal more about how we don’t simply live under the authority of the state, but that inequality is internalized in ways that create silence, exclusion, contempt, and access to very different opportunities for “thinking for oneself” when many of us still have no idea what is even possible or how others have had access to very different ways of thinking about themselves in the world.
Richard Rodriquez, writing of his own very different ambivalent relationship with formal schooling and the distance it created between him and his family and culture, wrote that in the end, his education at least had given him language to understand what had happened to him and his family so that he could step away from merely moving through the system to make different kinds of decisions and to bring his critique to the system.
And this week has helped me to deepen my sense of why I teach and why I continue to hope –against much of the evidence — that our schools and colleges can become places where poor and working class people learn to name their own experiences and to speak on their own behalf, and where privileged students learn of their privilege and thus learn to listen much more than they speak, and from this can come more democratic ways of governing ourselves together.
We’re far far from that ideal now in school and university.
But that’s still where I place my waning hope, and the readings this week only strengthened that for me.