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Education, Democracy, and Utopia: Ira Shor's "When Students Have Power"

by Cassiodorus Thu Jan 11th, 2007 at 01:20:07 PM EST

I want readers of this diary to confront our society's need for utopian dreaming through a reading of Ira Shor's When Students Have Power.  So I will start with a bleak, dystopian projection of current social trends, and discuss Shor's book in terms of what utopian thinking can do for education, democracy, and society as a whole.

Dystopian introduction

A grand cultural canyon yawns between education and democracy, which simply represents the distance society itself has to travel to reach the democracy it claims to already offer.  (211)

Imagine yourself in a future, thirty-some years from now.  You are in the United States.  A distant relative of Prescott Bush resides in the White House.  Nobody voted for this guy; but since elections haven't been held since the Federal government was privatized (along with all the other governments), it doesn't matter.  All the meaningful politicians have been assassinated, and all the meaningful dissidents reside in a gulag of prisons modeled on the prison currently at Guantanamo Bay.  The oil is running out, the topsoil is severely degraded, and the weather is so erratic (thanks to global warming) that famine, tropical disease, and death due to heatstroke have become commonplaces.  There is another gulag of prisons where people are imprisoned for failing to pay the taxes which all must pay, regardless of ability, in order to prop up what is left of the corporate profit rate.  The US dollar no longer purchases much, so the taxes are purposely set very high.  The people in this second-tier gulag form an enormous conscript labor force producing goods for the world's few rich people, most of whom live in Scandinavia, Hokkaido, or in luxury condos on Canada's balmy Arctic coast.  The main employment outside of this prison system is in the police force; yet police are so underpaid that they commit most of the robberies.  A second employment-sector is in the private security business, protecting the homes and businesses of the semi-well-off from the police.

There is, however, still an Internet - the mainstream Internet, however, is heavily censored, except for this one clandestine Internet channel set up by a cadre of the semi-well-off.  You somehow have the luck to log onto this clandestine Internet channel, using a laptop you stole from the local mall (at the cost of a few lives, legally murdered by private security forces).  You log on, and during the group chat you explain how things could be different, how a general revolt could re-establish democracy, get some control over US policy, re-order economic priorities, re-educate the public, and establish a global ecologically sustainable society without any more of the mass dieoffs that have already reduced global human population.  Your presentation is organized, cogent, and optimistic.  You send this out in a manifesto, which is routinely dismissed by all of the other subscribers.  "Not going to happen," they all explain.  (This is the reaction I typically get when discussing "postcapitalism.")

Congratulations!  The future "you" has made it into a world where utopian dreaming no longer has any power!  And the future "you" is still alive, amazingly enough, if perhaps not for long.  But perhaps, if this is your fate, you ought not to spend so long on such self-praise.  May I suggest, improbably then, that the thing to be doing to avoid such a possible future is to be promoting the act of utopian dreaming, in classrooms, in public fora, here, and everywhere.  We, you and me and everyone else, have to get back into the exercises of imagination that allow us to picture the world as possibly being a better place in the future.  (Those of you who are already saying "not going to happen" may stop reading here.)  But how are you going to do that?  You are going to have to use the vehicles the future "you" proposed in the dystopian future described above: education, and democracy.  In short, you will have to be practicing democratic education.  You are the teacher, and in preparation, you pick up the practical guide par excellence to democratic education; Ira Shor's When Students Have Power.

When Students Have Power is a 1996 book about a composition class Shor taught at the College of Staten Island, a community college in New York City.  For this class, Shor chooses to teach a thematic unit in "utopia," and, moreover, in this class he attempts to share power, democratically, with the students in the class.  Shor describes his students as "urban, ethnic, working class," (9) and his room as drab and windowless. So he has his work cut out for him.

Beginning the class

One of the first things Shor analyzes in this book is the seating arrangement.  "I found that the students' relationship to seating is a significant text revealing the power relations embedded in schooling, or the social power `circulating' in the discipline of school, as Foucault (1980) put it." (10).  Within these power relationships blossoms what Shor calls the "Siberian syndrome," the tendency of alienated and marginalized students to seek out the far corners of the classroom, which Shor repeatedly refers to as "Siberia" throughout the book.  "Siberia," for Shor, is a place in the classroom where students attempt to participate as thinly in a class as they possibly can, talking and writing sparingly.  Shor starts to combat the "Siberian syndrome" through what critical pedagogy calls a "pedagogy of questions."  He asks these questions:

1.    Why did you take this course?

2.    If you could change one thing for the better about this College and your education here, what would it be?

3.    If you could change one thing for the better in New York City, what would it be?

4.    Do you want any class time spent on the war with Iraq?

It needs to be mentioned here that this class was in session around the time of Bush Senior's war on Iraq.  Shor continues: "In addition I verbally asked them to write on two questions about `Utopia':

5.    What does "Utopia" mean to you?

6.    What questions do you have about "Utopia"? (39)

From this list of questions, Shor received all kinds of answers about what was wrong with New York City, the College, and so on, which became "generative themes" for the course as a whole.  In short, the course became focused upon the students' answers to Shor's questions.  It became, to a certain extent, student-directed.

One of the first responses Shor got, however, was one of "why do we have to come to class at all?"  Shor, unfortunately, had to cling to his attendance requirement - but, in the process of organizing the class, came up with several innovations that made his student-directed class work anyway.  

First off, Shor's class negotiated, between students and teacher, a set of contracts, outlining what each student needed to do to (in terms of writing, attendance, class participation and so on) get a grade of "A," "B," etc. for the class.  The dispute about "do I have to attend class?" was resolved (or so Shor says) by the creation of what he calls "protest rights" (suggesting the students could protest any aspect of the class they wanted) and the creation of an "after-class group" entrusted with the overall design of the class.  Shor had the students read two utopian novels: B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (an important work, to be sure, but a rather boring read - I could have warned him!) and Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia.

Doing the work

The rest of When Students Have Power is an analysis of what happened in this class.  One of the main difficulties, Shor reports, of teaching a class like this is that students tend to develop higher expectations of a class like this than a class when they are left with the "Siberian syndrome."

The good news is that higher expectations work against the depressant, anti-intellectual effects of the Siberian Syndrome.  The bad news is that I, the students, and the process cannot continually deliver on rising expectations, for reasons simple and complex, such as the lack of class time, inadequate student experience in democratic arts, prior habituation to unilateral authority, demands of current jobs and private lives, institutional limits on me, such as required letter grading, my divided attention across three crowded courses each term, etc.  Over the years, I have been learning the dangers of promising more than I can deliver.  So, the exuberant release of some students' expectations is a problem that can and did trouble the ACG (the after class group) especially.  (149-150)

At the same time as some students were demanding immediate utopia of the utopia class, others were continuing to resist, and hide in Siberia, Shor reports.

Nevertheless, this class substantively tackled issues of teacher-student relations, global environmental problems, problems with the College of Staten Island campus itself (most severely the parking problem, which Shor depicts as a serious deterrent to enrollment), problems of race and class.  In Shor's depiction, the far more important achievement of a class such as this is not that students were coerced into having the "right" opinions, but that students were convinced by this class that their opinions were important, that they should express their opinions, and that expressing one's opinion could potentially lead to action, which in its turn could forward meaningful social change.  These are just the sorts of things that we as teachers need to be encouraging in an era in which authoritarian (and demeaning) social policy, corporate-controlled computerized voting, and money-driven electoral campaigns have lead to a practical annulment of democracy.

Shor reports that "students had largely positive feelings about the class," (204) and that for the most part it encouraged them to look critically at society.  He reports that "almost half of the students indicated they would consider taking action to make change - `Because things are not going to change on their own,' as one wrote.  But, others were ambivalent or negative about acting on what they learned." (205)  I would judge this result as pretty good for a reactionary era like the 1990s.

Dear, patient teacher-readers: if we are to avoid the dystopian outcomes I described above, we need to be teaching some form of this stuff.  Student bodies that have been sentenced, through teacher-centered schooling practices, to "Siberia" are rendered incapable of preventing dystopia.  The money the Powers That Be use to buy us off will not be of value if currency crises and ecological disasters have deprived us of things to buy, and this they will surely do.  "Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number -"

Do you expect the future to be more like utopia or dystopia?
. Utopia 0%
. Dystopia 0%
. things will remain the same 0%
. "muddling through" 0%
. (other) 100%

Votes: 1
Results | Other Polls
somebody's gotta read this!

"Imagine all the people/ Sharing all the world" -- John Lennon
by Cassiodorus on Thu Jan 11th, 2007 at 07:05:11 PM EST
fine diary, thanks!

very true...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Jan 11th, 2007 at 07:50:21 PM EST

"Imagine all the people/ Sharing all the world" -- John Lennon
by Cassiodorus on Thu Jan 11th, 2007 at 09:18:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dear cassiodorus,

I was down the pub this evening with some music teachers.  One of their discussion topics was "the students", and then they get onto "Student X", who has done this that and the other...

And we all agreed that the family environment is primary, and the local structural environment is also primary.  Together they forge the individual.  Moments come and go, but fixed opinions are hard to dislodge.

Well, maybe there'd be some arguments about the mix.  The point is, I couldn't be a teacher in a school.  I don't like other people's children enough.  I know the problems are structural, but I've seen situations where individuals give over and above and way beyond the call of conscience, duty, and finally compassion kicks in and says, "Back off.  You're making yourself sick and..."

And they're not getting any better.

I think we have to act it out, this gesture, the one towards nature.  The trouble is there are so many people and not enough properties, because where the living's good, that's where everyone wants to live these days...Nomad speaketh: There are risks involved with living on a planet.

The point was about teaching.  T'is a noble profession and the best teachers will find media....

I'd like to hear of actual projects underway.  Communities that have at least half-detached from the grid.  How is life?  Grim?  Jolly?  Are they comfortable?  Would they go back?

Perhaps the key: How much grid can you do away with?  Talking honestly.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Jan 11th, 2007 at 08:23:59 PM EST
Thanks for your honest reply, rg.

I think the Ira Shor thing is about getting students who would otherwise clam up to speak up, to say what they think.  It's also about action: those who are already ready to say what they think might be ready to do something about it.

The conditions are such that any reasonable person can figure out at least a few of the things that need to be donw.  When you add it all up, IMHO, we need a wholesale reconstruction of society, because of society's dysfunctional relationship to nature.  That was what I was trying to say in a diary I wrote for DailyKos here.

And we all agreed that the family environment is primary, and the local structural environment is also primary.  Together they forge the individual.  Moments come and go, but fixed opinions are hard to dislodge.

What I read you as saying here, is, that people are positioned a certain way, because of how they came through the world.  I couldn't agree more.  But as teachers, we try our best to create conditions for them so that they are free to do something meaningfully good with that positioning of theirs.

Take a look, for instance, at the writings of Derrick Jensen.  Jensen believes, IMHO, in something theoretically vague and radically unworkable, but that's what I think anarcho-primitivism is about.  Where Jensen scores his points with me is in being an effective writer, in positioning his stories so as to dislodge those "everything's OK with the status quo" feelings you might have had while wandering through life.

And that's what teaching is about.  Most teachers in my, American, society prepare the individual for a lifetime of individualistic consumerism.  Perhaps things are different for you; perhaps they are the same.  (The argument covers all bases, doesn't it?)  At any rate, teaching is about the future.  I think it's high time we teachers are honest about this.  Another diary on this subject was on DailyKos here.

"Imagine all the people/ Sharing all the world" -- John Lennon

by Cassiodorus on Thu Jan 11th, 2007 at 09:15:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When you add it all up, IMHO, we need a wholesale reconstruction of society, because of society's dysfunctional relationship to nature.

I'd suggest that society is in a state of upheaval--and has been for perhaps a few hundred years.  The reconstruction is ongoing.  Education is one of the forces guiding that change.

But as teachers, we try our best to create conditions for them so that they are free to do something meaningfully good with that positioning of theirs.

I don't have a sense of being outside the constraints of positioning--my family upbringing, the town where I grew up, the people I went to school with--though I hope in a jungian sense I can bring my unconscious thoughts about these to light, to individuate a bit from the reactionary (small r) attitudes I picked up along the way.  

Asking people to do something meaningfully good begs the question: "What is good?"

Unless one is an ethics teacher, and perhaps esp. when one is an ethics teacher this question then gets subsumed...by a reversal: maybe, "What do you think is good?", then, having listened to the reply, turning to the next student, "And what do you think is good?"--round the room...but it's too much of an abstraction (part of the philosophy of...ah, moral philosophy...yes)...most teachers don't teach moral philosophy, they teach specific subjects to specific levels.

With adults (and with kids) my approach would be: We are here to learn X (Y,Z etc.)  I know it, and you don't, so I'll be in charge.  If you don't wish to study, I would rather you didn't come to my lectures...

But as you say above, sometimes teachers need to get bums on seats...which makes me question curriculae (?)


I believe in selection--but as a human process between the student and the teacher (or, if external verification is required, an examining board or person.)  Part of the conversation was about wind instruments, how hard it is to play one, but once you get the technique you go from Grade 1 to Grade 5.  There only used to be levels, 3,6, and 8 for the bassoon...but now it starts at one, and schools want kids to sit the grades...ah, private schools I mean...

But how does selection play out with a discussion of inequalities and social deprivations?

So, students who are unable to express themselves...get a chance to express themselves...that is the work of all teachers.  But I suggest that a teacher is not a surrogate parent (another big part of the discussion was how to avoid becoming a social worker to the student...how to keep the focus on the music)...so...not a surrogate parent, but an adult figure from the world beyond theirs, an adult with specific skills and who is ready (and trained) to pass (at least some of) those skills onto...me!  If I'm the student.

Specifically, I don't think there is an "answer" that some people refused to teach or be taught, though there are ideologies that fight about what should be said and done at school.  But the subject is key--

Mr. Triloqvist, if you're reading....The Key is the key!  The subject is form and content--

Or sommat ;)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Jan 12th, 2007 at 03:46:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You say:

With adults (and with kids) my approach would be: We are here to learn X (Y,Z etc.)  I know it, and you don't, so I'll be in charge.  If you don't wish to study, I would rather you didn't come to my lectures...

When Ira Shor hands a certain modicum of power to his students, he recognizes that the teacher-talks, students-listen structure leaves students unprepared for participation in democracy. Shor:

Students come of age without exercising the democratic arts needed to negotiate authority in diverse settings.  Not developing democratic habits, they lack experience in governing public affairs, in taking responsibility for policy-making, in what could be thought of as trying on civic authority for size.  Here is how one of my female students (a 30-year-old white education major who went to technical college in Germany) described her awkwardness when I invited her and others to negotiate a learning contract with me for their final grades: "I feel unease judging the learning contract proposal."(Cassiodorus' note here: see how Shor started the class described above.)  "In the last twenty-five years, nobody ever asked me for my opinion on this topic.  (I certainly complained to my classmates about the structure in the classroom.)"  She had lived in two nations describing themselves as democracies, yet it seems she was never a constituent of her own education, only a recipient of it who complained privately to peers. (32-33)

There's something more going on about education than the delivery of information through lectures.  The "Siberian syndrome" exists because, once again in Shor's words:

... in the face of undemocratic practices, students do assert themselves, informally and subversively, by telling the teacher what they like and don't like, by disrupting class, by resistant nonparticipation (Siberia), by faking interest, by breaking the rules (cheating on tests, buying term papers, copying someone else's homework, reading Cliff's Notes instead of books, by cleverly "playing the angles" to "beat the system" (like manipulating the teacher to get by with a grade or conning an advisor to get into a closed course or for some financial aid), and sometimes by protest actions like walkouts, sit-ins, rallies, marches, newspaper campaigns, petitions, or lawsuits. (32)

Community college teaching in the States, which is what Shor does, isn't about conveying information to willing students.  If the students really wanted to learn stuff, one could easily reason, they would go around the teacher, and figure it out for themselves.  Or they would hire a tutor on an ad hoc basis, which is something different.  Maybe students in an orchestra need a conductor; but a conductor does more than a teacher does, just like a tutor does more than a teacher does.  No, community college teaching in the States (and I say this having done it myself for four years) is about being an appointed "authority figure" in a system where students are accumulating credentials and degrees so they can get better jobs.  It's about being a cog in a machine which is being used, intentionally, to forward corporate domination and student conformity.  Teaching students who actually want to learn stuff is a "cake" job; anyone who really knows the stuff can do it.  This isn't that.  This is an economic machinery, ripe for politically-charged intervention.

And so, in teaching community college, we confront the system.  We can see how well the machineries of corporate domination and student conformity work on a global level, btw, by observing the human race as it dismantles ecosystems around the globe, especially in countries subject to onerous IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs, preparing the ground for an ecological disaster of horrendous proportions.  Welcome to our corporate-dominated world.  

Now, certainly there must be some sort of public outrage against all this, just as there should have been some sort of public outrage in the dystopian world I painted at the beginning of my diary.  Is democracy going to stop the ecosystem-dismantlers before they ruin it all, or for that matter the Bush administration with its drive to dictatorship?  Well, democracy has been shoved into dormancy 'round the world, aided by the co-optation of the so-called "Left" into a "political class."  Kees van der Pijl describes this accurately, if with excessive abstraction.

If we really want to do something about all this, we will have to encourage some home-grown democracy, as exemplified by the antigloblization protesters cited in van der Pijl's article linked above.  One way to do this is by intervention into working-class scenes like, say, community college in the States.  So this is what Ira Shor helps us do.

"Imagine all the people/ Sharing all the world" -- John Lennon

by Cassiodorus on Fri Jan 12th, 2007 at 09:10:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
he recognizes that the teacher-talks, students-listen structure leaves students unprepared for participation in democracy

When the teacher is talking, the students should listen--otherwise, why is the teacher talking?  If that's the only thing the teacher does then in the process

Walk through
Controlled Practice
Free Practice

(Or variations thereof)

we lose the centre and get Overview-chat chat chat chat chat chat [stop doing that!] chat chat [Give it back to her!] chat chat-->conclusion.

But yes, I was talking about tutors perhaps, people who teach other people how to play musical instruments.  You can't learn that from books alone (and I think that must be true of most subjects and for most students.)

One way to do this is by intervention into working-class scenes like, say, community college in the States.

Are these..they're adults, right?...are they there of their own volition?  Although you don't want to be one of the grindstones at the mill, and strength to yer elbow in that, there is a didactic ==> results (or lack of) element to teaching...so if the course is called "Democracy in...", then a deep analysis of structures etc...and acting them out in the class [an aside: the best training I received was by a woman who used the methods she was explaining--but from the beginning, before we knew what the methods were, so as she explained them to us...ah ha!  [Low energy] lightbulbs lit...ah ha!  Practicing what you...teach...

So maybe it depends on the subject.  Take, say, car mechanics.  If people sign up because they want to work with cars, then at some point the functioning of the internal combustion engine will become part of the discussion, but then...latest tech. will also become part of the discussion, if the teacher is clued-up on the latest tech.  That way the students get skills that they can maybe use to keep themselves out from under those grinding stones...

But yes, yes, the only way for the students to learn democracy is by participation, and a teacher will demonstrate by their methods how they percieve democracy.

Or sommat ;)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Jan 12th, 2007 at 09:32:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are two (incompatible) views of the purpose of education.
  1. Education is supposed to teach people how to think and how to learn.
  2. Education is supposed to teach people the core beliefs of a society so that they can fit in as unquestioning cogs.

The first view was held by Socrates and we know how he ended up. The most influential spokesman for this view point in the 20th Century was John Dewey, but there were many others such as Maria Montessori. This approach is considered dangerous by those who favor the status quo and a hierarchical form of social organization.

The second view has been held by every church leader and tribal chief since the beginning of time. It has a value in societies which are marginally stable such as subsistence economies. Tipping the boat can lead to disaster. It is also favored by those in power who want to stay that way.

Since the goals are are completely opposite the way that school should be structured remains a permanent topic for discussion. Every few years a new wave of reformers re-invents one of these ideas or the other. Right now, in the US, the proscriptive school is on top with a forced curriculum and testing to meet the "goals". This is uniformly seen to be an educational disaster by the teachers and administrators. However, its purpose was not to improve teaching (or learning) but to set up a series of impossible benchmarks which schools would then fail to meet.

At this point the government would claim that the failures were do to the teacher's unions unwillingness to "adapt" and then go after the unions and tenure. The bill (No Child Left Behind) is currently in debate for reauthorization. Perhaps the Dems will get rid of the worst features.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Jan 12th, 2007 at 10:46:22 AM EST
There are two views of the purpose of schooling.

The first view is that schooling is for the purpose of education.
The second view is that schooling is for the purpose of 1) freeing parents to work; 2) ranking people for job assignment.

I believe schooling should be for the purpose of education and education should be to teach people how to think and learn. This is why I did not do well as a teacher, because I also believe in actuality schooling is not for education, and when it is, education is intended to be indoctrination.

They call me a cynic.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 12th, 2007 at 10:58:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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