Early Days of the New Student Revolt

Edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri
Verso, 2011

Edited by William Ayers and Rick Ayers
Monthly Review, July/August 2011

coverSpringtime is a very good and very timely volume, even if so much has changed since last fall, when the final pieces were completed, that things look rather different. The outcomes remain in doubt, of course. The crises in education, mirroring the crises in society at large, make Education Under Fire (soon to be an MR Press book) useful in a complementary fashion, setting the structure and some of the backstory in place.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the latter text. Not to oversimplify too much, the crisis of family poverty spreading across the nation with the Rust Bowl phenomenon of lost industrial jobs in the final third of the twentieth century accelerated a crisis in education. What to do? A nationwide public commitment to real education would have paid off handsomely; the claims to this effect by reformers from the early twentieth century had already proven true, at least in a handful of states. A commitment to social welfare at large had been made only during the Depression and then only to whites. The Great Society effort stopped short and was never intended to alter the balance of wealth, although at its leftward edges (Democrats following the lead of Michael Harrington, and briefly influential among the George McGovern campaign wave of mostly youthful enthusiasts), it seemed capable of promising something more along the Swedish line.

Policy went elsewhere, and reading Education Under Fire will bring the reader up to date with sophisticated interpretations of what went bad and how. I had never appreciated the ways in which seemingly benevolent projects, the Gates Foundation in particular, actually reinforced the Reaganite drift toward numbers-as-guide and a to-hell-with-real-teaching mentality. Soon inner-city public schools were on a search for the talented tenth (make that tenth of a percent) to be uplifted from the hopeless 99 percent, who are left to spend their lives in newly built prisons. The point of identifying the hopeful ones is to create a multicultural elite—Harvard to Wall Street to Washington, D.C. (not forgetting the diplomatic corps and CIA)—suitable for twenty-first century U.S. global domination. If the field of academic economics has gone from reformist to classical during the last thirty years, the trend toward number-crunchers makes sense in yet another way in Leave No Child Behind, whether the Bush or Obama variant.

Why would we be shocked to be reminded that the prospective end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would prompt Obama’s reminder that all colleges and as many secondary schools as possible should have ROTC in the curriculum? It is more surprising to find a careful, first-hand analysis of what this means to Chicago African-American kids: field trips downstate to military centers for fun outings; snazzy uniforms; more respect from teachers and administrators; and presumably a future in the military, if not life-long for most students, at least a hitch. This is a different kind of “hope,” to put the matter mildly.

In Education Under Fire, Charles Cobb, Jr., a former SNCC leader, explores the alternatives offered in the Freedom Schools and the model for an education that might have been possible. (In Detroit and a few other places, similar ideas are underway today, underfunded but hopeful.) In their own ways, many thousands of teachers have been trying something similar and continue to try, in so many varied circumstances. But they are increasingly denied the best opportunities due to the accelerated rush toward charter schools. If anything can be worse, it is surely the online curricula for kids whose schools have been abandoned.


Students walk out to protest cuts to public education at UC Berkeley in 2009. Credit: Creative Commons/sandwichgirl.

Well, students can strike back, although of course it is easier for college students than those younger. Springtime is largely, not entirely, about the United Kingdom and Europe at large, although California student uprisings are documented for school year 2009-10, and a stirring piece on Puerto Rico’s students offers an abundance of useful insights. Springtime is also formatted quite wonderfully, with student “documents” alongside commentaries, and a layout emphasizing the “feel” of the twenty-first century student radicals. Most especially new: the Book Bloc, padded posters with book and author names written on them, used by young people squaring off against police truncheons. Not new but exceptionally valuable—humor directed against the authorities, national and local.

What becomes clear is that campuses quiet since the 1970s have opened up again, with new waves of sit-ins coinciding naturally with the drastic increases in tuition and other moves to limit access to less-fortunate students, or to burden them with such heavy debts that they will work many years, perhaps decades, to get to ground zero.

What are the strategies and visions? These are more difficult to discern than in the rebellious 1960s, because most of the models or envisioned goals of a “liberated society” are now gone. In a way, of course, this is better: young people need to start outward from their own generation and their own lives, something not apparent in the shadow of the 1960s across campus activism for the last thirty or so years. In another way, it is daunting, because people need visions to make them willing to take chances, and visions of resistance, by themselves, are often not enough.

The best thing about Springtime is the pursuit of the subject: we see what is going on, what the actors think (or at least express in slogans), and where geographically things take place in Britain or Italy, for instance. We are left on our own, to some extent, to come to conclusions. Early days of the new revolt: we are all finding our way.


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