Finding yourself in political activism

By Damon Krane
Monday, October 27, 2002
The Post (Athens, Ohio)

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A documentary on school funding in Ohio was shown in one of my first teacher education classes at Ohio University, vividly contrasting the severely unequal resources available to children depending on the socio-eonomic class into which they happened to be born. During the discussion that followed, one of my classmates ended up crying. She began calmly enough, saying that she had attended one of the wealthier schools profiled. “It’s hard for me,” she continued as her voice started to tremble. “I grew up being taught that people have what they deserve. But I didn’t choose to be born into my family, and…” She broke down before she could state the inescapably obvious conclusion that just as she had not chosen or earned the affluence she enjoyed, other people’s children has not chosen or earned the poverty they are forced to endure. Embarrassed for her unseemly, emotional outburst, my classmate soon regained her composure and apologized. “It’s silly of me to get so upset about something I don’t know how to fix,” she said.

Longtime activist, author and co-founder of Z Magazine Michael Albert argues that when social critics don’t make a persuasive case that change is possible, they might as well be encouraging people to stage demonstrations against bad weather and old age. And he’s right. If activists want to be effective, we should spend much more time pointing to past victories, drawing attention to presently existing workable alternatives, articulating coherent visions of a better world, and proposing clear plans for bringing about change. But in addition to believing that becoming politically active will lead to positive change, there are two other reasons to take that path in life – both of which I wish I had been able to articulate to my embarrassed classmate, who had far less reason to feel ashamed than those of us who hadn’t burst into tears that day.

The first reason is simple. Refusing to allow ourselves to think about a problem we don’t know how to solve prevents us from ever discovering a solution that might exist. The second reason, however, is much more personal. Refusing to allow ourselves to think about a problem we don’t know how to solve gradually does away with the very parts of ourselves that care, as we we banish them to some indefinite future where we imagine they’ll be more convenient and appropriate.

Repressing these parts of ourselves is learned behavior. And since a lot of learning goes on at school, it’s not surprising that we find much of this repression taught there.

During our first days of kindergarten we learned to stop asking “Why?” So much. Our curiosity, after all, was not going to guide our mental labor for the next dozen or more years of jumping through someone else’s hoops. Thus we learned to defer our sense of curiosity and wonder, to put on hold our demands for justification and explanation. “Education,” in the words of the radical educator Paulo Freire, became “an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher the depositor… The scope of action allowed to the students extends so far as receiving, filling and storing deposits… But in the last analysis,” Friere maintained, “it is the people themselves who are filed away.”

Regardless of the particular subject matter, this “education” is really a process of alienation in which we are required to divorce our passions, curiosity, concerns, decision-making power – virtually everything that emanates from within ourselves – from our work. While working, we are cut off from ourselves – “filed away,” as Freire puts it. Indeed, this is precisely what Marx described as “alienated labor” in his early critique of capitalism. In preparing new members of a society for a social order that requires alienated labor in the economic sphere, schools teach us to accept alienated labor long before we are ever old enough to hold down a job. Their success can be measured by comparing the number of times the question “Why?” is asked in a senior high school or college classroom with the frequency it is uttered in the first days of kindergarten.

Not surprisingly, movements for social change are typically supported by educational environments that, in stark contrast to the traditional classroom, begin with people sharing and analyzing their first-hand experiences and then pursuing further understanding in response to problems they themselves identify. The consciousness raising groups of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the citizenship schools and freedom schools of the Civil Rights Movement provide unusually clear examples of something that is far from unusual in the history of social movements: collective, learner-directed education.

And herein lies another reason to become politically active: it provides a way to reunite ourselves with much of what we’ve been taught to deny. When we learn and act on the basis of our curiosity and demands for justification – our sense of outrage, our pain and our hopes for something better – we affirm the legitimacy of our own experiences and desires. Mental and physical labor then become expressions and extensions of ourselves – processes of personal growth and fulfillment rather than denial and alienation. In addition to trying to make the world a better place, being socially conscious and politically active also allows us to live more fully in the present, rather than exiling ourselves along with our curiosity, outrage and hope to some distant time or place where it might be OK to get upset about institutionalized classism, to demand suitable justification for a US invasion of Iraq, or to vigorously oppose the war if no such justification can be provided.

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One Response to Finding yourself in political activism

  1. Pingback: When America went Left, the American Left went nowhere | Damon Krane

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