Posts filed under ‘Anti-Oppression and Free Schools’

Mass Education for Mass Production

By Brian Van Slyke

This is the first in our new series “History of Schools.” Please note, also, that this is a first attempt and it needs some editing.


The history of mass and forced schooling in the United States can speak a great deal to the current nature of our educational model. It can also help us understand the culture of work in this nation. Our contemporary structure of education prepares the vast majority of the country’s children for a specific form of work that mirrors the industries that arose during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Compulsory schooling’s legacy thus has much to teach us about our current society – and also where we can go from here.

Yet, when this topic is discussed, it is often dichotomized into a tail of heroes and villains, purely nefarious forces or people’s movements. In reality, as is the story of nearly all political, social, economic, and cultural histories; compulsory schooling was born out of a mixture of aims from different groups, movements, interested parties, and alliances. In the end, the alliance in favor of compulsory schooling was victorious. Resistance and non-compliance ensued; but the most powerful faction of the pro-compulsory schooling alliance, some of society’s elite citizenry and businesses, were able to effectively enforce the system and tailor it to their interests and goals. While humanitarian players were involved in the initial implementation of compulsory schooling, including anti-exploitative child labor concerns and labor unions, their struggles were usurped by the powerful and were instead used to create a mass population of diligent, obedient, and complacent workers and “Americanized” citizens.

It is therefore important to examine the driving factors behind compulsory schooling and its immediate aftermath. Such an exploration will allow us to exam what systems our current structure of education serves, how it came into being, and what lessons we can take away from these histories to help us work for a more just and equitable future.

This is the story of compulsory education.



October 24, 2008 at 3:13 am 4 comments

Mondragón and Education

UPDATE: You can now read my report on the Mondragón Cooperative educational experience here.

On September 27th, I will fly from New York to Bilbao, Spain. The purpose of this trip will be to participate in a program run by the Praxis Peace institute to learn about the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation. Specifically, I will be looking at how Mondragón functions democratically and as a worker cooperative, its relation to and involvement with education, and how themes of Mondragón could be related back to the learning-place democracy movement here in the United States.

What is a Worker Cooperative? What is Mondragón?

According to the International Co-operative Alliance, a cooperative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” There are many different types of cooperatives, but in the United States two of the most common types are worker cooperatives and consumer cooperatives. Consumer cooperatives are businesses that are owned by the customers for the customers’ mutual benefit. Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, are cooperatives that are owned and democratically run completely by its employees. Thus, the workers are also the owners (worker-owners). (more…)

September 22, 2008 at 11:43 pm 2 comments

Learning Activity: Underrepresented Peoples in U.S. History

The following is a learning activity I crafted for a class I was teaching on U.S. History. It was designed for teenagers, but I think it could be easily adapted for slightly-younger folks and adults.

Download it in PDF form here.

Activity: Underrepresented Peoples in U.S. History

• Goal of this activity: For the students to engage United States history by discovering what peoples go underrepresented in traditional tales of U.S. history. They will do this by interviewing community members, their peers, and themselves. This is both an individual and (can be a) group effort.
• Materials Needed: Community members to investigate, pens/pencil, paper. Optional: Note cards.
• Participants: 1-20 (or more, depending on your needs/ability).
• Time Needed: 45 – 90 minutes.

1. First, designate a community of people to interview: i.e. a school, a downtown, a class, a library, or etc. Give the following questions/guidelines to the participants (recommended on a piece of paper):

Who were important [your group] in American history? How did they impact the world that we know today? What lessons can we learn from them? (REMEMBER: important people don’t have to mean good people)

Go ask people in the area if they can identify any of the following groups of people in American history and ask them the questions specified above (and any other questions you think are important). Record their answers and think about why they gave the answers they did.

The students will fill in the [your group] bracket with one of the following possibilities:

• People of color
• Women
• Women of color
• Gender queer folks
• Lower-class folks
• Differently-Abled folks
• People of non-Christian faiths
• Immigrants
• Political dissenters
• [Add more that you see fit]

(You might want to lay these different options out on a table on note-cards for the students to choose from.)

September 20, 2008 at 2:48 pm Leave a comment

Shut Down Youth Prisons

Via Racewire:

Tell the State Commission on Juvenile Justice: Shut It Down!

On September 25th, the State Commission on Juvenile Justice — the agency in charge of setting the direction for the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) — will consider following the Little Hoover recommendation and closing the DJJ. The Commissioners need to know there is public support for this plan.

Please take a moment to tell your story or describe why you support shutting down the DJJ

This is definitely extremely important – and prison justice is definitely related to education justice.

For more information on the criminalization of youth – and especially its relation to how (the lack of) access to free education and learning tools is used to continue to keep historically oppressed people behind bars and dependent on the prison system – check out the HBO documentary Juvies. (I used this movie to introduce teenagers at North Star: Self-Directed Learning in Hadley, MA about the prison system and youth to great success. I’ll be blogging about this shortly.)

More info: The Real Cost of Prisons Project. Get Involved: National List of Books to Prisoners Programs

September 20, 2008 at 4:30 am Leave a comment

Teaching Imperialism, Colonialism, and Racism in United States History: A Board Game About Columbus

Edit: Oops, apparently there was a broken link on this post. It has been fixed now.

The history of Columbus is a turbulent one – and the way we are traditionally taught (and teach) about him is a way built into imperialism, racism, and is European-centric. Our nationally-supported tale of Columbus ignores his impact on the Native Americans he encountered and builds up a false mythology around him that we still worship today. Below is a board-game I crafted in order to help combat this. It is important to note that this game still has some problems and that it should not be regarded as an attempt to be the only way to teach about the history of Columbus. This game is still from the perspective of Columbus and Europeans, as most history of Columbus are, but that is because this game/learning tool is based off of the question: “We have a national holiday named after Christopher Columbus, which means we are supposed to view Columbus as a hero and that we should emulate his actions. So, what were his actions and would we want to live up to them? Would he be a hero to us? To all people?” This does not mean that this learning tool is an endorsement of Columbus – far from it. It just asks learners to take on the role of Columbus and see if his actions and impacts would be what they would view as heroic and good. However, I’m currently attempting to develop a teaching/learning tool that tells the same tale of Columbus’s arrival while the learners take on the role of the American Indians.

I should note a couple more things. First, this game was designed to be counter the traditional tales of pro-imperialism, pro-colonialism, pro-racism, and so on that compile the regular histories told of Columbus. It was also designed to show the impact of Columbus’s arrivals and actions on the rest of the world (including the Americas) and not just Europe – again, a habit of traditional history-telling. However, there was a couple of pit-falls that I fell into when I crafted this activity that I realized too late. The game does not provide a space to show learners how they can go on and continue their learning on the subject elsewhere. This makes the game semi-dogmatic. I have constructed a follow up activity to this game that can be used for that purpose, and that helps teach learners how to challenge and think critically about dogmatic histories – I will post this shortly.

On to the game – (OR You can download the maps, instructions, and game pieces HERE and the cards for the game HERE).

Activity: The Arrival of Columbus and The Importance of it Today

• Goal of this activity: To understand what the arrival of Columbus to the Americas meant to the entire world and the lasting impact it has had on us today, through an experiential process.

• Materials Needed: A board, paper, scissors, glue, writing utensil, change

• Participants: 1-4 per game board (or can make several boards and do it with more participants).

• Time Needed: 70-90 minutes (more…)

September 6, 2008 at 11:30 pm 5 comments

“I Want To Do This All Day” – A Radio Documentary About Free Schools and Radical Learning

I Want To Do This All Day is a radio documentary about free schools and radical learning spaces in the United States. I’ve read a lot on the topics of free schools and radical learning, but this is by far one of the best discussions on these topics that I have ever been privy too. Not only is it an incredible illustration of what free schools and radical learning centers are, but it’s also a bold critique of what they could still be.

Here’s a description from their website:

In March and April of 2006, we visited 23 free schools, community centers, after school programs, summer camps, skill shares, charter schools and private schools. We interviewed students, parents and teachers about their experiences with creating and sustaining radical learning spaces. We define this as non-compulsory, non-coercive physical spaces set up for various types of learning and projects. The documentary outlines a history of both conventional and radical education, explores peoples definitions of learning, highlights some interesting spaces as examples, identifies major themes common between spaces, and addresses the role of these spaces in the wider movement for social change.

The documentarians fill this dialog with their own voices, songs, the voices of students, radical teachers, change-makers, and more. They also don’t hesitate to point out something that we’ve been discussing on this blog: the need for free schools (and other radical-learning centers) to be more dedicated to those who are not of privileged backgrounds (track 13 discusses this in length) – this includes those who have mental disabilities. However, it also discusses in length some free schools that were specifically designed for people of non-privileged backgrounds (The Albany Free School, The Met School, and The Making Changes Freedom School).

There’s a lot in this radio documentary: from the history of compulsory schools (an amazing and brief track), to discussions with current participants in the radical learning movement, from problems in the free schooling movement, to what they could adopt from public (federal) schools, to what radical learning is, to what radical learners are doing, from how radical learners/teachers are shaping our world today, to how radical learning can become a sustainable movement, and so much more. Below I’ve listed the tracks of the radio documentary, but check back soon and there might be a .zip file to download that contains all of the tracks.

  1. Setting Up
  2. Unraveling Radical Learning
  3. Problems in Education Today
  4. History of Compulsory Schools
  5. Redefining Learning
  6. Reinventing Education
  7. The Albany Free School
  8. Olympia Community Free School
  9. Making Changes Freedom School
  10. Not Back To School Camp
  11. The Met School
  12. Purple Thistle Center
  13. Themes in the Movement 1
  14. Themes in the Movement 2
  15. Motion and Change
  16. Wrapping Up

After the jump is a much more in-depth explanation from their website.


August 18, 2008 at 4:01 pm 5 comments

Recognizing Days of Anti-Oppression in U.S. History

There are many days in our calendar when the United States has an official or unofficial day of remembering important people in the development of the United States. There are some good (read: Martin Luther King, Jr.) and some bad (read: Christopher Columbus) that we are asked to remember and celebrate. However, the histories of these figures are usually distorted into two-dimensional memories. In our national celebration, we are taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the “new world” and that he “made all of this possible.” If it is mentioned at all, it is only mentioned in passing, that Columbus’s arrival to the Americas marked the beginning of an orchestrated genocide, slavery, and oppression of entire peoples (in addition to the spread of diseases that some historians estimate killed up to 90% of American Indians that were inhabiting the continents). As well, Martin Luther King, Jr. is painted as a pure pacifist who gave great speeches and put on some marches – instead of a community organizer, an educator, an agitator, whose views and rebellions took different shapes and tones throughout time. In short, we are left with historical figures without any histories – just figures that were stagnant in history. Often (but of course not always) these people are told in cut and paste stories. Their complex histories, the nuances, the controversies and conflicts, the true impact of their actions, the movements that they were part of, and so much more are all lost in the attempt to tell a singular, national story. (more…)

August 14, 2008 at 4:48 am 2 comments

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