Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Discussion of "Education Scholars Have Much to Learn: An Essay Review of Jeannie Oakes's and John Rogers's Learning Power"

This essay is now available at Education Review Online here.

Welcome to a discussion of my review of Jeannie Oakes's and John Rogers's new book.

Please use the comment link, below, to add your contribution.

Let me start with one of my own critiques of my review. To some extent, the essay seems to set up a relatively stark binary between Dewey's vision of collaborative democracy and Alinsky's vision of mass-based social action. Of course this is too simple and leaves out many other models. I have left the review the way it is, however. Since an understanding of robust alternatives to Deweyan forms of democratic engagement is so lacking in the field of education, currently (at least in my opinion), it seemed enough of a task just to present Alinsky at some level of adequate complexity. But it's still a limitation of the essay.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't find the Learning Power review, but wonder why Dewey hasn't been deconstructed yet.

I can only comment that, once you read James Block's "A Nation of Agents," you will never think of Dewey in quite the same way. This is the only dissertation that I know of written up in Newsweek (or was it the NY Times?) with an endorsement by Martin Marty.

As for the Alinsky, I was trained by Ed Chambers of the IAF, and much of my educational activism grows out of that base.

I have to agree that Alinsky and Dewey are polar opposites, but both are leaders in their own way.

Dewey only became popular during the Great Depression, when the seams of the American Dream appeared to be coming apart, and the people needed something to believe it. Well, we need something to believe in even more now, and Dewey ain't it. Maybe Alinsky can help us to take back what is ours.

Dan W. Butin said...


I found the essay very well conceptualized and written. I will write, for now, just my immediate impressions. I’d like to expand on more of this later as to how it relates to a notion of community-based teaching and learning that I have been working through.

One of the really powerful points for me was that education scholars, and social scientists more generally, only bring to the table their worldview. Which is, if one thinks about it, obvious. So the real bang here is that such a perspective of educational scholars strengthening social justice practices in schools is—in terms of fostering actual change—pretty minimal. As such, the real key is to begin to figure out how educators can become a part of and foster spaces for such collaborative ventures as indicated in the last chapter as you reviewed.

What is left unquestioned and assumed in your review, though, is why exactly is social action a legitimate and necessary task for educational researchers. It leaves unexamined the activist nature of scholarship and places, potentially, an over-ambitious agenda for most educational scholars who are trying to just earn tenure. Are you really suggesting that future educational scholars need to take graduate coursework now in curriculum and instruction and social action? social foundations and community change? assessment and community organizing? There is a real need, it seems to me, for engaging the very legitimate and not rhetorical question of the role and value of public scholarship and the scholarship of engagement in higher education. Additionally, what is left un-discussed are the actual strategies by which educational change is fostered. This is a question for educational policy, leadership, and strategy. It is about knowing that one should align demands to the policy documents that are themselves aligned with publicity, funding, and power. That again appears outside of the purview of educational scholars.

Aaron Schutz said...

Thanks, Dan.

These are important points.

Yes, it is an overambitious goal for all education scholars. But I think it is a crucial aim for the field more generally.

First of all, I would argue (and did recently in an article in Review of Ed Research) that if we are really interested in educational reform, then we must be interested in approaches for generating social power over the long term. This I think is one of the key points made by Oakes and Rogers as well as Anyon, among others. Publishing research, or making posts about how horrible NCLB is (as Nick just did, above) is important. But without links to power it is unlikely to have much impact. I was in meetings with a number of key assessment scholars during the time NCLB was going through, and they were doing their damndest to argue against it. But had little impact. The same could be said about more local forms of educational reform. As Oakes and Rogers point out, “truth” doesn’t do much when you are trying to shift intransigent school districts and states, etc.

Second, again drawing from my RER article, if we are really interested in any kind of substantial local participation in schooling, be it parent participation or more, then we must learn how to generate structures in communities outside schools that can foster such participation. There is no evidence whatsoever that we can effectively do this on a broad scale from within schools.

Third, the question is whether we are about “education” or about providing students with the tools for success ane empowerment. To the extent that individual forms of education will not provide poor students with the capacities to succeed in a world where people on the bottom only gain power as collectives, we may end up doing the first without doing the second. I believe we must be about success defined more broadly, and thus I believe that we must think more carefully about how to engage students and their communities in processes that allow them to achieve this.

Realistically, I think what I’m calling for is the creation of spaces within schools of education for social action and community organizing scholars. The point is not that literacy and science ed professors need to be social action scholars. The point is that the field needs to embrace the need for this kind of knowledge and research as a central part of our charge. And if these scholars are in schools of education, and publishing in education journals and talking with literacy and science ed scholars, then we might see a broader shift, however limited, in what we think the task of “education” is.

As to actual strategies, well, that’s what we need more discussion and research about. But it isn’t just about “knowing”, even more impotantly it’s about “power.” If knowing about how power works and about how one responds effectively to the powerful is outside our purview, then we probably can’t expect to accomplish much more for impoverished students than we already have. And what have we accomplished, really? To cite just one statistic, almost 50% of black males (if not more) are jobless in my city right now. Is this our problem? I think it better be. Other people’s problem as well, sure, but our problem, our challenge, as well.

If education isn’t about “empowerment” then what is it about?

Aaron Schutz said...

[Comment from Henry M. Levin, reproduced by permission from email]

I liked your review of the Oakes-Rogers book very much. I found it
provocative in the best sense, although I would have to say that the
very faults that you suggest for Oakes-Rogers and for Anyon in terms of
dearth of "promising alternatives" is also reflected in your essay (and
much of my own work). Where we agree is that in the absence of broad
and strong social movements, we are tinkering at the margins. This was
a central point of the book that Martin Carnoy and I wrote on SCHOOLING

I should mention that John Rogers did his doctoral work, with me as
chair and with David Tyack and Denis Phillips constituting the other
faculty. He devoted his dissertation to a similar set of ideas that
underlie the projects in this book. We had many discussions about this.
I learned alot from John, and he was one of the first staff members in
our Accelerated Schools Project, coordinating the project at one of our
first pilot schools. I will never forget John explaining Dewey to the
staff members in this largely hispanic school where staff were mainly
preoccupied with the daily challenges of an urban school. Rogers
developed and adopted a Deweyan inquiry approach and discourse to their
reality, back in 1986. Teachers began to use John's language, asking
"what is the "problematic" (a noun like the problematique) that John had
stressed must be the focus of inquiry. What was interesting about John
was his concerted attempt to combine theory and praxis. [I also knew
and worked with Myles Horton in establishing democratic organizations
and worker cooperatives, but that is another story.]

One of the greatest puzzles for me is this notion that you and the book
assert that we can learn more from our failures than our successes. Let
us contemplate the proposed epistomology which underlies the this
research assumption, common to many educational policy studies. We
certainly know when we fail. By how can we be so sure of the precise
causes of failure that we can actually be arrogant enough to set out
prescriptive lessons for practitioners based upon what we have learned
from (their/our) failure. We can speculate why we failed; but that
should lead to reformulation and testing of the new formulation to see
if it succeeds before we become prescriptive. At best failure can give
guidelines for reformulating. It cannot give precise reasons that can
be translated into certain success. I am not sure that you caught this
in your review. Most educational research in field settings seems to
conclude that out of the failure we can create a list of conditions to
achieve success. I find that to be nonsense both philosophically and
practically. Look at the work coming out of the "Educational Change"
projects of Rand in the 1970's in which Berman and McLaughlin "show"
that top-down reforms don't work because they assume that
externally-imposed reforms are intact treatments designed to transform
inert organizations. They argue correctly that in actuality the
organizations are anything but inert and kick-back to transform the
reform or treatment far more than the treatment transforms the
organization. So far, so good. But, then they get into a prescriptive
mode in which they tell us what needs to be done to succeed. But, how
do they know this since they have not demonstrated success? No. No. No.
Since when does rejection of an hypothesis provide information on a
clear course of action that will lead to success?

It is not only real-world strategies that we lack, but also useful
research that does not claim that failure has led to triumphs. Failure
can only lead to speculation on what success might take. It cannot
identify and prescribe successful strategies. Much of educational
research today is premised on this faulty model."



Henry M. Levin
William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, Teachers
College, Columbia University and David Jacks Professor of Education and
Economics, Emeritus, Stanford University (1968-99)

Aaron Schutz said...

Professor Levin,

Thanks so much for your reply.

I basically agree with what you have said, and if I implied that I had the "answer" then I have not expressed myself well enough. The point in contrasting Dewey's vision with Alinsky's was not to say that one is absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong, or that there are not other ways to approach these issues. Instead, my central concern was that in education we have retained such a strong commitment to a particular form of Deweyan democracy that we tend to exclude other options because of our immersion in this pre-answer.

The truth is that there isn't any easy answer to these issues, as you and Cornoy I think also pointed out. The situation in our inner-cities is simply horrific, with black male joblessness approaching if not over 50%, and it's not clear how the powerless will be able to overcome the systemic oppressions they face. That said, we have to do *something*, and I believe that Oakes and Rogers are pointing us in the wrong direction.

Having worked for a number of years in community organizing efforts, I know how precarious and limited they are. Nonetheless, they have proved to have some effectiveness, and the models they draw from have managed to foster some level of collective efficacy.

I have been exploring some of the limits of this model myself in posts on this blog, discussing, for example, the ways in which this model struggles with fractures over race and class and religious traditions, etc.

I don't know what to do, in general. And, as you point out, anyone who thinks they have "the answer" is simply fooling themselves. I do know that community organizing is one effective option. And I do believe that our focus on Deweyan democracy tends to obscure more effective options like this. The point is not that Dewey is useless, as Rogers, Horton, etc., have shown, but that his is a very limited approach. The rest is an empirical/practical question.

But to the extent that the preunderstandings of the field of education tend to block explorations in arenas beyond those we are already familiar with, these preunderstandings need to be critiqued, a project I think you and Carnoy also have participated in.

Aaron Schutz said...

[Email comment from Glen McGhee reproduced by permission and reformatted to maintain sense]


I would go much further, and I think “deeper”, in criticizing the appropriateness of using Dewey for any kind of institutional change. The Oakes and Rogers Dewey isn’t Dewey at all.

I am basing this on the Dewey found in James Block, A Nation of Agents. Block relies on Steve Rockefeller’s book on Dewey, and Westbrook, and others. I am also using some older work that situates Dewey in the impacts of Darwinism on public policy, and also sociologist Randall Collins, Sociology of Philosophies 1998.

I first read Dewey 35 years ago, “A Common Faith” (Terry Lectures, published 1935). The title says it all, as far as I am concerned, since it points to Dewey’s collectivism and his Idealism. Both these elements, when reviewed in the context of Dewey’s intellectual development, exclude him from meaningful participation in the kind! s of power politics at the local school district level. (More appropriate IS Alinsky, as well as Gramsci, and perhaps Luhmann and Fuchs. See: http://home.earthlink.net/~fheapblog/id24.html)

[Commentary on Text of Review Interspersed With Quotes Follows]

TEXT FROM REVIEW CITED SUBSEQUENTLY AS SCHUTZ: Ultimately Dewey's goal, especially as expressed in Public and Its Problems (1927), was for each individual to be able to contribute his or her unique perspectives and ideas to the enormous and complex process of a "planning society" (Westbrook. 1990).

GLEN: Yes, but there are some things that need to be mentioned. Dewey never lost his religious base: he intended to enter the ministry, and taught Sunday school into his 30s (Collins). And the way he went from one fad to another, always hunting for fresh opportunities, gives him a history that we cannot ignore. Beyond his religious commitments, Dewey’s fads included a deep enthusiasm for the zeitgeist of Hegelianism (through G. S. Morris) and the inevitability of progress, early commitments to evolution in his understanding of “mind” (which, as did all the progressive reformers, Dewey turned on its head), along with G. H Mead at Chicago.

Most interesting for this reference to “planning” was Dewey’s transference of the all-important religious commitment of evangelism (from his mother) to the human “will” to progress and reform. Dewey’s social gospel roots are here as well. The “plan” is “democratic,” but this isn’t used in a political or procedural sense – it is through and through idealistic, and even allows (I suppose) a coercive element to achieve the “plan”. This is a bit of the collectivism that Dewey’s critics have attacked. Here, this is how I read this:

SCHUTZ: Key to this process was the initiation of all citizens into broad practices of experimental inquiry that would allow different "publics" to subject shared problems " 'to constant and well-equipped observation ... and ready and flexible revision.' " Dewey thus "placed common people in the foreground of public inquiry" while marking "out a limited role for experts" whose job it would be to support common citizens in their collaborative efforts (LP. p. 37). Instead of having experts decide public policy from their ivory towers, they would instead support the deliberation of everyday people, whose day-to-day experience gives them a visceral sense of the realities of the contexts in which they live. Through these collaborations between experts and common people, in! the dialogues and experimental efforts pursued by different, often overlapping democratic "publics." Politics would become "educative." With Oakes and Rogers, I find this vision quite compelling and I will argue that it is in conceptualizing new ways for scholars and non-scholars to work together that they have been most successful.

GLEN: Well, I think the role of the experts – WHAT role they DO have – is always going to problematic for Dewey. Look at the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer if you want to see the dark-side of Dewey. And Dewey cannot skip over it: he is himself, along with all of his Teacher’s College buddies, one of these experts dispensing pearls of wisdom for the needy masses below. (This comes through some of the religious empowerment of evangelicals: We are doing God’s work among the people.)

SCHUTZ: Part of the challenge of pursuing a Deweyan approach to social action, as Oakes and Rogers acknowledge is that Dewey was not very clear about exactly how enact it. Learning Power, then, represents an effort to transform Dewey's relatively vague ideas into concrete options for action.

GLEN: Exactly! Bravo!

SCHUTZ: The authors derive from Dewey's writings four key "principles" to guide their work. First, they aim to "engage those most affected by inequality." Second, they try to "ensure access to knowledge and its construction" in contexts where expert and everyday knowledge can interact with some equality. Third, they encourage participants to "adopt a critical stance," challenging the "hegemonic reach of prevailing ideologies" that can ""rationaliz[e] ... the misery and cultural degradation of others." Finally, they seek to encourage the development of "a transformative goal" (pp. 39-41). On the surface, it is difficult to find much to critique in these principles. I will argue, however, that Oakes and Rogers run into difficult problems when they seek to put them into effect.

GLEN: Yes, because there is a profound mis-match here. Dewey’s Idealism (“democratic ideal” he calls it) filters out what social movements use as their prima material. De Toqueville’s fear – that everyone going in their own direction could tear the fabric of society apart – is categorically denied by Dewey’s Idealistic orientation. This is, the way I see it, a denial of diversity in Dewey that precludes the kinds of power analysis that Alinsky advocates (I trained with Ed Chambers of IAF in the early eighties).

So, rather than a problem of scale [next paragraph], there is just a general inappropriateness here that you cannot get around. Now, you have to pay attention to group dynamics because they change considerably from one end of the scale to another. Small groups can be enormously powerful as generators of what Randall Collins calls “emotional energy.” However, keeping this going on a grand scale (think Nazi Germany) is something much more difficult. Often, we think something is working, but it isn’t – we just have succeeded in generating feelings that we are achieving our goals. The small group dynamics are masking the underlying power relations, which aren’t changing.

SCHUTZ: A key challenge they face is in scaling up Dewey's model for broad collective action efforts. As I have argued elsewhere, a Deweyan focus on the enhancement of individual distinctiveness amidst collective action can only occur when the number of participants is restricted (Schutz 2001a).

GLEN: Again, in the long term, this is quite alien to Dewey. His Darwinian roots and Meadian social mind allow that individuals differ, and this needs to be developed, but only insofar as it enables the individual to find their place in the “common wealth,” making their contribution by merging with the Public [see next para]. This, of course, is Dewey’s meritocratic “functional psychology.” O and R are ignoring all this: their Dewey isn’t Dewey at all.

SCHUTZ: In Dewey's model, the numbers of participants grow [and] the distinctness of individual voices is inevitably obscured. Hierarchy inevitably reemerges as particular representatives of different groups represent, however problematically, the larger number of interested individuals whose voices cannot practically be heard [Note 3]. The fact is that Dewey developed his model of democratic engagement in the small, relatively intimate spaces of classrooms, especially in his Laboratory School at the turn of the 20th Century. And while Dewey participated in a range of social change efforts later in life, his role was almost always as a ! thinker and speaker rather than as an organizer. My point is not that we must give up on the enhancement of individual voices in different ways amidst social action. However, the challenge of scale indicates that a Deweyan approach to social action, by itself, will prove unworkable in spaces much larger than the classrooms in which Dewey developed it and in which most educators spend most of their time.

GLEN: Again, the problem goes far beyond it being just a matter of scale. The problem is fundamental in Dewey. Let me include Note 3 and 4 here:

SCHUTZ: Note 3. Dewey was always careful to emphasize that one could not define ahead of time what would count as “democratic" for any specific group or context. He understood, for example, that it is necessary for some people to be leaders and others followers at different times for pragmatic reasons. Nonetheless, nearly all of his professional life he remained committed to a democratic ideal derived from the experience of face-to-fact communities, the kind of ideal described by Oakes and Rogers.

GLEN: [No, it is more than that. The “democratic ideal” is Hegelian. It is not without significance that Dewey’s ideas never really caught on until the Great Depression -- when it looked like the optimistic belief in America was being challenged – when the political seams of America, especially on Campuses like Columbia!, were on the point of breaking. This is when Dewey’s idealism as a “strategic fiction” found itself more in demand than before: just when it seemed less likely to be true! Add to this the responsibility shifted onto public school teachers, onto the Teacher’s College itself for shaping these young minds, and you are not far from state sanctioned collectivism. These, then, are the socio-political bases of Dewey’s longevity, now a patron saint of the CoEs. No wonder he hasn’t been deconstructed yet! ]

SCHUTZ: In essence, his Public and Its Problems (1927) was an effort to reconcile this ideal with the pragmatic demands of social order on a large scale. And he understood that he had failed. He acknowledged at the end of Public that "perhaps to most, probably to many, the conclusions which have been stated as to the conditions upon which depends the emergence of the Public from its eclipse will seem close to the denial of realizing the idea of a democratic public” (p. 185).

GLEN: [This is an astonishing admission to make! Thanks for rooting it out!]

SCHUTZ: The one possible solution he discussed during his lifetime, that a vast number of overlapping small communities might somehow cooperate without submerging individual voices, has been shown to be practically unworkable by Jane Mansbridge (1992) among others (see Schutz, 200la). In fact, the problems that scale create for discursive democracy of the Deweyan kind has been widely known to democratic theorists some at least the time of the Greek city states, and no one has ever been able to solve them (see Dahl & Tufte, 1973).

SCHUTZ: Note 4. … As far as I know, however, none of these efforts overcome the limitations of an exclusive focus on the kind of Deweyan democracy described by Oakes and Rogers.

GLEN: Exactly. Utopianism, progressive utopianism.

Now, as a long time community activist, these stories really got my blood boiling, angry.

SCHUTZ: In chapters Four and Five, Oakes and Rogers discuss two efforts they participated in that, whatever their positive accomplishments, ultimately seemed to have little impact on the condition of unequal power they had hoped to affect.

SCHUTZ: The first action the parents took was to conduct a survey of textbook availability and then to publish this in IDEA’s online journal, TCLA. But when the parents tried to engage policymakers and administrators they encountered the same kind of resistance visible in earlier chapters. After a few failed efforts, the parents found a lawyer and "filed an official complaint with the district." When this received no response, one of the parents "sent a seven-page, handwritten letter to the head of complaints" in the state that "meticulously documented 34 district violations, citing the appropriate section of NCLB in each case." This got the state involved and "negotiations between the district and Parent U-Turn ... resulted in a detailed agreement providing students with access to information and assurances of fill inclusion in district and school site planning and decision-making." And! the leaders of Parent U-Turn did not simply leave school administrators alone to implement the agreement, but kept up their monitoring role. At the same time, the leaders of this group have confronted "school officials publicly when these officials do not demonstrate respect for [other] parents" (LP, p. 123). In this and a range of other ways, Parent U-Turn clearly altered, sometimes in fundamental ways, the power dynamics of their schools.

SCHUTZ: Parent U-Turn also engaged in a range of larger mobilizations for collective action. For example, because these parent leaders were well informed about a range of policy issues, when the schools unilaterally declared that they would change the school calendar to deal with overcrowding issues, they were better able to challenge the basic assumptions underlying the district's efforts. As the authors note, however, "Parent U-Turn did not come to this work as an experienced grassroots group with a well-honed repertoire of social movement strategies and tactics," and their lack of access to such strategies is evident in the approaches the group took in response to the district scheduling conflict (LP, p. 128). To gather "a sizable community presence, several members of Parent U-Turn gathered outside Stanford [school] every morning to pass out ! flyers as parents brought their children to school." They put up posters and one of the leaders used her bullhorn each weekend, driving "slowly along each block ... to call on parents to refuse the district's mandate" (p. 125).

GLEN: But there is a problem: only parents that can AFFORD to take time off from work, only parents with time available for this, can do it! It is a sad commentary on our situation that, in order to have meaningful input, parents have to take time off from their jobs, to make sure that the schools do theirs. This is tragic. But I’ve heard this story over and over again. I, too, have experienced it as well. (My term for the institutional response to the parents is “hegemonic silence.” See War in Heaven/ Heaven on Earth, p. 32)

SCHUTZ: And because, unlike IDEA, the members of the EJC are actually connected to their members or other communities through a range of different relational avenues, they seem able to spread their "disruptive knowledge" in ways that are more likely to have a concrete impact on inequality. In fact, as Oakes and Rogers note, it is the "paid organizers of the EJC groups," the kind of professional organizers promoted so forcefully by Alinsky, who have the capacity to develop new leaders, “constantly bring[ing] new people into leadership roles and conven[ing] community members in making decisions and generating a collective vision" (LP, p. 148). This is something IDEA failed to do not just in the Futures and the TCLA examples, but also in the Parent U-Turn example, since they could not advise them about effective strategies.!

GLEN: This also highlights the disparity in the power relations involved.

SCHUTZ: Given Oakes's and Rogers's focus on Dewey, it is crucial to emphasize that the EJC activities are apparently limited to the same Deweyan practices of discursive democracy described in IDEA's earlier efforts. In this case, however, the fact that this limits the number of participants does not seem much of a problem. Because these groups are leaders of organizations and groups, they bring their connections to the wider world with then to the table.

Glen McGhee, Dir.,
Florida Higher Education Accountability Project

Aaron Schutz said...

I need some time to digest Glen's comments. A couple initial points.

First, I worry that you are being to harsh on Dewey. As Dee Miller Russel once said to me (I paraphrase since he's too kind to put it in these terms), "do you really think Dewey is that dumb?" While I generally agree and have argued elsewhere that Dewey's overall vision is utopian, the specifics of why it ends up this way are more subtle than I am sensing in your response. In fact, the utopianism results in some respect from the set of moral commitments he was following. And I think it is too simple to call Dewey a Hegelian idealist, even if aspects of his Hegelianism remained (see Garrison's thoughtful discussion of this in a recent Ed Theory).

It is also not entirely true that Dewey only became popular in the Depression. In fact, there was a broad middle-class progressive movement going on much earlier (think of Chataqua).

Second, I think the issue of who has the time and privelige to participate is key. But it isn't always those with privelige who can participate. In the Civil Rights Movement it was often those with nothing to lose that mostly participated, while the more priveliged stayed out of the fray in fear of losing what little they had. It is interesting, and perhaps somewhat telling, that Oakes and Rogers do not make clear exactly how the parents they work with had the time and the wherewithal to participate in Parent U-Turn. So I don't know what their story was.

But I do think we need to find ways to support low-income people to participate, and I have heard of models that provide child care, food, and small stipends. Youth action groups, for example, often provide stipends for key youth leaders. I wish I knew more about such approaches.

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose I should be happy with half-a-loaf! Yes, the ability to devote hours and hours to tally NCLB violations needs to be made explicit. EVERYTHING hinges on this, in the case described.

As for Dewey's ideological commitments: no, he was not "dumb" -- but history is! especially of social movements!

Deconstructing Dewey (as Block does) must assay the tides of popular movements: allowing women in the classroom (expansionary but semi-professional), thereby necessitating a boost (look what happened to clergy about the time of the Second Great Awakening - a different kind of revivalism, but with similar characteristics as Dewey); and the public school movement itself, and the expansion of public colleges, and their reaching out for intellectual assets to found CoEs with.

What I'm pointing out is that no one has taken the true measure of Dewey because they neglect his contexts. Dewey needs to be deconstructed!

Anonymous said...

I need to qualify my previous statement that Dewey was not dumb: he WAS dumb -- consider his early commitments to Hegelian idealism!

In fact, it took a banging Dewey on the head from William James and G. Stanley Hall to change his mind on Hegel! And THEN Dewey went in the exact opposite direction, his pragmatism being the result.

Dan W. Butin said...


First of all, I think it is wonderful you are getting such a discussion and constructive feedback. Have you emailed your review and this link to Oakes and Rogers?

I have two follow-up points. The first is that I still don’t think you’ve adequately addressed the “social action in the academy” argument. Let me be clear here in that I completely agree with your goal and your vision of education as linked to empowerment. But it seems to me, especially if you are writing further about this, that you are able to deflect the argument that the academy is solely about the pursuit of truth. Stanley Fish makes the strongest case for this (see his Chronicle article “Aim Low”, which is far from a screed; he has a very well thought through theoretical argument). He makes the case that there is a clear line between scholarship and advocacy in the academy. And it seems to me that any scholar whose work is activist needs to be able to defend themselves against such a charge. This is one reason, by the way, that I have written about the creation of “community studies” departments: it formalizes and routinizes community work within the very structure of the academy. There is, moreover, the real need to define our terms when we speak of “power” and “empowerment.” None of these are obvious.

The second comment is that you need to speak more about exactly where you are, for it seems to me that you have, in UW, Milwaukee, an exemplary model of convergence of community education and educational scholarship. From what I know about your department from the outside, it is one of the few places that genuinely creates linkages between the community and the academy. CSU-Monterey Bay, Portland State, UC Santa Cruz Community Studies department, and Univ of Pennsylvania come to mind; but the real examples are few and far between. I think a healthy dose of empirical data can strongly support your theoretical argument.

Hope this is helpful.


Aaron Schutz said...

Thanks for these great questions, Dan!

I actually emailed a copy of the review to Oakes and Rogers at the same time I originally submitted the essay to ER, but never received a response from either of the authors. I was hoping they might at least point to places where they thought I'd misread them. In any case, I told them I hoped they'd write a response.

After reading the Fish article, I think I have a better understanding of where you are coming from. It's important to understand that I'm not talking about morality or "therapeutic" education, here. Community organizing and effective social action involves a range of pragmatic skills and concepts. These are mostly neutral. In fact, the right wing uses many of them much more effectively than the left, although they often focus on different ones given their different set of values. The KKK uses social action tactics too. The point is not to make sure other people necessarily engage in social action. The point is to make sure they are exposed to the history, concepts, and skills that might allow them to if they wish. What they do with these, we can't control. (Although what would I do if a KKK member showed up in my organizing class. . . . ?)

And I'm not sure that creating effective parent engagement organizations, for example, is really that radical. It could be. I hope it might be. Some of what you can do with these techniques is radical. Some isn't.

The fact is that the powerful know these approaches much better than the powerless. So to the extent that we fail to teach them to inner-city students, for example, we are basically deciding to leave them to their own devices.

Don't we have a responsibility to teach these basic skills and concepts of effective citizenship? I'm not sure in this respect what I'm arguing for is much different than what early progressives wanted. They wanted citizens given tools that would allow them to influence the social world. The tools they provided often weren't very effective--they were often designed for a utopian world of happy rational conversationalists that didn't and doesn't exist.

You are right that part of the issue is defining what "power" and "empowerment" mean. But can you really do this without a real understanding of how communities and different visions of community engagement operate? I would argue that the research and the practice comes before definitions, not after, and Dewey would mostly agree, I think. And, anyway, we aren't going to ever agree on these issues (we probably shouldn't). But at the moment we mostly don't even bother to *disagree* about them, at least in the way I'm thinking about them.

Further, is what Nick is doing in the post above about NCLB really that different than what I'm talking about? Isn't a lot of what we do "advocacy?" Don't most of us want to make schools better? Isn't one way to say that we are advocates for the "truth"? For example, I have been working with a group that just got $2 million for school nurses in the state budget. One of my contributions was to create a brochure laying out how horrible health conditions are and how they impact learning. But in this case, my simple research project was linked with a power organization. That's why we got the money. And the reason I knew how to design the brochure to fit this organization's needs was because I was actively involved in the campaign from the beginning. How is this different from Nick's post? (Yes, okay, it is. But how?)

Where does "advocacy" start and end? And if you aren't an advocate, given the wretched future many of these kids face, what, exactly, are you trying to do? I'm not talking about being heroic, here. I could sell my house and give all my money to an inner-city health clinic. And I won't. And I'm going to make damn sure my kids get into a good school and I have the privilege to make it happen. So I'm not so great. But still . . . .

As to the question about whether bringing this into the academy formalizes things, I think, perhaps, we attribute too much power to ourselves. Many of these groups already exist. As Oakes and Rogers discovered, you have to prove yourself to them if you are going to work with them. If you come up with strategies that don't work, you will find you lose your constituency pretty fast. And while at some point it may be true that "academicizing" this may be problematic, at the moment most people don't even know something like "community organizing" even exists. Nonetheless, I'll agree that this is a danger. I just wish we had enough of an institutional base that it was a real problem and not an imaginary potential one.

Finally, regarding my own program at UWM, the truth is that you may give us too much credit. The point is not that as a group we have a particularly coherent relationship to the community. Instead, we have created an environment in which different individuals from the community feel relatively safe in our classes. Individually, different faculty in my Department mostly do their own thing outside our collective work on our expanding educational mission. And we are pretty isolated from the rest of the School of Education in a range of ways. I wish I could say that we influence how the rest of the School thinks about community, but I doubt it.

What having a department like ours does do is create an institutional home for a range of scholars who are interested in the community, teach about community related issues, and do research on community-related issues. The fact that we have enrollment means that we can, for example, hire a professor focusing on community organizing, which we just did. One of our required courses is community organizing. Without such a home, I'm not sure how any SOE would be able to create a critical mass of community-focused scholars or understand why we should hire such a professor. Which is why I think a key aspect of this problem is institutional and related to who we serve. As long as our teaching mission is mostly focused on white, middle-class women who are going to be teachers *for* central city schools, we will continue in all likelihood to restrict ourselves to instructional and administrative scholars geared to educating these people. And few of those scholars will have much sense of how to work with and/or help develop robust community-based efforts that might support instructional improvement, among other things, from the outside.

[By the way--I don't usually live on the Internet, but today was my "I'm fried and can't do anything else" day.]

Aaron Schutz said...

[Katherine agreed to let me post this. She's responding, in part, to the Levin post, above]

This is too fascinating! So what we need is the scientific model,
reformulate the hypothesis, and go after it again.....a growth model, of
course. Of course one cannot predicate success from failure. "I find
that to be nonsense both philosophically and practically." Sort of like
Kliebard's critique of the Tyler Rationale --- set goals and
objectives, but how will you know what to assess prior to teaching and
learning --- if falls apart because of what is discussed here -- human
agency -- the hermeneutics of experience. Forgive my clumsy comments; I
am writing a paper but had to stop to comment on this interesting

Kathryn M. Benson, Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

I just posted a diagramatic depiction of Dewey's influences from Randall Collins, Sociology of Philosophies (1998, Harvard):


Here is what I wrote:

Fig 12.2, page 673 -- Copyright 1998 Harvard Press

Here is Collins' depiction of the intellectual context for John Dewey's thought, which demonstates Collins' sociological methodology for tracking intellectual change.

Relational ties, whether master-pupil ties, adversarial ties, or acquaintanceship ties, as well as the groups associated with them, constitute the intellectual context for the development of individual thought. See Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (1998).

C.S. Pierce, William James, G. S. Hall, G. H. Mead (at Chicago), G. S. Morris are all well know influences on Dewey. But less well known are the St. Louis Hegelians that gave support and encouragement to the young Dewey: W. T. Harris, H. C. Bokmeyer, and through them, ties to the New England Transcendentalists. Others include Denton Snider, Thomas Davidson, and G. H. Howison.

It would not be going too far to characterize the St. Louis Hegelians as an innovation hearth, whose particular focus of interest and activity was public education and progressive reform -- Dewey in embryo.

For more see: http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/hstlouis.htm

On the roots of Dewey’s Education as Growth idea:


Jane said...


Thanks so much for opening this conversation.

As I finished your terrific essay yesterday, I picked up Andrew Sayer’s The Moral Significance of Class and read his first (of two) chapters on potential responses to class.

He writes of the misguided efforts of higher status people to declare equality across class lines, since unlike race, gender, or sexuality (and class, of course is tangled with all of these), inequalities of class are grounded in objective (and embedded) inequalities in economic and cultural capital that can fatally complicate the micro-politics of interaction across class lines.

It would seem that Sayer might offer some perspective to those seem to believe that the “educative” potential of work for social change is essentially one-way.

On another note: I’m curious about the terms “community” and about the range of possible tools of persuasion that we might teach kids. You make your case that social science is unlikely to spark change.

I understand Alinsky’s traditional approaches --you mention in your essay the richer educative and political potential of many parents (not just one, as in the book) writing letters and many people traveling to the capitol to protest and to present their demands.

But I wonder if you've gone far enough in critiquing Oakes and Rogers' limited conceptions of the tools might provoke social change.

It strikes me that writing letters and amassing physical bodies in one place are “technologies” from Alinsky’s days, so I’m wondering about the potential (or drawbacks) of other technologies for opening dialogue, for activating critical masses of people, for persuading.

I think for example, of the recent case of the school district here in Washington State that banned teachers from showing An Inconvenient Truth in the classroom after a few parents objected. Other parents in the district organized, made presentations, articulated their case well. But what seemed to really tip the scales in the reversal of the decision was how quickly the district was cast into embarrassing glow of the national spotlight, in part through bloggers, and later, by traditional media. The relentless and almost instant criticism from such a broad “community” was certainly part of the story of why the board so quickly backed off of its decision.

I'm thinking too of other tools of persuasion -particularly of the digital video work going on in a number of youth programs that seems to hold particular potential for opening “the conversation” to more voices and for persuading in compelling ways.

Some examples that come to mind: The City Voices, City Visions projects at Buffalo, Marco Torres’ work at San Fernando High School in CA, the Center for Digital Storytelling projects. Joe Lambert at the CDS talks of the power of giving kids access to the tools of “the screen” because of the fetishism of “the screen” in popular discourse, and about how learning those tools to enable one to speak publicly of one’s own life is, in itself, an empowering process.

An example of taking such tools to the next level of formal organizing: A few days ago, I watched a series of very short but very powerful videos made by teachers in Nashua, New Hampshire and then uploaded to You Tube to make their case in the midst of difficult contract negotiations. To me, those videos seem potentially much more persuasive than formal letters or op-ed pieces that I’ve so often seen during contract negotiations, and such work can now be done relatively cheaply and easily by high school kids (and their parents) who’ve been taught about visual and digital literacy..

I’m curious about these things because I’m working between two worlds right now: I’m working on issues of social class and education, and I’m working on the ways in which new digital tools are changing the nature of discourse and knowledge construction.

And I’m dismayed at how seldom these conversations intersect.

I don’t want to hijack this conversation too far off the your essay, and at the same time I am wondering about the range of persuasive tools seen by scholars of community organizing as having potential, especially for this generation of kids. And, I’m wondering what it means to speak of “community” in this new global culture. Each of these areas seems somewhat taken-for-granted in your essay, and I'm curious about that.

I’ve been blogging a bit about the digital issues over at educationandclass.com, if you’d rather have that conversation over there.

Thanks again for opening this conversation.

Jane Van Galen

Anonymous said...

Jane: The kinds of tactics that Alinsky advocated have a much broader reach than you think. My God! The more disruptive, the more audacious, the better!

Try this: http://www.locoa.net/program/COSchool/13Tactics.htm

Can't you see what he's doing here? This is what Antonio Gramsci would call counter-hegemonic resistance. This is all about resistance! and self-preservation!

Obviously high-emotion values are necessary to carry on the fight.

The question for me is how NOT to see the public school institution itself as the enemy.

Anonymous said...

Here is more Alinsky, from the site just mentioned above.

Here is how Alinsky would see it:

Who are the "oppressed"?

Students, teachers, administrators. Tax payers.

Who, then, is the "target"? The institutional base of public schools. The Deweyan history of public schools -- the metanarrative that needs to be deconstructed.

The "tactic"? Homeschooling, and to a more limited degree, charter schools.

From the site: In the words of Saul Alinsky, a people’s organization is not a philanthropic plaything or a social service’s ameliorative gesture. It is a deep, hard driving force, striking and cutting at the very roots of all evils which beset the people. It recognizes the existence of vicious circle in which most human beings are caught, and strives viciously to break this cycle. It thinks and acts in terms of social surgery not cosmetic cover-ups. This is one of the reasons why a people’s organization will find that it has to fight its way along every foot of the road toward its destination – a people’s world.

Because the character of a people’s organization is such that it will frequently involve itself in conflict, and since most attempts at the building of people’s organizations have been broken by the attacks of the opposition which knows no rules of fair play or so called ethics, it is imperative that the organizers and some leaders of people’s organizations not only understand the necessity for and the nature and purpose of conflict tactics.

A people’s organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair and unhappiness.

A war is not an intellectual debate and in the war against social evils, there are no rules of fair play. Tactics means of exerting pressure on a target so that the usual arrogance and condescending attitude that work against the people are deflated and an atmosphere conducive to negotiation is set.

Aaron Schutz said...

Dear Jane and Glen,

Let me respond to both of you at the same time, here.

In terms of Jane’s response, I think it’s important to be as fair as possible to Oakes and Rogers. They certainly weren’t *trying* to engage in one-way forms of education. In some cases, however, it seems like they ended up doing that. This may have resulted in part from a general sense that academic skills of the kinds they were teaching are somehow neutral with respect to home cultures. However, in fact, they are not. As I and others have argued elsewhere, the practices of academia are, in many ways, intensified versions of professional middle-class discourse.

Originally, I actually had “class” in the title of this essay. But there wasn’t space to really get into the class issues. In general, I think that educational scholars like Dewey because Dewey was very much like us. His vision of collaborative discursive democracy looks much like what happens (ideally, at least) in an advanced college seminar or in a research laboratory. I go into these class issues, and the ways in which Alinsky’s model seems much more “working-class” in a forthcoming essay in Teachers College Record. In general, any efforts to be “organic intellectuals” for the working-class are extraordinary problematic, for some of the reasons you note (and I’m looking forward to reading Sayer).

You are absolutely right about my tendency to downplay technology. It’s one of my own limitations—but one person can’t do everything. In this sense, it seems to me that Oakes and Rogers are trying to push the envelope in some ways, with their online journal, for example. Of course, their visions of what to do in cyberspace seem limited by the same perspectives that limit their less technological efforts.

Your example of the school district getting into the national spotlight is interesting. However, as someone working in an organizing context, I know that it is extraordinarily difficult to get this kind of coverage. The media is more likely to simply ignore you unless you have something that seems like a compelling story to them.

And Oakes’s and Rogers’s students did do some digital video work, if I’m remembering correctly. But while they may be more persuasive than letters, I would like to see some evidence that they are, in the end, more effective in fostering resistance to power. What exactly do and have they done, concretely, and when and where?

I’m overly obsessive about reading the blogs, and so I’m with you about the increasingly global range of the dialogue. And there are clearly examples nationally where the blogs have and are having an important political impact. However, I worry that in many cases these electronic communities remain very narrow and remain unlinked to concrete strategies of collective resistance (whatever these may be) and thus don’t have that much impact.

Glen, you are right, of course, about what Alinsky recommended, and I know you worked with one of Alinsky’s lieutenants. However, it is important to emphasize that organizing in the Alinsky tradition has come a long way since his day. The endless “war” rhetoric still informs much of what these groups do in some ways, but tends to be downplayed. A half-century of practical and intellectual development has been going on since the words Glen cites were written, at the same time as the world has changed in quite radical ways.

This isn’t to say that all these developments have been entirely effective, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog in my ongoing series on Community Organizing and Urban Education. In fact, I think that some of those writing about community organizing today, like Mark Warren and Dennis Shirley, tend to downplay some of the negatives, even as I very much value the important work these writers have done.

Home schooling and charter schools as a solution? Glen, I don’t think Alinksy would have agreed. There is a strange subculture of “lefty” thinkers who often draw extensively on Ivan Illich’s work on deschooling that seems to have made common cause with a range of very right wing anti-public school anti-teacher’s union folks. I think they are being misled in many ways, regardless of how smart many of them admittedly are (and I find aspects of much of their work useful).

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Aaron for the comments.

"...the world has changed in quite radical ways" since Alinsky. Oh? I don't think so: power relations are still unequal! THAT reality is ALL you need. That is where Alinsky started.

But maybe I should back up and ask a question: just who are the oppressed? Yeah: who do you think are the oppressed?

Anonymous said...

I would like to take issue with this part of your well-written essay:

“The fact is that Dewey developed his model of democratic engagement in the small, relatively intimate spaces of classrooms, especially in his Laboratory School at the turn of the 20th Century. And while Dewey participated in a range of social change efforts later in life, his role was almost always as a thinker and speaker rather than as an organizer.

My point is not that we must give up on the enhancement of individual voices in different ways amidst social action. However, the challenge of scale indicates that a Deweyan approach to social action, by itself, will prove unworkable in spaces much larger than the classrooms in which Dewey developed it and in which most educators spend most of their time.”

It seems to me that your argument is based on the incorrect assumption that Dewey’s notions of democratic engagement were developed at a level that could not be scaled up beyond, let’s say, the school. If you go back as early as Dewey’s Creed, in it he does not claim that society is, or should be, a macrocosm of school life, but, rather, that “the school, as an institution, should simplify existing social life; should reduce it, as it were, to an embryonic form.” Whether school room, living room, or barroom, Dewey knew that these local cells are the origins of democratic social life that become crafted from the interactions of individuals, where the “moving force of the group” becomes the locus of control for individuals acting as democratic units—and that become manifested in the society at large. An individual does not give his allegiance (or her proxy vote) willingly to a system that does not value her.

In a healthy family or a healthy classroom, it is the democratic organizational boundaries of the group that allow each component of that group to be valued, and it is the recognition of that fact by individuals within those boundaries that lead them to offer their allegiance within that consensual domain that guarantees their consideration as valued members. In short, it is the democratic social organization, at whatever level of examination that may apply, that encourages individuals to look beyond purely selfish ends and to sustain those organizational boundaries that best allow their individual preferences to be registered. To suggest that the individual voice is lost as one move up from the micro to the macro level is simply to misunderstand how self-organizing (democratic) collections of sub-systems operate, something that Dewey understood quite well at a theoretical level, I think.

Is this kind of democratic thinking dealistic in its origins? yes. An idealism that should be passed on to children? yes, again. The alternative to the fallabilistic truth of Dewey's kind of democratic idealism is one level or another of totalitarianism, whether it is exercised by groups of good-hearted autocrats or by evil ones. It’s worth recalling Churchhill’s quip--democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

What political liberalism has not learned very well up to this point, however—and this is what opens the door to the Huey Longs and James Dobsons of the world—is where to draw the line on limiting the expressions and actions of those who would destroy the political freedom that has allowed them their own brand of self-imposed slavery that they would now impose on everyone else. We now find ourselves on a very steep learning curve toward realizing how to deal with that. But adopting another form of totalitarianism that would make your democratic decisions for you is not the answer. But then who said it was going to be easy?

And without the internet, it would be impossible.

Aaron Schutz said...

Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Anonymous.

First, while it is true that on a theoretical level Dewey was envisioning a democratic *society,* on an experiential level it is clear that his vision was, in fact developed at a local level. Dewey’s experience was, it appears, almost entirely on this relatively small group level, and he never engaged in any significant political action that would have exposed him to issues around the challenges of scale that I discuss, here. So, from a pragmatic point of view, in contrast with his educational writings, he never “tested” it, he mostly just thought about it.

Second, I’m not arguing that Deweyan contexts of rich collaborative dialogue are not important to democratic societies, only that by themselves they are not sufficient to drive effective collective action.

You say that “to suggest that the individual voice is lost as one move(s) up from the micro to the macro level is simply to misunderstand how self-organizing (democratic) collections of sub-systems operate.” I don’t think I misunderstand the theory. What I am saying is that this is what you see, empirically, when you look at attempts to create these kind of organizations. And what exactly do you mean “self-organizing”? Those who are oppressed often depend upon institutions to structure their democratic engagements—they don’t have the privelige of time that scholars have to sit and chat everything through.

In the most basic sense, what I am saying is that you can’t have a large group where each individual gets to present her unique perspective in a non-hierarchical collaborative dialogue. As Jane Mansbridge has shown, this problem is magnified when all the people aren’t in the same place at the same time.

As far as I know, there are no empirical examples of Deweyan collaborative democracy being “scaled up,” although there may have been some brief moments when the kind of structure of overlapping dialogic circles may have briefly operated (e.g., the Paris Commune, the early Soviets). Dewey himself failed to coherently conceptualize how this might work in his Public and Its Problems, and, importantly, he knew that he had failed.

To say that if we can’t have what Dewey wanted then our only option is totalitarianism seems quite problematic to me. Reality restricts what we can and can’t do in the world. Politics must respond to reality, whether it likes it or not. If we can’t have the democracy we want, we will have to find ways to get the best democracy we can have. There are plenty of examples of spaces that accept the limitation that Dewey wanted to avoid and that seem extremely democratic to me. It’s not about being anti “democracy,” it’s about being realistic about what Deweyan democracy can do. In the end, I think a pragmatic like Dewey would have agreed.

It is true that many attempts to create democratic institutions within the working-class (as within other groups) have ended up being not very democratic (e.g., most unions, I’m afraid). But that does not release us from seeking ways to make democratic structures operate in conditions where they are difficult to sustain.

If you can find a way to make Deweyan democracy work on a broad scale, more power to you. Dewey hoped we would somehow figure it out. I think it’s more than doubtful, and I think that there are aspects of Oakes’s and Rogers’s book that show why maintaining a commitment to this vision can be concretely disempowering for those we work with.

Finally, as to the Internet, it doesn’t really solve the problems Dewey faced. The problem is one of scale, of the ability of a large number of unique individuals to communicate in some authentic way with other unique individuals. As Dewey noted at the end of Public and Its Problems, this is only possible within small communities where individuals get to know each other well over extended periods of time (see also Noddings’s work on caring). It is possible that the Internet may actually be reducing these kinds of engagements in some way.

I make this argument about Dewey most fully in an essay titled “John Dewey and ‘a Paradox of Size’”, cited in the review essay. Much of Jane Mansbridge’s work is relevant here, as well.

Anonymous said...

There are different strands of though here that need to be untangled: the continuing legacy of "small groups" in America; Dewey's idealism -- his "democracy" that was neither procedural nor political.

The conflation of these themes results in the scaling-problem, and it is hard to know where to start untangling.

Anonymous, I think, draws out some valid concerns stemming from Dewey's idealist-democracy concept. (Years from now, Pres Bush may be mistaken for a Deweyian: democracy happens when you bring people together. Not.)

So just now I am inclined to reject Dewey. He is part of the reason that we have all these impossible expectations about schools and teachers.

Besides, Aaron still hasn't said who/what the "oppressed" are in this mess that Alinsky would fight for.

Anonymous said...

Bertrand Russell devotes several pages to the thought of John Dewey in his *A History of Western Philosophy* (1945). But after lauding him in the opening paragraph (saying that Dewey is “the leading living philosopher of America”), Russell concludes by calling Dewey’s underlying hopefulness a form of hubris, an “intoxification of power … [that] is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of a vast social disaster.” (819, 828)

Such an extreme variation of opinion calls for further elucidation.

In his review, Russell recalls that “Hegelian philosophy influenced Dewey in his youth” (820); and he points out that, while critiquing the reliance upon organic or “unified wholes” in Dewey’s philosophy of instrumentalism, “Dewey’s love of what is organic is due partly to biology, partly to a lingering influence of Hegel … [or on] an unconscious Hegelian metaphysic” (823). Russell himself does “not know how far [Dewey] is aware of this fact.”

Santayana agrees, saying that “In Dewey … there is a pervasive quasi-Hegelian tendency to dissolve the individual into his social functions, as well as everything substantial and actual into something relative and transitional.”

However, to the extent that Santayana dismisses Dewey’s incipient constructivism, the result of Dewey’s influence by G. H. Mead, he perhaps errs, and Dewey comes out the better. And while Russell is himself groping toward a kind of constructivism in his discussion of “truth” and “significance,” he does not see Hegel’s involvement, as Santayana does.

Russell concludes by allowing that Dewey is “attractive to those how are more impressed by our new control over natural forces than by the limitations to which that control is subject,” finding that Dewey’s philosophy “is in harmony with the age of industrialism and collective enterprise.” But it is Dewey’s underlying hubris that Russell singles out as “the greatest danger in our time” because “it is increasing the danger of a vast social disaster,” however unintentionally.

Russell’s fears, at least in part, have been realized. There are many who would, without hesitation, describe public education, in combination with other social, economic and political forces, a “vast social disaster.” There are, of course, many more that disagree.

Aaron Schutz said...


As I noted in my email to you, you are drawing from a great deal of quite old material about Dewey. There has been a lot written about Dewey, most of it not very responsive to the subtlety of his thought. In general, you are probably not going to convince people on this blog who are familiar with the recent literature that Dewey was as dense as your comments imply. You also cite Block's work, but Westbrook, who praises some aspects of Block's work, and who is cited by Block as a key scholar, also notes "Block ironically echoes the older, radically democratic (pragmatist) John Dewey, whose thinking he slights and who was a good deal less complacent than Block would have us believe about liberal agency that extended merely to the means to taken-for-granted social purposes and not to the formulation of those purposes themselves."

If you are interested in getting a more nuanced sense of Dewey, I would recommend Westbrook's biography as well as Jay Martin's _The Education of John Dewey_ which complicates the simple interpretation of Dewey's religious background in Block, among other things.

As I have said, I think you would be on better ground on the pragmatics of community organizing which you seem to have some experience with. But, again, it's important to understand the dialogues that have been going on around organizing.

As to who is oppressed? I'm not sure there is any shortage, which in urban areas would include low-income students of color and their families and communities and often teachers as well. Alinsky in the original is enormously problematic in a wide range of ways.

Anonymous said...

Aaron, I agree when you say, "As to who is oppressed? I'm not sure there is any shortage, which in urban areas would include low-income students of color and their families and communities and often teachers as well."

Interesting that Westbrook would comment on Block. And I am both distancing myself in this Deweyian journey from Block, and circling back to his earlier take on revivalism, 2nd Great Awakening as the fountainhead of all reform movements.

As for Dewey, two things. My look at the St. Louis Hegelians shows that Harris and Brokmeyer gained respect and were successful in their educational reforms. (Would you locate the invention of the High School in these reforms???)

So, here's what it comes down to: if you were to take OUT all the key features of the St. Louis elitists, namely practicality, commitment to dialectical change, organicity, and maybe even some statism, there isn't much left of Dewey. (Is this right?)

Second thing relates to Collins (1998) and his sociology of knowledge. You may not be familiar with it. http://home.earthlink.net/~fheapblog/id28.html gives you some visual sense of it. When you minimize the relevance of Dewey's roots, you may also be saying that he is a special case, a violation of Collins' sociology of knowledge.

What is interesting is that Collins relies on the Chicago sociology of Cooley, Park, and Mead to construct his approach to intellectual history, on a global scale.

To make the claim that somehow Dewey was able to transform himself outside the ways described by Collins for hundreds and hundreds of thinkers is a bit much.

That said, it must be allowed that opposition -- yes, opposition -- is a key element in the process of filling the attention space, creativity, recruiting disciples, etc. So, you might find this relevant as well.

But, it also raises the question about your own intellectual lineage, Aaron. In the diagram linked above, where do you fit in?

Anonymous said...

In *Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools* (1975), Michael B. Katz captures some aspects of John Dewey's thought that I have been tracking, and describes the problems transplanting his praxis in the soil of urban schools. This latter (2nd paragraph below) certainly bears on Oakes' and Rogers' project.

"... there is a darker side to the social thought of even the best progressives, notably Dewey and Jane Addams. ... Briefly, the emphasis on community in Jane Addams and the definitions of democracy and experience in Dewey provide particularly subtle and sophisticated instances of the widespread attempt in their time to foster modes of social control appropriate to a complex urban environment. Most starkly, both Addams and Dewey in the last analysis stressed the subservience of individual will and aspiration to those of the group. Dewey's educational ideal, it has been pointed out often enough, did not leave the child unregulated and alone; it retained a strong guiding role for the teacher. That role became largely the creation of an environment, a carefully planned group context that would provide [119] children with a sequence of experiences, which, despite their apparent spontaneity, were in fact meticulously elicited. Those experiences would lead the children to develop habitual ways of responding, to internalize the norms of democratic living. The key to democracy for Dewey was in action; democracy was not a static form but a mode of living, a way of behaving in which each person continually referred his actions, and his desires to the well-being of the group. Education, by implication, served to instill conformist behavior, a set of inner controls that would make external social controls unnecessary. ..."

My comment is that this is just the naturalization of individual volition as liberal agency that James Block describes in Chapter 14 of *A Nation of Agents*. For Block, the problem of agency runs from at least the Puritians and Locke/Hobbes, to Dewey. But the proposed solution is only partially successful, as Block explains.

But Katz reminds us of another problem with transplanting the praxis of Dewey, or of any other theorist, for that matter:

"Despite their subtle coercive implications, Dewey's educational proposals represented a vast improvement over most contemporary practice. Unfortunately, he did little to implement their adoption other than to establish a model school. In fact, his writings generally fail to deal with the relationship between the structure of school systems and the content of education. He did not ask, that is, whether it was possible to effect a reform of pedagogy within the bureaucratic structure of urban schools. That question was left largely unexplored by progressive theorists, which is one of the central weaknesses of their writings. For, if radical structural alteration must precede significant pedagogical change, then the first efforts of school reformers must be directed toward breaking down the bureaucratic form of schooling and changing the nature [120] of its political control. That this is the case certainly forms part of the argument of educational radicals today, a point to which I shall return. Whether or not the point is valid, it is one with which serious educational theory must grapple, as the progressives did not."

Alinsky would most certainly agree that, as with any other social institution, "if radical structural alteration must precede significant pedagogical change, then the first efforts of school reformers must be directed toward breaking down the bureaucratic form of schooling and changing the nature of its political control." Alinsky, of course, would be an "educational radical" in this context; hence my assertion of Alinsky's support of home schooling, charter schools, etc.

Anonymous said...

“The school system, the cornerstone of reformist hope, has expanded to include the vast majority of the youth population, but with paradoxical results: Instead of providing everyone with an opportunity for upward mobility, the mass school system has served mainly to push up educational requirements for employment, so that high-school graduates now search for the same low-level jobs that were once the lot of grade-school dropouts. And as the giant bureaucracies expand to include ever-larger segments of our lives, the rebellion and alienation found at the bottom of a competitive stratification system merely move into the school system. Instead of a solution to social problems in the outside world, the schools have become the containers and creators of their own problems.”

Source: Randall Collins and Michael Makowsky, The Discovery of Society (1989), 94.

Duane Campbell said...

Thank each of you for your comments on Dewey. These dealt with questions which I have.
I had the pleasure to work with Myles Horton, and with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. Chazez was trained by Fred Ross who was trained by Alinsky. The UFW organizing was based directly on Alinsky organizing. Also, see Marshall Ganz on Talking Points Memo.
I learned from each of these, and from readng Friere.
In our MA program at Cal.State U-Sacramento, where I have worked for over 30 years, we have a course in Education Advocacy and change. This year we used the Oaks and Rogers book, along with the Anyon book, Bob Moses, and my own book, Choosing Democracy.
I continue to look for insights into how to bring community organizing skills to teacher leaders. From my own experience and from working with students -60% students of color-I have a tentative conclusion that teachers and community organizers need to work together, but they are not the same people. It is too much to expect 1-3 persons to fill both roles. The two roles are both important and inter active, but need not be merged.
I do think it is over simplifying to divide the nature of social change into two groups- Dewey v. Alinsky. There is a web portal with an over view of change strategies at

thanks again for the review. It was excellent and thought provoking.

Aaron Schutz said...

Thanks for your comment, Duane.

As I have noted above a couple of times, clearly one of the failings of my review was the way it seemed to create a simple dichotomy between neo-Alinsky and Deweyan approaches. Some have even read it as arguing that Alinsky was right and Dewey was wrong, which I think it clearly does not do. But in any case, I should have been clearer, because I just don't think in such dichotomous ways myself. Of course there are myriad ways of thinking about engaging in social action.

From my perspective there are (st least) two key issues with how teachers and schools interact with social action.

First there is the question of how schools and or education scholars and community organizing groups (and the like) might work together. it is on this point that I think Oakes's and Rogers's book was the most insightful. (Although their example seems likely to be effective only in universities or with scholars who have access to significant and dependable long-term $$).

Second, I believe that schools have a responsibility to introduce students to practices that will allow themselves to empower themselves collectively. To the extent that we think some (however few) schools should do this, then teachers need effective models for initiating students into these practices. It is in this respect that I was most disappointed with Oakes's and Rogers's book.

I have been working over the last few years with a group of graduate students on an effort to help inner-city high school students in a charter school engage in social action projects. We have had some pretty limited success, but I think we have learned from our failures as well. In any case, when I can actually get the overview paper finished, others will have the opportunity to critique us as well.

Anonymous said...

My name is Mary Johnson, I am Presidet of Parent-U-Turn. Chapter 7 of learning power is about my group of parents that is greatful to Oakes and Rogers.

Parents are now doing research on our schools conditions. Parents are developing survey and collectig data and publishig our data in the same publication that Ph.D previous only have access to .

Dr. Rogers was open for changes and accepted our culture wealth that was equal to his PH.D.

Not once did IDEA every try to change Paren-U-Turn. We all learn from each others. Even those they have the degree, we all were equal.

This kid of action build relationship and trust, respecting for each others. Rogers and Oakes as reserachers work from the heart,not just driven my numbers and charts. This make Oakes ad Rogers Human. Rogers outreach allow him to build a true relatioship base on respect .

Oakes and Rogers are rare as researchers, because they realize that the people that lived i their
neighorhood have the owership to their problems. This believed is why they are teaching the people reserach methods so they can document and organize communities around reform.

We need more researchers to realize , that they aren't the expert in social reform.Most Researchers has Book learning only that don't make anyone a expert,the expert are the people that lived it everyday.

Thanks God , we have Oakes, Rogers who come down from the Tower and walk among us, in the neighborhood that most researchers only want to write about.

While everyone is debating, Oakes/Rogers have figure it out, Dewey and others researchers, don't have the answer" If you can walk in our shoes, and experieces the pain and sorrow,plus get up the next day and be on the front lines of struggle.(Then you past to expert)

Then we will read your books.

Mary Johnson, President

Aaron Schutz said...

Dear Ms. Johnson

Thank you for your heartfelt response, and thank you for joining our discussion.

I want to emphasize that at no point in my review did I malign the intensions of Oakes, Rogers, or the IDEA team. I believe that they have done the best they could with the tools available to them to help the community. In fact, I argued that they probably represent the best of what we can expect from the traditional education community.

What I did argue was that Oakes and Rogers have not "figured it out," although they may have figured some things out, and that it was very problematic for them to publish an extremely influential book that to some extent implied they had (whether they meant it to or not).

The point is not that the IDEA team intentionally tried to influence anyone in a particular direction. Instead, from my perspective, the problem was that they had a very limited set of tools to offer, and did not seem to realize that their toolkit was realized (or at least they did not acknowledge this in their book).

I think it would be legitimate to raise concerns about the “tone” of the review, although it is difficult for me to know how to respond to such concerns. In retrospect, there are things I think I could have said in a more neutral tone.

It is important to emphasize that my central concern in reviewing this book was not about what effect they were having in their actual interactions with particular groups (like yours). There is no way for me to know the subtleties of your relationship with them. Instead, my issue was with how their descriptions of these interactions might influence the field more broadly.

I do think the review was remiss in not emphasizing how important it can be to have more people doing research that come from outside of the academy.

However, I believe it was important to question whether such a strong focus on these skills to the apparent exclusion of (and intentionally or not, denigration of) other approaches was helpful for the field.

Perhaps Oakes and Rogers and myself have different understandings of what it means to participate in a scholarly endeavor. I believe that it is crucial in a world of limited resources to subject claims about how we should promote democracy and social action to critique.

The question I wanted to raise, and that I think has generated significant discussion, is whether teaching Ph.D. level research skills and theories to people in the community who are struggling against oppression is the best use of our or their resources. Of course, if that is what the people in the community want, we should offer it to them. But it is also crucial that we provide a range of possible resources and not just those that end up trying to turn "others" into "us." Of course, every situation is unique--there are no absolute general rules.

In general, I would ask you what kind of scholarly community you want to join. Do you want to join a community where people remain silent when they believe that very influential texts may end up leading other people in problematic directions?

To some extent, I would argue that this is the difference between "public" and "private" relationships. For example, you may be good friends with a bureaucrat in the schools, and have much respect for what they do in general. But if they start promoting data about the district that you know to be false, it is your responsibility to challenge this data, despite your general acknowledgement that this person at least tries to "walk in our shoes."

Some feel that we should keep such disagreements private. The problem with that is that it is only those priveliged enough to be part of discussions where these issues are raised that will hear about them. Some believe that we should not thoroughly critique other "progressives." But I have to say that I am actually more worried about what the respected people are saying than I am about those who we already know aren't on our side.

I would like to say that I also have spent a lot of time on the front lines of social action and organizing in my own city. However, my experience does not make my conclusions correct any more than they make Oakes's and Rogers's correct. The key question is whether the arguments can stand up to scholarly dialogue and debate. So far, given the large number of conversations I have had with others about this essay, I believe it has done so quite well.

I would be happy to respond to any other concerns you may have.

I intend to write more about this in the future, but let me conclude with my response to a very famous, influential scholar with some connection to the review I wrote (not necessarily someone I mentioned by name) who informed me that he/she never wanted to talk to me again because I didn't engage in dialogue the way he/she wanted me to. Here is how I replied (with some sentences cut to maintain anonymity). This person did respond with some more specific complaints--so perhaps he/she is not as intent on ostracizing me as he/she was.

You may actually have read this response, since this person forwarded my personal email to others connected to the review without my permission (again raising issues about what counts as public and private discussions and who has the privelige to be a part of different discussions). I know it was forwarded because this person accidentally forwarded the email to myself as well.

My response to this other scholar follows:

Dear X:

I'm sorry you feel that way.

I thought long and hard before writing that critique. This was not just any book, but was essentially the only one talking about these particular issues in this way. As such, it has the potential to be extremely influential. I believe that there are a number of aspects of that book that have the potential to point the field in the wrong direction at a very crucial moment in the emergence of these issues. I received one comment, for example from someone who thanked me for writing the critique, stating that some people had told her it was the “bible” of social action in schools and that she was glad someone had pointed out its problems. Once the book entered the public space, I believe the response needed to be public as well. This is the only critical review I have ever written.

I wrote the critique because I believed that the book had serious limitations. Perhaps I was wrong to do so—I cannot see perfectly. But given the wide range of positive comments I have received since then, I still believe that it was the right thing to do. In any case, it was not written quickly, or with any malice towards any of the authors, and I passed it by a number of scholars with knowledge of this field and the book. In my opinion, Jeannie and John made a public statement about how they thought social action should be taught in schools. I replied with a very different perspective on a range of different areas, pointing to issues I believe they either missed or glossed over. When I said that I thought their perspective reflected those held more widely in the field, I meant it.

It was not my intention to blindside the authors with this critique. I sent the critique to the authors and asked for comments at the same time as I submitted it, and also would have been willing to wait for a written response before publishing it if I had heard any response. I was willing to consider areas that they thought I had misread or misunderstood. . . . I do understand that some of the issues I raised were painful, and perhaps I said some things I should not have.

I guess the question is, how much debate can this field stand? . . . I wonder what kind of dialogue you would like to have in general. When any of us write public statements intended to push the field in a particular direction, then I think we should be open to having them responded to. The more potentially influential they are, the larger the megaphone the field has given an individual, the more important I think it is to have an open debate about what they say. I have been critiqued quite publicly myself, in fairly harsh ways--less thoughtfully or carefully than I think I tried to do in my review--and I simply responded. Interestingly, one of the more prominent scholars in this area after praising my review actually asked me, quite seriously, if I would be willing to write a 33 page review of their next book.

Was the critique accurate, or at least reasonable (not about the project, but about what the book actually said)? Would people reading the book be led to some problematic beliefs about the relationships between particular practices and empowerment? If the answers to both of these are yes, whether the authors intended them to be, then I still think it was important to write the critique.

In any case, we are all responsible for what we say in public, especially for well considered statements made in published work. Oakes and Rogers are responsible, and should be held responsible, and so am and should I. If one of the consequences of my review is that some people don’t wish to engage with me, then I will have to live with that. I knew this when I wrote the review. If I have any surprises about this experience it is actually about how open the field, in general, is to thoughtful if sometimes painful critique.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Schutz,

Thanks you, for respond to my email. I think that you and I have many things in common. I am too very critical and challenges my colleague, on their work, until there know more five w’s.

Anyone that put out their works they should be able to take the cricitize that gone along with being researchers/author. I applaud you for keeping that critical eyes to challenge your colleague.

My group Parent-U-Turn and Future Students have been presenting at AERA for last six years. This is where researchers all over the country come to present their data, to my surprise Aera,is where researchers come to get positive strokes. It seem like they left the critical sides of themselves back home at Universities/. Aera have become a place for handshake and slap on the back.

Social Justice is subject that needs to be challenge, on what that is. Many people talk about social project, when researchers explain it. When Urban people talk about Social justice, it about academic and equality as equal. We know that Knowledge bring changes. It not one or either, this is why I challenge any work that don’t come directly from neighborhood and collected by neighborhood peoples. People in the neighborhood have instant connection to church, organizations, and schools, where the families that is effect by that bad condition served and lived.

A little about myself, I more like Alikinsky, than Dewey. At this time Parent-U—Turn is Co/teaching at Pepperdine University. We are in our second years, where a professor and advocacy is teaching together, Pre-Service on how to be successful in urban schools. I Believed this is the first every that a parents is include in teacher ED program. In our first year, we where ale to place 10 teachers In urban schools, and five of them was hire at that school placement was done and others 8are place in others urban school. It just a beginning, one step at a times.

The future student model that Oakes and Rogers mentor, 2/3 of them have BA/MA. This what I think that was left out of Learning Power. This out come has inspired me to recast Dr. Joyce Epstein, John Hopkins Six Key for Parent Involvement. I believed parents in Urban School need more.

Many people write about the need to involve working class parents in education [(e.g.Auerbach, 2003; Epstein, 1990; Nogeura; 2003,Johnson, 2006)]. I like to thanks Joyce Epstein for being the pioneer for paving the road for parent involvement. Joyce Epstein work has inspired my works for social reforms. Of course parent involvement is important, but we need to think about HOW our parents are involved. This article describes what is needed for parents to create a distinctive approach to parent involvement—an approach that has proved powerful for parents and schools. These principles seeks to expand and develop the intentions of the NCLB 2001 Section 1118 Parent Involvement, and California State Accountability Report Card to empower parents to make informed decisions on the education, safety and health of their children.
1Type. Access to Information and Data Collection
Parents have access to timely and accurate information in order to best support their children’s academic success. This includes:

• Parent use, analyze and collect data about their schools
• Parents understand data and use data that drives reforms
• Parents are empowered to investigate and document conditions in their schools by becoming researchers in their own communities.
• Information about the resources, and rights to support their children.
2 Types. Parent In Decision-Making
Parents provide leadership in the school by being at the table with teachers and administrators to: 1) Actively set policy and be involved in key decisions along with school leaders, 2) Ensure the school has adequate resources to carry out its mission; 2) Provide training and evaluation of schools structure 3) Incorporate input from families and the community. This might include:
• Local Advisory Committees with genuine parent participation.
• Effective advocacy and education as a direct result of understanding how systems are structured - e.g. how decisions and power are distributed between schools, staff, parents and students.
• Parents are provided with knowledge, skills, and opportunities to actively engage in all levels of decision-making process.
• Parents are represented on the school decision teams.
3Type: Parents as Student Advocates
Parents need to know how to navigate and negotiate the school system. We need to support the creation of an environment where parents have access to information and support system to be effective advocates by monitoring and directing the education of our children. This includes:
• Parents need to know what children need, how to access resources and how to implement a plan of action.
• Parents need to understand a power map detailing the functions and structures of the system. Parents need to understand and be able to communicate in an educational setting, using terms spoken by educational professionals.
4 Types: Parents Leaders at Home and in the School-Community
Parents need opportunities to build leadership and advocacy skills to enhance student-parent-community partnerships. Schools will serve the family and community needs for health and social service and provide resources and information for accessing those services.
• Parents will learn intergenerational and cross-cultural communication strategies, with a special emphasis for immigrant families.
• Parents will learn “twenty-first century parenting skills” such as how to develop boundaries, parent-child communication, identify risk factors- drugs, gang involvement, etc.)
• Parents will understand the college requirement and financial aid process.
• Leadership training will be offered that will include meeting facilitation, public speaking, conflict resolution and cross cultural training
• Communications training for parents to more effectively navigate their children through K-12 to college.
• Parents receive on-going support and technical assistance to equip them for effective participation.
5Type: Effective Two –Way Communication: Communication must be translated in languages that parents speak in their home. Communication between home and school is regular, two-way, and meaningfully ways such as: Computerize machine, Newsletter, personal contact, letters/flyers and marquee. Parent Liaison roles are to help bridge the open communication for between school and home ad help create effective home /school relationship. Parent Liaison will have the ability to work with all races of peoples.

6Type: District Level Support: Structures are provided to build parents capacity that is well-defined meaningful participation where dialogue, empowerment and action are critical components of educational reform. This mid-level structure will be fully funded led by parent councils that will:

• Provide parents with training and capacity building opportunities to effectively engage in school reform at the local and district level.
• Provide parents with information and resources to meet the needs of the whole child.
• Enable parents to support students and schools programs.

7 Type: Friendly Schools Atmosphere: Schools will posted welcome sign throughout the schools in many others languages included English, Staff of each school will be provide mandatory customer service every year for entire school. Parents will be asked to fill out survey on services render.

Aaron Schutz said...

Dear Ms. Johnson,

It does seem like we have much in common, although we are struggling with these issues from different places. Perhaps the key difference, is that these challenges simply don’t affect me or my children in the same way (if at all, in many cases). So it’s important to have more voices at the table who don’t have the luxury of going home and leaving them behind.

I also wish there were more honest critique at AERA. There may be more critical dialogue going on in the conference as a whole than you may have experienced, however. There is a tendency to avoid criticizing the most powerful and influential scholars like some of those you work with (for reasons that should be clear after my last post . . .). And, frankly, I don’t think there are very many people equipped to engage in a thoughtfully critical way the specific kind of work you are doing. There is very little research or knowledge in the field of education about social action. In other contexts at AERA I have sometimes heard quite energetic efforts to challenge other scholars’ conclusions. But, yes, there is a lot of back-slapping.

I like the work you have done developing ideas about parent involvement. I think you have nicely captured the characteristics necessary for authentic parent engagement in schools.

I have critiqued Epstein’s work myself on community engagement more specifically in a recent article: “Home is a Prison in the Global City: The Tragic Failure of School-Based Community Engagement” in the Winter 2006 issue. In that article, I argued that the key problem with Epstein’s vision was less in her vision of WHAT should happen and more in HOW she thought it could happen.

In my review, looking at community engagement with schools and not parent engagement, I found little or no evidence that schools are likely to altruisticly open up avenues for “authentic” participation by “outsiders”. It was probably a mistake not to look at the parent involvement literature, because I have heard about some research that indicates that some schools have been more successful at creating openings for parents. But in general I am willing to bet my conclusions hold up.

My review argued that we can’t expect schools to altruistically consistently create contexts for equitable participation by community people unless there are organizations based outside of the schools (like Parent U-Turn) that have the power and capacity to hold schools accountable. My problem with Epstein, then, is her focus on changing schools when schools are unlikely to be able to do this on their own, even if they “believe” they are honestly interested in fostering participation, except in relatively isolated and always precarious examples.

What do you think about these conclusions?

My question, then, is about how education scholars can move outside of our comfort zones (for example, focusing on pedagogy or focusing on research) to an exploration of how we can encourage the emergence of these kind of community-based organizations. This is why the Oakes and Rogers book concerned me so much. It seemed to imply that we don’t need to move outside of these comfort zones.

Perhaps it is different where you are in California, but where I live there are very few grassroots organizations that are organized to resist oppression. Of course it is important to do research. But it is even more important to find ways to help people regain the kinds of strategies that Alinsky, people in the civil rights movement, and others developed to empower people on the margins. We have 70% black male joblessness in our central city. Our kids’ teeth are rotting in their heads. And there is hardly anyone raising a peep about this.

If education scholars don’t get involved in the community, and community empowerment, I believe, then we can pretty much forget about reforming the schools. Without empowered and educated communities, schools are unlikely to shift in any significant way over the long term. This seems to be the message from decades of research on school reform and pedagogy. On this issue I think Oakes and Rogers are right on target.

I am currently involved in a collaborative effort with eight different social action organizations in my city—including a union, community organizing groups, electoral action groups, a youth action group, and others--in an effort to start to build an educational pathway for Milwaukee residents to learn social action skills. I am trying to help build an organization that will not only focus on acting, but on teaching people HOW to act, even if they don’t belong to OUR organization. We are holding our first training workshop in October (see www.beyondservice.soe.uwm.edu). It is a small first step, but hopefully an important one.

In the spirit of critical dialogue, let me challenge you a bit on your statement about research. You stated that you “challenge any work” that isn’t “directly from the neighborhood and collected by neighborhood peoples.” I’m sure that you are right that research is usually more authentic when it is collected and analyzed by those most affected by conditions at the local level. However, I think it is also often true that for a range of different purposes this kind of authenticity really isn’t necessary, and that focusing on collecting it may use resources needed for more direct action against inequalities.

For example, in a recent post on this blog I wrote about a “school health” brochure I created for a social action group I work with. (see: http://www.tiny.cc/r6yLs . If this link doesn’t work, just go to the front page of this blog and scroll down a little to find it). I basically put the brochure together myself, consulting with the group on the kind of data they thought it was most important to include. For our purposes, I think this research document is proving very powerful. I don’t think that parents or other community members particularly need any focused training scholarly research to understand or use it.

We live in a world of very limited resources. And it is an extremely time- and resource-intensive effort to teach techniques and theories of research to large numbers of people. Frankly, we struggle to do it effectively even with middle-class Masters-level students in most universities, especially at places with much less accomplished and thoughtful people than the scholars on the IDEA team.

Thus, while I believe that it is important to train more people outside of the traditional academy to do and interpret research, I am not convinced that this is an effective or realistic or replicable strategy on a broad scale. Instead, I think that we need to focus more on transforming research to make it clearer for people who, while they may not be researchers, come to schools with enormous personal wisdom and experience. I know that the IDEA team also does this work, and I praised it in my review.

In my experience, what people without power most want to learn is HOW to wrest power away from those who currently make decisions for them and their children, to have places at the table that actually MATTER, and that allow them to change the very structure of the table itself. Ordinary people are pretty smart, in my experience. Most don’t need all the tools and fancy words of sociological theory to understand that their kids are getting a raw deal if they are given an opportunity to participate authentically in dialogue.

(This is less true when they are not given a place at the table. As I understand it, evidence from parent school choice seems to indicate that parents often treat the personal openness and friendliness of school staff as an indicator of effective education. Again, however, I would argue that this is a problem that results from the fact that these parents approach the school as relatively isolated individuals or families instead of as members of collective organizations with power and the resources to investigate).

On the one hand, I agree it is important to educate people about how to make use of and collect research for their own purposes. On the other hand, I worry that an over-focus on teaching these skills may subtly undervalue the incredible knowledge non-scholars already have. There is a difficult tension here, I think. How much of empowerment is teaching other people to speak like scholars and bureaucrats. And how much is it about being forced to change the contexts where we speak so that “we” have to listen to “them” in the languages they speak and the powerful knowledges that they carry already?

From this perspective, might one alter your points (in Type 1) about parents actually conducting research to ones about parent organization control over who and how this research is collected? What would be lost and gained in this shift? Might this make your model more realistically replicable? But would it destroy what you most want to accomplish with it?

Anyway, this post is much too long already.

If you are interested, I would happily continue this conversation, either on this blog or, if you prefer, more privately (my email is schutz@uwm.edu).

Please do not be offended if I am not able to respond as quickly in the future, however. We just adopted two children (zero to two in one “easy” step :) ) and I’m buried in a bunch of other stuff as well.

In any case, I look forward to conversing more if you are interested, perhaps also in person at the next AERA if you are going.

Aaron Schutz said...

This post is written in response to some comments I have received from different people offline.

Ella Baker’s insights were quite similar to Dewey’s in many ways. While parts of what she said are quite useful, she focused almost exclusively on action at a very local, intimate level. Furthermore, her followers interpreted her as being opposed the development of the kind of coherent leadership hierarchies that allow large organizations to exist over time. As a result, her approach seems quite limited in its ability to work on a large scale to organize people for social action.

While academics often talk about Baker’s ideas as if they came from “the people,” in fact Baker and most of the other leaders of SNCC who followed her were very much from the elite educated class. (To cite only one example, the first two key leaders of SNCC got acquainted with each other by discussing the plusses and minuses of existential philosophy). In fact, SNCC disintegrated in large part because of conflicts between mostly middle-class, educated Baker proponents and more working-class members from the local communities in the South

I would be inclined to look for examples of forms of organizing that emerged from more working-class perspectives. These have been largely ignored in America by upper-middle-class academics, but include more democratic approaches to union organizing, organizations that came after Ella Baker and MLK in the South (Deacons for Defense, for example), and aspects of the Black Power movement. And, of course Alinsky. I agree that we need to cast our net widely in our search for ideas and practices to inform social action. However, it seems likely that strategies developed in working-class settings will be more relevant to working-class struggles today than those developed by the upper-middle-class.

Fundamentally, what I think have been lost and most need to be regained and reinvented for the 21st Century are effective skills for fighting oppression. It is wonderful for people to read Baker, or even better, Woodson, but critical thought without concrete skills aren’t going to help people actually fight.

We have incredibly limited resources to put towards efforts to organize communities. If you create a fully staffed office of scholars (who don’t know much about organizing) to teach people to be researchers, then that is money you cannot use to teach people to fight. If we had infinite resources, I’d say let’s do both. But we don’t. In my city, we don’t have money to staff an office period, no matter what you’d like it to do. And I think we would be better off using resources we might get in a different way.

If all you’ve got is Aaron Schutz, and he has limited time and no significant funding to offer you (and he’s not an expert organizer), what do you want from him? Do you want him to run a seminar on Ella Baker (for a group that already has a well-developed organizing strategy)? Or do you want him to help you develop a brochure on health problems to help mobilize the community to action? Do you want him to run a seminar on Woodson? Or do you want him to help coordinate a conference to teach community organizing skills? You can’t have both.

I know what the community folks that I work with would prefer.

(As a related point, do you really want to spend much of your precious limited time educating Aaron Schutz how to interact with non-scholars?)

The resource issue is perhaps even greater on the side of lower-income folks in the community with children. They have only so much time they can give to “struggle.” Will spending most or much of that time focusing on research skills and doing research ultimately empower the largest number of community members? If so, then let’s do it. If not, then let’s together find other activities that are more likely to help people become empowered.

Given limited resources, what and how can we help people learn to best equip them to change their communities?

In education, specifically, it seems useful to distinguish between different levels of organizing. There’s organizing on the local school level, organizing on a district level, organizing on a state level, and organizing on a national level.

At the very local level, in individual schools and to some extent on the district level, it may be useful for parents and community members to engage with more subtle issues about pedagogy. At the state level and district level, however, one is often fighting for much broader issues like dental care, small class sizes, etc. And one is generally fighting for a limited set of well-framed goals, not constantly churning up new and subtle questions.

If we focus all our efforts on the local level then we are not going to be able to fight against the incredible resource limitations and regulations (NCLB, for example) that make it difficult to do much on the local level regardless of how subtle our analysis is. (And it’s always crucial to remember that most of the conditions that affect children’s ability to succeed are not “school” problems at all—one need only think of joblessness or the systems that send so many poor people of color to prison for minor drug offenses.)

Do politicians and district officials respond to a group of parents because they have collected their own data, or because these parents confront them as an organized collective? You know the answer. In general, people in power respond only if they think organized groups have significant power. It is clearly also important that organizing groups can show that they understand what they are talking about. But the powerful couldn’t care less whether a group has collected its own data or not.

Even if we decide research skills are crucial in particular cases, these skills will look quite different from those used by university scholars. We need to come up with research activities that take a minimum amount of time so that people have time left to actually organize and fight. We need to come up with research activities that are directly linked to organizing efforts, that are, for example, designed to help people get organized and create a broader web of relationships to draw upon more than they are to help people do research presentations at AERA.

Of course, parents and other community members need to figure out what they want to fight for, and they need to learn about different pedagogical issues. If they are just doing what experts tell them without understanding or framing issues to fit their own needs, then that’s clearly an enormous problem.

Even on the local level, however, many issues can be framed in fairly basic terms. Do we cut extracurricular activities or not? Do we have enough teachers? Or even, is standardized testing really the way to help students learn? How much research do people need to do to understand these issues? Is “doing” research the best way to come to an adequate understanding?

In other words, I think we need to start with questions about understanding, empowerment and organizing, and then see what will accomplish this. Different contexts, at different levels, will require different answers.

Conducting research should be one tool in service of empowerment, not a goal in itself.

The truth is that on basic issues like health care or 40+ kids in a class, affected people want things to change. The specific details often aren’t that important. (Do most people really care if we use one small class size plan or another?) Nor, frequently, is where exactly we start fighting. (Do we start with health care or small classes? Whether we prefer one or the other, things are so bad that either would be wonderful.) The fact is that political realities often mean that the options available for responding to each problem are sometimes quite limited. In addition, openings for action may emerge at particular moments for other kinds of change, regardless of where we wish we could act.

More generally, it is crucial to remember that non-academics, especially poor people, of necessity know a lot about their own lives and their own communities. Everyone in the scholarly community needs to think carefully about how much this understanding needs to be supplemented. In many cases, people may not really need to collect that much new information, or gain much information from scholars (or Woodson, or Baker) to make “informed” decisions about their own communities.

One final comment on Alinsky:

The folks working in the Alinsky tradition don’t somehow have a lock on answers to the challenges of organizing for power. If they really were so smart, they’d have accomplished a heck of a lot more than they have. Their organizations would be much more powerful than they are. But I believe the skills and ideas they have developed provide a good place to start. More generally, I think their basic conviction—that we need to start with questions about how we generate collective power for ethical action, and move forward from there—is correct.