Sunday, July 19, 2009

ON SOCIALIST EDUCATION

Harry Targ

(I belong to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism which is having its national convention from July 23-26 in San Francisco, www.cc-ds.org One workshop will address the issue of socialist education. The comments below were written for that workshop but address the more general question of how any progressive organization might address the educational component of their political work).

Almost a decade ago, one of the leaders of a socialist group I belong to (the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism or CCDS) proposed that the organization develop a Socialist Education Project. The proposal came at a time when the promise of the “new economy” built on the growth of the Silicon Valley had begun to fade. Neo-liberal globalization, so much celebrated by every administration since the late 1970s, continued to generate inequalities in wealth and income all around the globe. Despite the short Clinton administration economic recovery unemployment rates of five or six percent continued. The process of financialization, that is a systemic economic shift from the production of goods and services to financial speculation, undergirded the growing pathology of capitalist development. In this economic and political environment mainstream commentators began to write about the insights that Marx and his followers brought to the study of capitalism. So it seemed to us in CCDS that a socialist political organization needed to explore rigorous study of the evolution of capitalism, Marxist analysis of how it works, and the logical possibilities for alternatives to it, particularly socialist ones.

The SEP then began. Local CCDS activists launched study groups. Members of the SEP committee generated reading materials to support local study groups. Some materials were assembled as “modules,” or integrated short courses with readings, questions for study, and bibliographic suggestions. These were placed on a new SEP web page. Study groups on the West Coast, the Midwest, and the South came and went. Only a few still survive.

The political and economic landscape has changed from the point at which the idea of a SEP was first conceived. The economic crisis today is considerably more dramatic and far-reaching than a decade ago. Real unemployment rates, hitting peoples of color the hardest, approach 15 percent. The financialization of the economic system has reached new levels, institutionalizing the ruling class power of the financiers. Internationally, the United States has embarked on at least two wars this century and nearly 800 U. S. military bases can be found around the world. “Normal” military budgets and war costs approximate a $1 trillion a year.

Politically resistance to neo-liberal globalization and finance capital has grown as well. Many nations of the Global South have begun to organize against western imperialism. In the United States itself, an extraordinary mobilization occurred, particularly among youth, to elect the first African American president of the United States. The political terrain today has shifted from an environment in which progressives must “fight the right” to one in which U.S. politics is more opaque; some times progressive, sometimes centrist, sometimes right wing.

In this context a renewed, revitalized SEP is more relevant than ever. Those of us who are interested in envisioning a socialism for the twenty-first century must ask ourselves what we want to achieve in such a project and how we might go about trying to achieve it. We need to address three basic sets of questions.

1. What do we mean by socialism? How is it created? What is the system (capitalism) that demands the creation of socialism as an alternative? How does this system work? What kinds of political movements are needed to move history from the capitalist system to socialism? What theories, commentaries, books, articles, videos etc. can help us address how capitalism works and the socialist alternative?

2. If socialism is a way of acting in the world, what can socialist pedagogy, or ways of learning, help us to build socialism. In other words, what in the process of education teaches us about being socialists and organizing as socialists.

3. What specific educational tools can we use to explore the first set of questions about the nature of capitalism and the meaning of socialism? How do we use books, articles, videos, music, debates in our study groups? Fundamentally, what are study groups? How do we create them? How do we recruit participants? What is most likely to attract them? Do they have to be face to face encounters? What role for electronic interactions?

I want to address the question of pedagogy, or the process of learning specifically. I want to argue that there is a socialist practice that is relevant to how we behave in all social and political settings, including educational ones. In other words, when we form study groups we need to act like socialists. People learn political principles through practice as well as through theory.

Professors of education and educational practitioners, either through formal training and/or intuition come to the realization that teaching and learning are done in different ways and these different ways affect what is learned. One of the most influential educational theorists from the vantage point of radical socialist change was Brazilian educator Paulo Friere. His book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, influenced revolutionaries and reformers around the world, particularly at the grassroots in the Global South.

Heather Clayton explored five main points embedded in Freire’s work. According to her, Paulo Friere emphasized;

1. the importance of dialogue and the fact that the dialogue was two way, contained in a respectful relationship. It meant that people worked with each other.

2. ‘praxis’-action that was informed by knowledge and should be linked to values. But it wasn’t knowledge for knowledge sake; it was to empower people to use the knowledge to make an impact on their world.

3. building hope for the oppressed. As consciousness is increased, society can be transformed.

4. the importance of linking education with the real world experiences of the students.

5. trying to highlight and minimize the differences between teachers and learners (Heather Clayton, “From the Ideological to the Concrete: Ideas from Paulo Friere, Understanding by Design and the Ontario Curriculum and Their Implications to Layered Curriculum,” http://www.help4teachers.com/heatherpaper.htm )

Exploring these points we might suggest the following. First, socialism is not an idea, “a thing,” but a set of relationships built on mutual respect, even among those with different points of view. It might be worth mentioning in our groups that mutual respect is the inter-personal cornerstone of socialism as a process. The group environment that is based on both equality and the possibility of self-realization is basic to the kind of society we want to achieve.

Second, the knowledge we seek, we seek because we want to change the world. Books and articles, lectures and videos are tools to help us define our values, assess our historical circumstances, and guide political action. We engage in study because what we learn and how we learn will have utility for our practical political work.

Third, knowledge can be empowering. Knowledge provides an explanation of why human beings are in the situations they are in. That knowledge leads to explorations about how to change reality. In the sense that knowledge proceeds action, it is empowering. The more we know, the more likely we will be able to act effectively in the world.

Fourth, each participant in any study group brings to the group a lifetime of experience. Economic survival, political activism, and organizational commitments, all framed by various educational backgrounds insure the richness of discussion and debate. Since socialist study groups are motivated to understand the past and the present and to figure out ways to shape the future, the connections between study and the realities of peoples’ lives is vital.

Fifth, given what has been said already, each study group participant is a teacher and a learner. Traditional models of education are often hierarchical, The teacher brings wisdom, knowledge, and methodological skills to the classroom setting and the students are receptors of the wisdom. While this model of education has its place, it is clearly inappropriate for socialist study groups. It reinforces status differences and presumes the teacher is the repository of all knowledge while the other participants have nothing special to contribute to discussion and debate.

I would like to raise a series of questions that bear on defining socialism, socialist pedagogy, and practical education.

1. Should all study groups be face-to-face or are there reasons and occasions for study groups using new technologies? Could SEP organize a nation-wide reading group using listservs for discussion of readings as an alternative?

2. What is the optimal size for local study groups? Is there a size that
exceeds effective interaction?

3. What kinds of materials should be used in study groups and if there are a variety of resources what is the most appropriate mix to stimulate discussion? These might include books, articles, videos, You Tube interviews, music, newspapers, blog essays, novels, poems etc. Are there any guidelines that could be prepared to suggest amounts of reading, level of complexity of reading, and optimal mixes of print and visuals?

4. How should study group interactions be initiated and carried out? Should there be teachers and students? Should such roles be circulated? Should everyone be responsible for starting a discussion? Or only those with special experience and knowledge? How are materials for use chosen?

5. What are the goals of the study group? Should they be discussed at the outset? Does the study group wish to acquire information and/or analytical and methodological skills? Does the study group want to identify a political project-a petition campaign, a rally, a letter-writing program for the group? In addition, should the group seek to recruit more members? If so, how?

6. Having reflected on socialism, pedagogy, and practice what should the role of organizational projects, such as the SEP in CCDS, be in fostering socialist education nationally, regionally, and locally?