Tuesday, February 26, 2008

FEBRUARY DISCUSSION FORUM: Empowerment and the Failure of Progressive Education

[Note: this summarizes and extends on an argument made in this forthcoming article and in a book I am currently revising. Related discussions can be found at educationaction.org]

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.

--John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

Fights for decent housing, economic security, health programs, and for many of these other social issues for which liberals profess their sympathy and support, are to the liberals simply intellectual affinities. . . . [I]t is not their children who are sick; it is not they who are working with the specter of unemployment hanging over their heads.

--Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals

The field of education is often a decade or more behind intellectual developments in other fields. It is perhaps for this reason that the full impact of revisionist histories of progressivism (e.g., Fink, McGerr, Rauchway, Sinyai, Southern, Stromquist) has yet to emerge in our writings. It is important to understand, however, that the cumulative impact of this new work represents a fundamental challenge to the proponents of progressive democratic education. What these books show is the extent to which the progressives were trapped within the horizon of their own privileged experience. Collectively, with more or less sophistication, they developed a vision of a democratic society that expressed the utopian hopes of middle-class professional work-sites, families, intellectual dialogues, and social gatherings. Few had any significant experience with the less privileged. And even those who did, like Jane Addams, held tight to a vision of a democratic society where everyone would be able to collaborate intelligently and caringly with each other, where stark facts of unequal POWER would cease to rule.

From the perspective of turn-of-the 20th Century progressives, those with less privilege and education appeared much like children, to be taken care of until they grew into full citizenship by internalizing the advanced practices of democratic engagement that grounded the dreams of privileged reformers (so did the upper class, but they had less influence there). On this point, thinkers as divergent as Walter Lippmann and John Dewey were essentially in agreement, even if Dewey had much more hope and respect for the less educated. Everyone had much to learn, but the ignorance and practical limitations of the lower classes in terms of their capacity for true democratic participation was a if not the crucial impediment to true democracy.

The progressives did accomplish much that was significant for the impoverished in America. But the key word is FOR. It is difficult to point to any significant accomplishments in actually empowering people who looked and spoke and acted differently than them.

Progressive educators today are the inheritors of the progressivism of yesterday. The focus of progressive education research is on making our classrooms places for holistic learning and collaborative engagement. And these are quite wonderful goals. But they have little or nothing to do with empowerment. The fact is that skills for collaborating with equals are only useful when one is working with equals.

(The progressive dream of our society as a room full of people from different places and experiences that all learn to work together and benefit from their unique capacities is increasingly proving to be just that: a dream. To his own chagrin, Robert Putnam of “Bowling Alone” fame found that relational “social capital” is built most effectively in places where people are similar, not where they are different—he sat on this data for quite a while to see if he could figure out how to interpret it differently, and he couldn’t. Research on power inequalities in classrooms indicates that one achieves some equality of participation not when you treat the less powerful like unique individuals but instead when you “empower” them as representatives of particular groups.)

The heroes education scholars look to are people who think and act like we do. We have generally failed to be self-critical enough to ask why we find particular approaches to democracy and inequality compelling. We look to Dewey, but almost completely avoid what Gramsci would call the “organic intellectuals” of labor movement and the field of community organizing.

The Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example. The collaborative, non-hierarchical visions of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the similar vision of Myles Horton and the Highlander School are often held up as shining examples of democratic empowerment. Almost always obscured is the fact that the leaders of these groups represented the educated elite, mostly from the North. Further ignored is the fact that SNCC fell apart when indigenous working-class members began to assert themselves and their distinct cultural model of empowerment. It is at least arguable that many of the most effective actions of the Movement in the South emerged more out of these indigenous practices than from Baker and Robert Moses’s SNCC or Horton’s Highlander (see Hill).

Of course SNCC and Highlander were critically important. And Dewey was no ignoramus. Instead the key point is that these progressive visions are most useful as supplements to practices of collective empowerment that have been developed in contexts of inequality. Ironically, there is no real way to understand the real usefulness of these progressive visions until we can honestly bring them together with working-class and other models of empowerment on some level of equality. Each side, I believe (and there are more than two sides, here) has the potential to inform the other. But we can’t do this if we know little or nothing about the alternatives to progressivism that progressivism might inform.

Empowerment for those on the bottom is a collective and not an individual accomplishment. The problem is not a lack of knowledge. Even the most profound critical examination of oppressive social forces is not of much use if you don’t know what to do about what you have learned. (In fact, knowledge of this kind, by itself, is often quite disempowering.)

There is a paradox, here, of course. On the one hand we need to be more respectful to indigenous practices and ways of seeing. We need to seek out and value “organic intellectuals” who reflect the best and most effective practices of these communities. On the other hand, there is much too little happening to contest oppression and inequality in America. There are, in fact, skills that people in oppressed contexts need to learn if they are even going to begin to resist.

The problem with progressives was not that they wanted to teach people who needed to learn. The problem was that they tried to make “others” into mini-versions of themselves.

In the end, I think one useful criteria would be: what is the minimum that people need to learn for them to become empowered? What is the smallest intervention in someone else’s culture that we can make that will actually be effective? I am not under the illusion that these are easy questions to answer.

We know this, at least:

Many of our children grow up in cages; lie in bathtubs at night in fear of stray bullets; curl themselves into fetal balls from the gut-wrenching terror of post traumatic stress disorder; steel themselves from the pain of rotting teeth, wake coughing at night from treatable asthma; and tolerate school as long as they can with the full knowledge that it won’t do much for them just as it didn’t for their parents and neighbors.

These kids are not hopeless victims. They are often quite sophisticated in their analyses of their own conditions. But in most cases they also don’t really know what to do to change the futures they can see so clearly ahead of them.

So, a call to action:

1) Middle-class, professional education scholars should take some time to consider the possibility that we find progressive visions of education compelling because of who we culturally are as much as because of some inherent relevance in these theories and practices themselves. (Note: I include most scholars from working-class backgrounds in this broad call—success in any cultural milieu requires people to take on the characteristics valued there. Counter-intuitively, it may in fact be true that resisting middle-class ways of thinking is easier, in a pragmatic sense, for those of us who are the most thoroughly initiated into this culture in the first place. No one will ever accuse people like myself of not being able to play the academic game.)

2) Every once in a while, all of us should reflect on the fact that, regardless of how pissed off we are that we didn’t get much of a raise this year, we are some of the most privileged people ever to walk on this planet. In what ways does this privilege affect our work on a daily basis?

3) We should acknowledge that schools are usually places where less privileged parents feel unsafe and judged. Schools are not likely places for scholars, teachers, and working-class people to meet on any level of equality.

4) Education scholars whose work is not relevant to student and community empowerment should stop for a moment and justify to themselves why they have chosen the topics and focus they have. (You don’t need to justify this to someone else, just to yourself). Repeat as necessary.

5) Courses on the history and philosophy and sociology of education, at the least, should include works from the world of community and union organizing that reflect visions of education linked directly to collective empowerment from the perspective of impoverished and working-class people.

6) Graduate students should be encouraged to look beyond traditional visions of “learning” and “democratic education” to explore practices of empowerment focused on collective action. Ask them: “Who will this help and how?” “Maybe this will help kids do math better, but will that fact really help them much in their lives?” “Is education about ‘learning’ or about life success? And if it isn’t about life success, then why bother?” (Of course, it is possible to use mathematics education in empowering ways (see Moses). Again, in the end they need to justify it to themselves, not to established scholars, although established scholars may need to choose who they have the time to work with).

7) Scholars at top universities should explore innovative ways to find people who may not have great GRE scores but may have the experience and inner fortitude to produce unique and powerful work that can shift the field.

8) We should ditch the term “social justice.” Social justice is a goal, not a practice. You don’t teach social justice, you teach practices that will help you achieve social justice. Focusing on social justice often allows scholars to spin wonderful utopian visions of a beautiful world without thinking concretely about how it will be achieved.

9) The field of education as a whole should support a range of creative efforts that explore how more effective practices of student empowerment might be initiated in traditional public schools given the severe limitations such efforts will inevitably face. These efforts might include ways of concealing the teaching of practices of leadership and collective action within efforts that at least seem non-threatening to the powerful.

10) Scholars working in alternative education settings that can allow more radical efforts should explore ways for engaging students more directly in social action projects in ways that might educate them about how to resist power and oppression. (The fact is, students should be required in every school to master practices of community empowerment just as they are required to master mathematics).

11) Schools of education should find a way to integrate efforts to foster community empowerment into their offerings. Most important would be the development of new or adapted programs that ensure long-term student enrollment in these areas. Only when there is student enrollment that requires the hiring of professors with expertise in community organizing and engagement can we hope to escape the limitations of “faddism,” especially given the increasing economic pressures faced by most universities. This would require a fundamental rethinking of the “charge” of schools of education. It would involve a willingness to embrace challenges of “education” that emerge in the community and not just in schools. And it would necessarily include the acknowledgement that significant and durable school reform is unlikely to happen in impoverished areas unless these communities are empowered to demand, supervise, evaluate, and maintain these innovations.

12) Scholars interested in these issues in schools of education should join together with scholars in other fields with similar interests to form collaborative teams to share knowledge and develop multidisciplinary projects. (Other key areas would include: social work, public health, sociology, urban studies, communications, etc. I’m currently part of a team developing a Ph.D. in Public Health at my university, and the group has agreed—so far—to focus on knowledge of community empowerment as a key goal.)


James Horn said...

Thank, Aaron, for your provocative post--even though no one much seems provoked.

There are a number of points I would raise, but I might as well begin with this one in hopes of stirring things up a bit more. You said:

"We should ditch the term “social justice.” Social justice is a goal, not a practice. You don’t teach social justice, you teach practices that will help you achieve social justice. Focusing on social justice often allows scholars to spin wonderful utopian visions of a beautiful world without thinking concretely about how it will be achieved."

A couple of questions: Should we ditch goals on the basis that they are not practices? If we have no worthy goals, to what aims do good practices aspire? Because some have "wonderful utopian visions," is that reason enough to condemn those visions? Or should we urge the "visionaries" to get their hands a little dirty, too, with some practice aimed at attaining their vision?

Even though I would commit to make social justice a systemic goal that is supported by pragmatic objectives, strategies, and tactics aimed at achieving it, I would not consider getting rid of it because someone misused the concept. After all, the Decider has made an entire mess of "democracy" and "freedom," but I would much rather replace W than get rid of the cherished, though ravished, ideals that he has used to evil ends.

Aaron Schutz said...

Well, maybe this sprawling post was too much to handle for a dialogue. I'm trying, here, to start to write my way into a short version of longer work I'm writing on this same issue. So if others want to wait until the next "forum" to respond, I'll understand. Don't let my online personality stop the future forums.

Jim, I think you have a good point, here, and I probably should have cut the point about "social justice." And I may just go in and cut it. My frustration is that this term has become so vague that it doesn't do any real academic work. There is no problem with having wonderful ideas, but there is a problem when these ideas stand in for real work on how to achieve them.

Your response is correct, I think, on the abstract level. My concern is more empirical (although I haven't really analyzed enough "data"). My general sense is that "social justice" too often has become an excuse to feel good about ourselves, about what we are saying and thinking without taking the more difficult steps of actually coming up with ways to achieve "social justice." Of patting each other on the back. To some extent, I want to push people who are a little too self-congratulatory (I ran into a couple of these sessions at AESA) to be more self-critical. Perhaps ditching "social justice" wouldn't do this. And it isn't really going to happen anyway :)

I ran into something similar at a session where the presenters spoke of themselves as activists, and in my late night grumpiness, I asked them what they had accomplished and what strategies they had to actually make change. They didn't really have much response, mostly, and seemed quite miffed that I was not impressed with the fact that they were "doing" activism even though even they could see it didn't seem to be accomplishing much. The one person that had a more concrete response seemed either unwilling or unable to posit any coherent model for others to draw on. This person was completely focused on a "profound" analysis of social oppression, and the story of student resistance seemed like an "add on". (I'm not sure the story would have been told if I hadn't pushed for it.) So a story was told about what some students had done, congratulations were received, and still any real analysis was lacking about what lessons it might have for others trying to do the same thing.

This seems pretty common in education: a sense there are "cool" people who are cool because they are right and have a great social critique, and wear round wire glasses (or cool hairdos) even though they haven't much idea what to do with it. (Cue the old critiques of the critical theorists) Or, they've hung out with people who do know how to do something (e.g., visiting the democratic movements in Latin America) and that makes them cool, even though they don't have much sense of what these stories imply for places where these things aren't happening. ("power to the people, man!")

This may be unfair. I'm sure it's unfair to at least some people. But I wish it was more unfair than I think it is.

And the point isn't that I'm so cool (although as Arendt said, it's up to others to decide whether one is an arrogant jerk or not). But at least I and some others are beginning to engage in some concrete strategic action at the same time as we maintain some strong critique of our own concrete failings.

I do feel good about what I've accomplished with others, but it really isn't much. I'm pissed off that so little is happening in the central city in my city, but I'm no hero. I spend a lot of time in my privileged coffee shop typing or reading and giving my daughter things that kids just across the highway won't ever have. But I do feel passionate about figuring out how to do more with the little time I will give to this issue.

Look, we've got the social critique down. We have for a long time. So now what do we do? And who is going to figure it out? And if education doesn't contribute to figuring it out, then it isn't doing it's job to promote a real democratic society.

One final point is that I'm really a reformist--like Dewey, I suppose--more than a radical. I'm not looking to overthrow the government. I just want kids' teeth not to fall out. I just want them and their neighbors to have some power to resist the shitty things the world does to them.

Barbara Stengel said...

I've got a million thoughts, Aaron, in response to your post. Let me throw out just two for now.

1) I too could live without reliance on "social justice" as part of the lingo of contemporary progressive education. It seems too often to be used in a self-righteous, self-congratulatory tone as you pointed out. I get Jim's point about the value of goals -- and before it became a slogan, social justice was a pretty great way of articulating a (perhaps the) critical goal of democratic education. It made the case for justice AS social! But it's not advancing much of value at present. It tends to be used as a trump card to win the trick and stop interaction and dialogue, and I'm not thinking much good ever came of that.

2) Here's the line that I want to put glitter on: "Empowerment for those on the bottom is a collective and not an individual accomplishment." This I think is the critical theoretical insight in your post and I'm still chewing on it.

I remain perplexed by the way we talk about "power" and "empowerment". We make the case, as you do, that it's a relational, collective state of affairs or phenomenon -- but it's really hard to frame language that keeps that recognition front and center. We (I?) keep reverting to a taken-for-granted view of power as an attribute of a person -- and that view allows us to then judge those without power as somehow deficient. I continue to ponder the psychology of that move.

That's all for now, but here's a teaser about what I might try to throw into the conversation next. I have a vague feeling that you're putting yourself in a potential dead end by talking about empowerment in the collective and then talking about requiring/stipulating curricula that might themselves become disempowering. I hear what you are saying about valorizing as powerfully educational the organizational responses of the disempowered. But I'm unconvinced that the ameliorating suggestions you are making will unlock the tower of empowerment. (You seem to recognize that at the end.)

Aaron Schutz said...

Barb, I'm not entirely clear on your last point, here. The goal would be to look empirically at what kinds of curricula are empowering. Of course, this doesn't avoid arguments about what this means. From my perspective, the key is acknowledging the importance of a zero-sum view of power, in that power and resources generally needs to be taken from others one way or another.

It's not about "unlocking the tower of empowerment" but about moving in some small way, at least, concretely in that direction.

One key point is that knowledge about and skills for effective strategies for social action are so lacking in poor communities that even relatively small changes in the number of people who have this knowledge and these skills might make a significant difference. Part of the reason is that the community organizing model is more focused on "leaders" than on making sure every individual has an advanced set of practices to draw upon.

But I'd still like to think about how we might be able to sneak some of this material into regular schools.

Of course, any set of practices can be coopted or become disempowering by being watered down, etc. But I'm not sure what you are meaning specifically, here.

Aaron Schutz said...

One key issue to understand is that what you want to train in the labor/community organizing models are leaders who can be "organizers." In indigenous groups, leaders often play both roles. More formal groups often separate these roles.

The job of an organizer, along with keeping an organization going, is to generate new leaders and help them grow. And generating new leaders is partly about helping them understand how to recruit new supporters. So to some extent, a comprehensive empowerment training program would provide opportunities for youth and adults to learn to become trainers of leaders and formers of organizations. You never have enough leaders, so the aim, in the ideal, is continually an educational one. As one shifts into an organizer role, one increasingly moves into the background, nudging (or challenging) others to take the leader roles. In other words, this is not about finding charismatic controllers, but about nurturing people who can create and support organizations and who can bring up leaders themselves (which, of course, requires people who know how to be leaders themselves). And "leader" in this terminology is not simply the MLK type, but anyone who can contribute to the core functioning of an organization. Leaders include pretty much anyone who shows up to planning meetings. Non-leaders are supporters who come to events. You want as many supporters to turn into leaders as possible. But you need lots of supporters. In theory, it should be a pretty organic process. Of course, in reality it's much more problematic.

Barbara Stengel said...

I probably should not have thrown that "teaser" in -- and I don't have time to develop it now so I promise to come back to it.

What I want to comment on quickly is your point (made more clearly here than in your original post and that reveals what your central argument with the last century progressives might be) that power really IS a zero-sum game (Dewey and Addams seem to think that it ain't necessarily so and Mary Parker Follett explicitly argues that it isn't constructive to think that way.). You want to say that until you think of power as a zero sum game, the basic socio-political and socio-economic structure stays in place -- is that right?

So here's my question: is it either/or?? Power as zero sum (power over) OR power as generative (power with/to)??? Or are BOTH formulations both useful and dangerous??

Aaron Schutz said...

Interesting question. Of course in an abstract sense, again, it's always both/and.

But, and I'm not sure I've framed it quite this way before, I think that power is more zero-sum as you move down the social scale. Ask any union organizer whether she things power is zero-sum, for example.

It is our privilege that makes us think that the world can operate in a non-zero-sum way. We sit among relative equals and can pull something together. But when you have little power, and people with power don't really want to cooperate, well, you are back to zero-sum.

Alinsky said that nobody ever GIVES you anything worth anything. Critical Race Theory pretty much says the same thing. The kind of problems inner-city youth face will cost $$ to solve. They will require someone to give something up. And nobody wants to give anything up--especially if it may mean that their own kids will have less of a chance to succeed.

The myth of a non-zero-sum world is a comforting myth for the privileged, because it paints a picture of a world where the oppressed can be helped without them having to give anything up.

Education itself, as others have pointed out, is the epitome of non-zero-sum thinking. Let's not change the economics of society, let's just educate people and then everybody can succeed. It's a lie.

Look, I'm pissed that I got only a 2% raise this year, even though I am upper middle class in terms of income in this city. I feel poor and that is patently rediculous, but there you are.

And I don't want to send my kids to a crummy school, and I can get my kid into a better school, and I did, and that probably means some less privileged kid won't get in. If you forced me into a crummy school, then I'd need to work to help fix it, and I could because I'm privileged. Although I'd probably just make sure there was tracking so that my kid did okay and the "low achievers" stayed out. But I don't have to go there, and so I won't have to help. And I'm too busy. Bummer for them.

That's zero-sum.

But progressive education (and all those happy kids shows I now have to watch) are all about how the solution to everything is that we should all get together and cooperate. That's a lie for kids on the bottom. It's a destructive lie. Because nobody with privilege has any interest in "collaborating" with them. Nobody even wants to talk with them.

Duane Campbell said...

As I understand it, after a great deal of reflection, one of the key differences between the progressives of Dewey's time, and our time, was their view of race You can read about this in the way the Progressive Party split over race,
In Dewey's era, the lower working class were largely European immigrants. For all of his positive contributions, he was seeking to create a new American. Today, as a consequence of the civil Rights movement, Multicultural Ed, and the new patterns of immigration, this largely assimilationist pattern is not usually a part of the "progressive" agenda. I have spent over 28 years in the socialist movements, and years as a factory worker and then union organizer, before becoming a teacher and then a professor.
I agree that a loose affiliation with social justice allows for a "liberal" view of reform.
On a parallel point, I know personally two, outstanding, nationally recognized organizers from the Alinksy and Midwest Academy tradition. Later in their lives they moved from organizers to public school teachers.
From my own experience and theirs, we need to not romanticize the role of organizers or community organizers.
Another role for Ed schools or any university would be to guide " professionals" to be allies of working class and people's movements. How can we be allies? We are not the leaders.
My own personal experience is having worked with Miles Horton, Paulo Friere, Cesar Chavez and many current public intellectuals such as Cornel West.
I think our task is to figure out how to participate in the struggle rather than assume that we are leaders of the struggle.
Duane Campbell

Aaron Schutz said...

Thanks for your comment, Duane.

I agree that we shouldn't romanicize organizers, and I have been quite critical myself elsewhere on this blog. But they represent a tradition that is crucial to understand and build upon, one that educators know little or nothing about.

The racial issues of the progressives has emerged even more strongly in recent scholarship.

I would say, however, that in terms of "who" we want others to be, progressive educators are still very "assimilation" minded, in that we want kids to embody the culture of middle-class professionals, and denigrate other cultural models.

I agree that educators shouldn't be "leaders;" instead it's their job to do what they do best, provide contexts in which their students can learn skills for leading and organizing themselves. How exactly they could do this remains to be seen. But I also think Schools of Education could do more than teach teachers, as I've said. We can and should work more with community adults who could learn to be organizers and leaders.

Part of the problem is that there isn't much "struggle" going on in many parts of our country. I think we can help provide a context for (critically) transmitting some of the lessons of the past, providing a base for others to begin to struggle without having to recreate the wheel. Part of this would involve linking university-based learning with non-university learning (e.g., Midwest Academy, union organizer training, etc.) and internships, so that we can bring the best of all three together. That's what our tiny community organizing certificate at my University tries to do.

These are not easy questions to answer. But few scholars in education are even asking them.

Unknown said...

I'm here from OpenLeft...

Just skimmed this but found it most interesting. Will be back soon with something, hopefully cogent, to say.

philip said...

This is long, complex, and deserves to remain at the top of the page...Is there a way to bump this up...and perhaps shorten the intro so new material remains visible on the page?

Aaron Schutz said...

I think the next forum person should feel free to post.

I would love to hear from those who didn't have time to respond, although I understand that this was a bit much to digest. It's something I'm planning to write up more formally, and if there are those that think I'm totally off base, it would be nice to hear it here.

Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Aaron,

OK, so I am waaaay late with this posting; though, to make myself happy, I can argue that if this was a journal article, my reply would be incredibly prompt. Ahh, the power of technology.

What I love about your work and argument (in general and here in specific) is that you flip the entire paradigm of what education is and should be. To me it slams home with your statement that “The focus of progressive education research is on making our classrooms places for holistic learning and collaborative engagement. And these are quite wonderful goals. But they have little or nothing to do with empowerment.” For if one truly takes that perspective seriously, one has to reconceptualize what the classroom looks like and what curriculum and instruction do. It reminds me of John Taylor Gatto’s teaching (not critical theory writing, mind you, but his actual teaching when he was a classroom teacher).

Let me, though, focus on what I see as a problematic conflation in your argument. Specifically, it seems to me you conflate “progressive education” and “progressive education research.” For your arguments and your indignation rest on and in the inequities faced daily by the marginalized and excluded kids. Yet, as you are very clear to state, you are an educational researcher. So unless you are about to quit and become a classroom teacher or community organizer, you need (it seems to me) to embrace your position in the academy. I know you do, I know you do. Don’t get me wrong. You talk about faculty lines and starting PhD programs, etc, etc. But you want to save the world or at least change how community organizing is done in Milwaukee to make it a better place for all. But if you are truly an academic, you cannot have it both ways. Your status and positioning and power are, by definition, coterminous with your title. No title of associate professor and chair, no power. Or to be more precise, a different power that does not reside in the role.

So what does this mean? Stanley Fish put it provocatively a few years ago in a Chronicle commentary (“Aim Low”) when he argued against “civic engagement” for undergraduates: stick to the practices in your own shop and do them well. I don’t want to tangent into Fish’s arguments, but the point for me is that you can do a damn lot of good by creating exactly what you are doing: tenure-track lines; social foundations that includes rather than implicitly excludes the community; collaborations with non-profits; etc. This is change (and, dare I say it, social justice) through accretion. Slow, tedious, political, academic. But, damn it, accretion it is. The exemplar for me is women’s studies, which, through “disciplining” feminism, created an “academic home” for ideas and perspectives truly excluded in the academy prior to their work.

Anyway, to sum up, I say embrace your positionality. Embrace that you are a scholar who is not an organizer who is committed to community organizing through his academic work. Of course there is overlap; of course it is not either/or. But to conflate “education” and “educational research” ultimately denies you the only power you have. As an academic making dramatic and important changes over the long term.

Thanks for the post.


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Interesting concept: social justice by accretion. Is it an oxymoron?

Aaron Schutz said...

Hi, Dan.

We teach math, but are not mathematicians, we teach ecology but are not ecologists. Why cannot we teach organizing although we are not organizers? Further, what creative ways might we link classroom teaching to actual organizing experiences? How might we blur the boundaries between the academy and the community without denying the power and potential blind spots and tensions between both.

I am an educator and a scholar and an administrator (regretfully) and also a leader in a local community organizing group. I am trying to shift the academy (probably unsuccessfully) and I am trying to change the way organizers and funders of organizers think about organizing, and I am working within my local organization to fight for specific improvements, and I am trying to help grow a department that embodies some of what I think foundations of education could become.

I want to accrete change, and I want to jolt scholars into being self-critical (whether they end up agreeing with me is up to them), and I want to change the field's sense of itself, and I want a few schools to teach their kids how to organize, and I want to change the way we think about community school engagement, and I want to improve the way organizing happens in urban America, and those are just my public goals. The point is not that I have the answers, but that I think I can push others to think differently.

Interestingly enough, I cross-posted a recent post, "core dilemmas of community organizing" on some other blogs. It was promoted to the front page of OpenLeft, and rescued on MyDD a day or so ago. Tonight I heard that a significant funder read it on OpenLeft and thought it was insightful and is interested in talking with me.

It's about the "ands" Dan, not about the "ors". We can play multiple roles and should.

Yes, there are issues about moving back and forth across academic borders. So be it. This is the reality. Drawing the boundaries so strictly in the way you seem to be doing (and maybe I've misread you) simply denies the real complexity of the multiplicity of the positions we all occupy.

And by the way, what would have happened if women's studies programs kept trying to teach people how to organize in addition to how to analyze Beloved?

And about the Fish article. You made a similar point earlier. What Fish was talking about, if I remember correctly, was not trying to change the moral practices and beliefs of our students. But as I said then:

"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. . . . ?)"

It's a set of concepts and practices. Like math, like psychology, like social work. . . . these can be taught. How to teach them best? That's a different question.

Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Aaron,

Good for you about the potential funder. I hope it works out. But that, I think, demonstrates my point. To put it crassly, if an organizer with no academic affiliation had posted it, it might have had a lot less traction.

Lee Shulman pointed out in 1986 that we in teacher education do not just teach content, or just pedagogy; we also, and most importantly, teach pedagogical content knowledge. We teach the “meta” part of understanding how math or ecology or, in this case, community organizing is done such that we can understand, teach, and, ultimately, do it better. That is what makes us teacher educators or math educators or whatever educators. Because we do the “academizing” of the topic we are studying. I am in no way suggesting that this makes us cool or activist or social justice inspired. That is what I meant with my Fish reference and I agree completely with your reply on that point.

But what you are still doing – with the reference to Beloved – is suggesting some kind of binary between the academy and “the streets” and that the outside needs to come inside in order to truly make a difference. I don’t buy it. This was Martha Nussbaum’s attack on Judith Butler – “The professor of parody” Nussbaum titled the article – was all about; and it was inaccurate. I’ve written about this in the context of service-learning; put briefly, such a perspective conflates the academic with the non-consequential and it presumes activism as always liberal and always liberatory. But that’s a whole other argument. Ultimately, I think I am simply trying to nudge out of you a little bit of acknowledgment that we as academics have a specialized role to play. We can also cross-over into other domains and fields; but we can only do so because of our status as academicians. If we lose that aspect of our profession, we lose our ability to do everything else you want to do as well.

James Horn said...

Horton, who toured with Alinsky at one time, has a nice distinction between educating and organizing in We Make the Road by Walking (pp. 115-122).

Freire chimes in, too.

This remarkable little book is available online. What a clear, deep spring it is--as spiritual as politics gets.

Aaron Schutz said...

Hi, Dan. Thanks for your willingness to keep pushing me!

In terms of your earlier post, I think we mostly agree. I don’t expect radical changes in the field, but I do think that small changes can make a difference. I’m not really trying to convince more established scholars, but instead open a door for new folks. So in that sense, when I’m playing that role, I do think it will be a slow process. In fact, I’m pretty certain It’ll fail. But that’s the luxury of having a faculty position.

I wasn’t suggesting a simple binary between the “streets” and the academy. I was only trying to point out that different academic activities are more or less distant from practice. And if little practice is going on, the influence of the meta meta practice won’t be that great. Women studies dropped practice in favor of meta meta analysis, in my understanding. Maybe that was a mistake. Certainly many have noted that this pull away from practice had a crucial impact on the field of women’s studies.

I’m not sure I really get your Shulman argument. I do research, and I also teach, and I’m also developing curriculum for others to teach organizing and I want others to create new programs where it is taught. I’m not an organizer. But I know enough to teach my part in a collaborative effort to educate organizers (that include internships and other outside training by organizers). If I teach someone to be an organizer, and they go out and organize, then, well, that’s had a social justice impact, right? If they don’t, they don’t.

I think part of our difference of opinion may come, in part, from our different positionings. My sense is that you treat your academic identity as your primary public identity. In general, I also do, but not in every public space I participate in.

For example, when I started working with MICAH, the community organizing group I work with, I never emphasized my professor identity, although people knew, and I had the luxury of not needing to do “research” in any formal way because I was a theory head. The point is not that my professor identity didn’t matter, the point is that it wasn’t primarily the way I presented myself or, I think, how I was received. At times, my academic skills were useful, but less often than you might think (more lately as I’ve slowly learned how to translate).

When I met with officials about getting health services for MPS schools I think they knew I was a professor, but, again, that’s not what got me in the door, and I didn’t really emphasize it. What they cared about was my relationship with MICAH, and what we wanted to do. They never mentioned my professor identity.

On the blogosphere, my experience is that what is valued is actual product. No one particularly cares “who” you are. You can find out that I’m a professor if you read my bio on OpenLeft, for example, but it isn’t otherwise a part of my online identity. The key theoretical writer on Open Left is actually editor of an alternative newspaper in CA, but I had to dig around on the Internet to figure that out. In fact, I think being an academic can be a drawback in these spaces. So, no, I’m not sure it made a big difference that I was an academic that some people were drawn to that particular piece. Certainly it wasn’ t what got them to read it in the first place. That’s part of what makes participating in blog discussions so odd for an academic. Everyone is essentially equal based on what they say, and the “autodidacts” may come off better than traditional academics.

If I can influence the larger dialogue in the organizing community about how we generate more organizing, that goes much farther than just accretion. We are actually at a moment where people with $$ are trying to figure out where to put it and, I think, at a real crisis point in the economy and in our society.

Finally, I think the key danger in what I’m arguing for is that of “professionalization,” that the academic will colonize the community. In this case, however, this danger is complicated by the fact that, first, there isn’t that much organizing going on to colonize relative to the challenges we face. Second, in a sense “organizing” has already been “professionalized” by the large community organizing groups, often in a negative way. I think that the academy could actually play a role in bringing more critical dialogue to strategies and practices that seem in some cases to have become too narrow (e.g., the meta meta role). Third, I don’t think “organizing” will ever be really professionalized in the sense that a group emerges that “certifies” organizers. In any case, right now we don’t have a way of broadly educating people about organizing even on a very basic level and that is more of a problem than dangers of too much codification at the moment.

We may be talking past each other a bit here. I’m not certain.

Aaron Schutz said...

Jim, I also like the Horton/Freire book, and have taught it frequently.

Horton's distinction between organizing and education is quite subtle, depending a lot on his sophisticated and individual definitions of these terms. In general, I'd argue that his preference for what he calls education puts him right at the center of progressive visions of "power." He doesn't ever want to have to tell other people what to do, and is willing to sacrifice pragmatic achievements to maintain the relative purity of his dialogic space. He doesn't want to work with MLK, he wants to create largely Deweyan freedom schools. But I think there is a great deal of evidence indicating that the Horton approach, by itself, never would have produced the kind of change that made the civil rights movement important.

At the same time, many of Horton's key students went on to be "organizers," and he celebrated that. He didn't necessarily oppose the necessity of organizing, he just didn't want to do it himself--at least that's what he sounds like he's saying sometimes.

James Horn said...

Horton was an organizer and an educator, and he realized the necessity of understanding the difference between the two in order to know what he was doing.

In either of those roles, however, I think it safe to say that Horton always preferred leading his horse to water, rather than to drown him by trying to make him drink.

As for not wanting to work with MLK, it was soon after completing a workshop at Highlander that Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to giving up her seat for a white man in December 1955.

Dan W. Butin said...

OK, I think we should all post at once about one of Aaron's blogs and see if we can drown him out just through sheer numbers.

Just a joke.


Your reply was helpful and I don't think we are talking past each other at all. In fact, I think we have the same worries about what the academy can't accomplish, what it's unintended consequences might be, as well as is its potential. I think I just take a slightly more conservative and long-term stance on its power of social change.

Barbara Stengel said...

After reading through all comments here, I'm back to my earlier question: what's the relation between power over (intellectual power, physical power, economic power) and power with (the power of organizing and, done well, educating)??

Aaron, quick point about teaching math but not being a mathematician or teaching organizing and not being an organizer . . . I'm not sure that's right. A teacher has to have a sense of the practice that he or she is teaching (and all knowledge/subject matter is essential a matter of practice). For my money, the failure of many teachers is that they don't have a sense of the practice underlying the knowledge they are teaching (including "basic skills"). I don't think my point is exactly the same as Dan's Shulman point, but I'm not sure.

Of course, it's a matter of em-PHA-sis, not an either/or, but the real question is what's worrying you? What consequences does conflating the two (academicizing and organizing?) have that ought to be avoided?

I think I think we're all in agreement that reflection on practice (the stance of the academic) should not be utterly divorced from the actual practice (the stance of the organizer) or from the teaching of the practice (the stance of the educator). So the next question is should all three functions reside in one person?? And if that's implausible and/or impossible, what are the habitual modes of communication that must be in place for the needed cross-fertilization? And that's really what you are trying to lay out, isn't it?

And of course, we should ask: Is what's true for the teacher (ought to have a reflective stance and a sense of the practice as well as pedagogical focus) also true for the organizer and the academic (that is blend the three perspectives)? Is it only the teacher who needs to cross lines or do all three roles need the cross-fertilization? (You can probably guess my answer to that, and I think I know yours by the kind of frustration you express about pushing the academy, etc.)

Still, you know first hand, as many of us do, the costs -- in personal time, in "career building", in intellectual and emotional "schizophrenia" -- when one tries to integrate roles that are demanding in themselves . . . when a balkanized professional environment tends to keep each of us in separate boxes.

What I find powerful in what you are doing/writing is the call to recognition and communication, but I don't think it's a situation that can be "fixed" (both in the sense of setting it right and in the sense of setting it in stone). Which is not all bad because it continually gives us something all to talk about and work on :-)

Anonymous said...


I am working on a two year community organizing certificate for a community center.

If you were working on this, what content would you include?

Thanks for the feedback,

Aaron Schutz said...

I can tell you what we did. We basically put together a three component certificate with some extra electives.

Part 1 is an overview course about community organizing. It would be best to have more than one, but we've started with one.

Part 2 is an external training course. By requiring a course from an external group that is focused on teaching organizing, we acknowledge that you can't learn everything that's important about organizing from a University. We mostly focus on Midwest Academy, although this costs $$ which creates a problem for our students. Most of the major organizing groups have training courses, as do other institutes like the Center for Third World Organizing. You can find them on the web.

Part 3 is an internship with a community organizing group. This is linked to a critical paper, and would be linked to an actual capstone class if we had enough students.

One key thing is that you need to figure out what "counts" as community organizing for your program. For our program, you need to be engaged with a group that is trying to get people to contest power collectively. This definition eliminates most "organizing" that goes on in a wide range of non-profits. Organizing in non-conflict oriented groups generally involves more "by your own bootstraps" efforts or efforts to find people in power to collaborate with. These groups can't afford to antagonize the powerful. The problem with that approach is that it doesn't teach people how to contest those who oppress them. If powerful people were going to do things for us out of the goodness of their heart, they already would have. And the idea that communities are going to be able to reconstruct themselves without any outside help (or without stopping outside harm) is a fantasy, however vibrant and important these efforts might be.

You would need to decide what, exactly, will count as a "real" organizing internship, and this decision would then reverberate back through your curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post and mentioning as failure of Progressive education. At present education has became a great business to turnover money for most of them and very few are there working sincere to educate here.

gwinnett county private schools said...

This is a rather complex and heady discussion.

The problem with "organizing" is that organizing is a human exercise, and as such, is inherently flawed and will be tainted to serve the agenda of either a minority or majority interest, unconsciously or willingly. It is by nature that organizing or collectivism is doomed from the very clap of the gavel.

Unknown said...

Yes yar this is a complex discussion but interesting