Social Studies Opinion

Education and the Power of Memory

By Harry C. Boyte — November 01, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

I agree with you that stirrings of democratic change in education are sharply divided these days - and there is little overall sense of a movement or potential movement. You point to loss of agency, which takes many forms in schools. Weakening of local school boards. The spread of federal and state mandates based on good intensions like institutionalizing justice, inclusion, and rights. Loss of agency within schools themselves (“even ‘autonomy’ for schools usually means more autonomy for principals who are not responsible to parents, teachers, or students,” as you say).

Your 1990s Annenberg-backed experiment seems likely to be another example, with a chancellor threatened by the idea of a substantial network of schools with democratic power.

Division and powerlessness among forces of democratic change are tied to amnesia.

Our society is radically forgetful about stories of civic and personal empowerment. Rembering the common school story and the commonwealth vision which it expressed seem to me one piece of a larger “campaign to remember” stories of agency on many fronts. Such stories are all around us but forgotten. Education has crucial role to play. Here are several other examples of amnesia about agency.

Elections are one. Even the Sanders campaign, whose appeal to young people seems to me based on his use of “we” rather than “I” (Hillary Clinton has mainly focused on “I,” with her “fighting for us”) had little for people to do other than vote. It represented radical forgetfulness about Obama’s “Yes We Can” 2008 campaign. As Peter Levine has documented, Obama continually called for revitalizing citizenship understood much more than voting -- and the press ignored that message.

Trumps’ campaign feeds on people’s powerlessness and the erasure of stories of people’s empowerment. Its message is that Donald the King will descend from his gold plated world to save us.

Here’s another example. In 2012 a large coalition campaigned in Minnesota against a marriage amendment on the ballot that would have put into the state constitution a ban on inclusive marriage. The campaign, Minnesotans United for All Families, decisively defeated the amendment and the key was a deep organizing process that adapted and developed themes from the Obama 2008 campaign. Organizing took the form of more than a million conversations across the state, sparked by the campaign’s organizing department, involving religious groups, schools, and many other settings. Conversations and personal stories took the place of strategies of 30 earlier fights by inclusive marriage groups. All earlier demonized opponents as bigots. They ignored religious groups. And they all lost.

The empowering elements of the campaign are absent in the new film on the campaign, “How Love Won -- The Fight for Marriage Equality in Minnesota” (here’s a trailer -- //vimeo.com/158647772 ).

Amnesia in elections reminds me of the amnesia about agency in the freedom movement of the sixties which shaped me. The grassroots organizing in the movement -- specifically the hundreds of citizenship schools across the south which developed the agency of local people -- are largely invisible to young people today in school curricula and in public museums. Public accounts largely focus on marches and other forms of protest, as well as on great leaders like Martin Luther King.

The architect of the citizenship schools was Septima Clark, an African-American educator in Charleston who had developed a focus on agency over decades of organizing against white supremacy, for black control over schools and for women’s power in such struggles. Katherine Charron describes this history in her marvelous book Freedom’s Teacher -- The Life of Septima Clark. Clark’s pedagogy, the basis of the citizenship schools, linked “practical literacy with political and economy literacy,” tying a molecular process of empowerment that began with people’s everyday concerns to a practical politics of making change in schools, communities, and society. Citizenship schools prepared tens of thousands of people, often very marginalized African Americans, to become civic leaders, “freeing their powers,” in the phrase of Jane Addams. Clark, like Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, tried unsuccessfully to convince young activists in the midsixties who were giving up on nonviolence and any serious strategy for reaching across racial and ideological divides about the importance of popular agency. A recent PBS film on Bayard Rustin, “Brother Outsider” conveys his philosophy of “politics over protest.”

Their stories are full of lessons for a young generation of activists who need not only skills of civic agency but large scale stories of civic agency. These make the point that activism is different than agency.

We agree about people’s loss of agency. I expect we may agree about the importance and role of education in remembering stories of peoples’ agency, in K-12 and higher education.

There are many collective narratives of citizen power to be discovered and brought to life. Including the story of how “we the people” created the United States of America after winning a fight against a king. How can education help to launch a “campaign to remember”?


Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.