Archive for October, 2010

Raising the Black Flag

Oct 26 2010 Published by under anarchism,borderland,education,politics

I’ve not studied anarchism as a political theory or philosophy before, nor the history of anarchism, so I’ve been reading up on it. And I find that anarchists are a fairly diverse group. Good thing, because there may be new opportunities for anarcho-educationists opening up soon, with all the teacher bashing that’s been happening in the media lately. I’ve been torn between keeping my head down or telling the bean counters to measure THIS, and let me get back to work.

Today the Dept. of Education issued an edict condemning bullying: “Bullying fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can seriously impair the physical and psychological health of its victims and create conditions that negatively affect learning, thereby undermining the ability of students to achieve their full potential.”

Interesting, considering their support for mass firings of teachers, “rigorous interventions”, termination of teacher tenure rights, public humiliation of teachers in LA (via Larry Ferlazzo), and recommending hurricanes over public deliberation when you want to tear down a community’s schools. They should clean up their own house before they start pointing fingers. But that is a problem they seem to have more broadly than just with education policy as the Obama administration copes with trying to keep the government’s criminal conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan secret, but for that pesky Juian Assange.

They don’t want to “improve” anything. If you want to sell something, first introduce the idea of quality so you can build one thing up while you tear something else down. Hence, non-unionized, corporate-run charter schools are being promoted.

From Noam Chomsky – Class War: The Attack on Working People:

Fact is, that to an extraordinary sense, by comparative standards, the United States is a business-run society, which means that human rights are subordinated to the overwhelming overriding need of profit for investors. Decisions are placed in the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies, which means that if formal democratic practices exist as they do, they’re of peripheral significance.

The government, in fact, is as John Dewey called it 50 or 60 years ago, the shadow cast by business over society so that modifications in the shadow are not going to change the substance. These were truisms throughout most of American history, including American working class history, until quite recently – until the 1950′s in fact. And it also means that social policy is geared to the transfer of wealth and power to those who already have it. And deliberately so.

Now, in more democratic societies, and by that I mean where democratic forms function more, there are countervailing forces that enable the public to enter the arena of policy and decision. That’s only true to a very limited extent – a remarkably limited extent – in the United States, despite quite impressive democratic forms. The country was founded on the principle that James Madison explained in the Constitutional Convention: That the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority. And so it remains, to a remarkable extent.

One of the most effective democratizing forces has always been the labor movement, the labor unions. The history on that has been completely clear. In countries that have a strong labor movement, there is also a very strong tendency or a strong correlation with a real, live, functioning social contract that includes not only rights for working people, but for people who need help and protection – for the defenseless, for children, for women, for families, for people in need of assistance generally. For the general public, in fact. And there’s also a culture that goes along with it – a culture of solidarity, and sympathy, and mutual aid and support.

In countries where unions are weak, like ours, we tend to find what’s called Tough Love, as they call it these days. Which means love for the privileged, and tough for everybody else.

Alan Moore, author of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow (Superman has gone missing, you know.) has this to say about anarchism and capitalism: “[W]hen you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society.” [My bold]

Here, I join Paul Goodman in Raising the Black Flag of Anarchism:

Anarchism is grounded in a rather definite proposition: that valuable behavior occurs only by the free and direct response of individuals or voluntary groups to the conditions presented by the historical environment. It claims that in most human affairs, whether political, economic, military, religious, moral, pedagogic, or cultural, more harm than good results from coercion, top-down direction, central authority, bureaucracy, jails, conscription, states, pre- ordained standardization, excessive planning, etc.

Anarchists want to increase intrinsic functioning and diminish extrinsic power. This is a social-psychological hypothesis with obvious political implications. Depending on varying historical conditions that present various threats to the anarchist principle, anarchists have laid their emphasis in varying places: sometimes agrarian, sometimes free city and guild-oriented; sometimes technological, sometimes anti technological; sometimes Communist, sometimes affirming property; sometimes individualist, sometimes collective; sometimes speaking of Liberty as almost an absolute good, sometimes relying on custom and “nature.”


There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called “anarchist.” It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite, as free enterprise turned into wage-slavery and monopoly capitalism, or the independent judiciary turned into a monopoly of courts, cops, and lawyers, or free education turned into School Systems.

I don’t know where any of this is headed. But I’m comforted by the fact that nobody else does, either. Stephen Downes points us in a really nice direction today, with his principles of democratic schooling: autonomy, diversity, openness, and interactivity. Doable, it seems to me.

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Making Fire

Oct 25 2010 Published by under anarchism,borderland,education

It’s been a while since I’ve put anything up here, I know. An explanation may be in order, but I don’t have one that’s worth a damn. Not only that, nobody wants to read about why somebody isn’t blogging. So I’ll just say that instead of thinking about education reform, I’ve been thinking about education blogging reform, looking at some new angles to explore.

I bought a B&N Nook last August when I was getting ready to travel down to New Mexico to my grown-and-on-her-own daughter’s wedding so I wouldn’t have to lug a pile of books along. I’ve been carrying it around with me everywhere since then, and I’ve gotten pretty good at finding free stuff to read. At this point, I’ve only paid for maybe four or five books, and I’ve got several hundred saved to it. It’s ideal for a person like me who loves to read, but has a short attention span. I’d consider it a must-have for the time I might someday find myself marooned on a desert island, except for the obvious battery limitations.

One of the books I did pay for is Derek Jensen’s Endgame. With the increasingly noxious effects of education reform creeping ever nearer, I’ve begun to look past the immediate stupidity at the larger stupidity behind it. One thing leads to another, naturally, and I see now that there are layers upon layers of stupid stacked up all the way back to God knows where. This treasure trove of material came along just in time, since everyone else has been all over the Superman thing, and Michelle Rhee’s sudden exit. Jensen’s book reads like a series of blog posts, and he takes aim, not at capitalism or corrupt politicians, or the evils of Big Oil, or the sell-outs in corporate media. No, he jumps right into the cesspool, and takes on Civilization itself. I admire a guy who follows a line of thought all the way to its inevitable endpoint. I’m not recommending the book here, or reviewing it, either, because I’m only just about done with Volume 1 (It is a two-volume mega-tome). I’m mentioning it now to establish a context for a little slice-of-life classroom moment I want to tell about. Before I get to that, though, I should mention that the irony of reading a critique of Western Civilization, written by an anarcho-primitivist, on an ebook reader, much of the time while I’m plugged into my iPod working out on an elliptical training machine at the gym is not lost on me. Life is full of contradictions, an important understanding that anyone interested in teaching should keep in mind at all times.

Anyway, this little classroom moment may be of interest. The focus for sixth-grade Social Studies is ancient civilizations. We study Egypt, the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. But, because I am slow, we never really get very far into Rome before I run into May, and summer break. And Rome is pretty interesting. Besides that, the kids don"™t really learn much about ancient civilizations slogging through the textbook on a chronological forced march. So, I decided that this year I"™d try something new, and study the topic conceptually. I think that it might be interesting to study civilization itself, as in government, culture, economy, technology, etc. and use the relevant ancient civilizations as examples of the general concept.

But first, we need to get the preliminaries out of the way and deal with the stone age. So right away, we learn that the stone age began about 2.5 million years ago, give or take a half million years, with the paleolithic era, and it morphed into the mesolithic era about the time the last ice age was wrapping up, 10,000 years ago. I saw an opportunity to bring a little math into the discussion, so I asked, About how many 10,000"™s are there in 2.5 million? We"™d been working on this kind of problem in Math, and a couple of kids who are on the ball said, "œ250!" Yes. And then I grabbed a meter stick, and drew a 100 cm line on the board. So what would 1/250 of a meter be? I asked. This was a bit harder until I reminded them that there were 1000 mm in a meter. "œOh, so it would be 4 mm," someone called out. Right. And then I drew a mark at the end of my 100 cm line, 4 mm from the right hand end. Here"™s a time line, I said. And this little chunk at the end is what we call Civilization.

It was an aha moment. Everything that society is today is the result of what happened inside that little space.

I asked, What would you do without all the stuff we have now to help us live? They were thinking about machines and electronics and stuff, of course. But I wanted them to think about more basic things, like food and clothes, which of course they couldn’t imagine. It was snowing a little bit outside, and I got an idea. What about heat? I asked. How would you keep warm?

"œFire! Of course,” they said. But how would you make fire without matches? This was harder. But, in less than a minute, the rub-two-sticks-together idea came up because everyone has heard of that. But how many people who have never appeared on reality TV have actually tried it? And what better thing would there be to do in school on a wet, snowy, fall day in Fairbanks? I had them out the door in their tennis shoes and sweatshirts in less than 2 minutes, headed for the strip of woods across the street. It"™s a little quasi-natural place wedged between the baseball diamonds and a residential area. It has never been bulldozed, and there are a lot of trees that nobody cares about.

The whole crew ran amok for a few minutes, grabbing likely-looking sticks and throwing them back down on the ground. We ran across an unexplained mystery, too, while we were there. One of the boys noticed a spruce grouse along the main path, dead, hanging by the neck from a notch in the branches of a willow shrub at just about eye-level. Its body was not defiled in any way. It looked… strange, almost like it had been placed there. But who would do such a thing? What happened? No way for us to tell. We left it alone after staring at it for a long while, speculating wildly about how it ended up there.

Back in the classroom, I told everyone to get busy making those fires. We had just 30 minutes left before Gym class. They got right to work. "œBut the sticks are wet!" they complained. What? I said. You"™re cave people! Deal with it. Someone had the bright idea of peeling the wet bark off, so they grabbed a pair of scissors and started stripping it away. Woah! There were no scissors in the stone age! Put those away. You don"™t even have metal. Now get busy before you freeze to death.

There was frantic activity. Bark was flying. Kids were trying all kinds of innovations for holding one of the sticks still while rubbing with the other. Some started to collaborate, and formed partnerships, taking turns holding and rubbing. One of the fifth grade teachers noticed what was going on from the hallway, and came in for a look. She had a big grin, and gave me a thumbs up. Eventually, one of the kids invited me to feel their stick; it was getting warm. What do you know? Better keep at it before it cools off! Soon, more kids reported warm sticks, and the activity level became even more feverish.

I noticed it was getting kind of smokey, or hazy in the room. Or was I just imagining things? Then I started smelling something. Maybe it was the popcorn concession next door. No. It smelled like wood burning. Hmmm. What if the fire alarm goes off? I started to get a little nervous about that. But… no. There wasn"™t much time left before Gym class. The smell was exactly like one of those woodburning pyrography sets, though; and it was really strong by the time we had to knock off to go to the gym. I wonder if it could have set off the alarm.

Later on, after they were out of the room, I thought about how cool it would have been for a group of sixth graders to know they had actually set off the fire alarm, causing the school to be evacuated because they were rubbing two sticks together. Maybe next year….

There may be a lesson for edubloggers in there. I’m sorry I’ve not been as active here as I’d like to be, and I’m touched that a few people inquired about how I was doing. But the time away gave me a chance to think about some things. The problem of authority in education, and society in general, is an issue we need to pay attention to. I"™ve been reading a lot about anarchism, and I think there may be some useful lessons to be drawn between that history and education reform. More to come.

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