I marched in front of the White House yesterday with hundreds of other students marching for racial, climate, and immigration justice. This march was called Our Generation, Our Choice, and its hashtag on Twitter is #OurGenerationOurChoice (good social movements always have a hashtag).
I’m also taking a course right now on educational policy, taking a critical look at how it’s implemented and revised, its relationship to those it governs (how it affects them, how much or how little power they have in affecting it, etc.). Its hashtag on Twitter (because the course is kind of social-movement-ey) is #CritEdPol.
I want to talk briefly about the connections I see between these two things, mainly with the intent of sharing with others in education how I’m thinking about educational policy right now. This is the first time (I think) that I’ve explicitly discussed politics on my blog and there are countless rabbit holes this could go down, so I’m limiting my time writing this to one hour (…and I actually kept it under two hours) to stay focused on a couple key points I want to highlight. Apologies for what I leave out and for the un-editedness of this—it’s intentionally incomplete (because striving for it to be “complete” would for me almost certainly mean never posting it). :)
Intersections of Issues
The first of two connections I want to draw between #OurGenerationOurChoice and #CritEdPol is the idea of intersections between different social issues.
The #OurGenerationOurChoice march was explicitly and very intentionally framed as a march of intersecting issues—not just three issues side by side, but three issues together. This is because of the relationships between these issues, of which I’ll now give a few brief examples, acknowledging that I am likely oversimplifying and mischaracterizing them to some degree: One intersection is that climate change tends to impact impoverished communities and communities of color hardest and before impacting other more developed areas, yet those developed areas impacted least and impacted last tend to be some of the biggest contributors to the problem. Another is that immigration laws make it difficult if not impossible for undocumented immigrants affected by these destructive changes and dangerous extraction processes to get the health care they need. And of course, race and immigration are deeply related as many attempts to keep immigrants out of the country boil down to thinly veiled racism. These are just a few examples of the kinds of intersections the march was organized around.
So what’s the connection to education?
Understanding these kinds of intersections plays an essential role in understanding education policy. I had a teacher in high school, who, knowing that I have lofty ambitions of transforming public education into an anti-oppressive, student-driven haven of authentic learning, always repeated the same refrain to me that “if you want to fix education, first you have to fix poverty.” As we saw with the #OurGenerationOurChoice march, this concept can be accurately reapplied in a wide variety of ways—"if you want to fix racism, you have to fix climate change", “if you want to fix immigration, you have to fix racism”, etc.—and seeing this can lead you to see similar networks of issues in education: “if you want to fix education, you have to fix poverty”, “if you want to fix poverty, you have to fix racism”, “if you want to fix racism, you have to fix education”. These are (in grossly reduced form) some of the arguments we’ve been grappling with in our #CritEdPol course with readings from educational activists like Jean Anyon, which brings us nicely to my next point.
(Although it’s worth noting one other thing first: the circle I just drew from fixing education to fixing racism and back to fixing education is illustrative of why we can’t fix these issues in isolation. We can’t just start with one and work our way back up the chain of issues, because the relationships between the issues are bi-directional. We have to take them as a whole, and work on them in parallel, to create the kinds of positive feedback loops that will lead to real progress in any of the areas. Being aware of this full picture is important, yet at the same time it’s impossible for any social movement to be fully aware much less actively working on every issue that intersects with the issue or set of issues on which they’re founded. To me, this is the fundamental struggle of social movements: finding the right balance between awareness of the whole and focus on a singular goal or set of goals.)
Social Movements for Political Change
The second connection I want to draw between #OurGenerationOurChoice and #CritEdPol is about how we create political change.
One of the major recurring themes in our #CritEdPol course has been a pattern that goes something along the lines of:
- Here’s problem x in education.
- Here’s solution y, which happens at a local or classroom level, but is infeasible to implement at the scale it needs to be implemented at without some sort of policy providing higher-up support in some form.
- Here’s policy z, which would provide the support that’s needed for solution y to problem x, but, as is almost always the case when we get to this point, is so far from our current way of dealing with education at a higher/state level that it could never be made into law using the existing channels and structures of our political system.
Once we get stuck at step 3, there are really only two ways to get unstuck.
The first is to build a mass social movement around policy z that frames policy z as more than just solution y to issue x (even if that’s the core reason for wanting policy z in the first place), emphasizing ways in which it could be beneficial to the state to adopt policy z so that the state will want to implement it. This is what I was alluding to above when I mentioned Jean Anyon: that is, the idea that mass political struggle—like the march we had this Monday—is the “real” way of making lasting political change when the “proper channels” don’t really exist for the kinds of change you want to make, as is frequently the case with issues not only in education but across the political spectrum. When you need to make a change under a state that isn’t receptive to substantive changes, the two things you need to do are (1) frame the change in a way that would make the state care about the issue if only it were to be taken seriously, and (2) present the change using this framing through a mass social movement to force the state to take it seriously.
The biggest problem with this approach is that… you have to build a mass social movement for every change you want to make! Sometimes you can batch a few of them together, but still, this approach is infeasible for making all the changes that need to be made, and unsustainable when our reality continues to evolve and further changes need to be made in response.
The second way to get unstuck, then, is to use this very tactic to build a meta mass social movement that’s about restructuring the political system to be more receptive of grievances and requests for change so that going forward you don’t need a mass social movement for every change that needs to be made. At its core, to me, this is exactly what the #OurGenerationOurChoice march was about. Beyond acknowledging the intersections between the issues that constituted the march, there was a strong underlying theme that we need systemic change for a sustainable (in every sense of the word—i.e. “we can continue on like this”) future. This applies not just to the issues emphasized in the march, but to just about every issue you can imagine that’s not adequately addressed in mainstream politics (i.e. most issues).
The systemic change needed to adequately address race, climate, and immigration is exactly the kind of systemic change needed to address the inequities and failures of practice in education: we need the power to make decisions not to be concentrated almost entirely in those who have wealth, and in those (not coincidentally often the same people) who are supposed to represent broader society by being elected into public office. Given that true representation of every single individual in a society by a smaller subset of individuals from that society is nothing short of a mathematical impossibility (a whole topic of its own, worthy of another post, and perhaps illustrated best to abstract thinkers like myself by the fact that you can’t replace a collection of numbers with its mean and not lose information), what we need is an advocacy state, where official forms of communication exist for groups of individuals who are not represented to bring their issues and subjugated knowledge into mainstream politics for serious consideration without having to start an entire mass social movement every time.
What exactly would this look like? I don’t know but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say one possible piece of the solution could be something not entirely unlike the Obama administration’s We The People website for bringing petitions with enough support to the attention of the administration, but more central to the process of making laws, and more central too in determining the allocation of resources to different areas. Most fundamentally the solution would have to treat the definition of policy as an ongoing, dynamic process rather than as a static product that we’re always trying to finalize and get right once and for all. There is no “right” set of laws because the people they govern are always changing, so the laws must always be changing too. Building a new political system with this idea at its core is, to me, a if not the central piece of what I’m trying to do both with my involvement in #OurGenerationOurChoice and with my studies in #CritEdPol.