Occupy Education: The Revolution Starts Now

As always, lots of good stuff in the latest edition of Independent School, the quarterly magazine from NAIS.

And those who hold rather outdated notions of independent schools as universal staunch defenders of tradition and the home of the status quo might be surprised by the theme:  Evolution or Revolution: the Pace of Change in Schools.

Evolution or revolution? – both suggest that things are on the move, change is afoot and the status quo is to be questioned, challenged or perhaps  overturned.

In the end, it seems,  education and schools are not immune from the whirlwind – fueled by technology –  that has upended virtually every other industry. (Think music, medicine, publishing, news media, communications, manufacturing and etc.) That glacial pace is picking up.

The magazine includes this call to arms by  Elizabeth Coleman, the president of Bennington College and  an NAIS trustee: The Revolution Starts Now.

Coleman wrote this before the #OccupyWallStreet movement took root in downtown Manhattan – indeed she delivered a version of this at the NAIS annual conference last spring –  but  it resonates with the sources of that discontent and remains important and timely.

Elizabeth Coleman is not one to mince words. She begins with  inescapable brutal facts that:

During the past decade, we have witnessed escalating crises in the most vital areas of our public life, including: a relentless acceleration in our awesome failure to effectively educate vast numbers of our young; a no-less-relentless increase in the spectacular inequities in the distribution of wealth; an extraordinary timidity, to put it politely, in our approach to providing health care; a growing incapacity to discuss, much less confront, the potential of global warming to upend human civilization itself; an assault on the principles that define us as a people (the rule of law, the separation of powers, the relationship between church and state); a disconcerting predilection for the uses of force despite overwhelming evidence of its limitations; and a squandering of our material and ethical resources in less than a decade that defies credulity.

And at a time when clarity of thought, respect for evidence, and appreciation for complexity is especially critical, the sensationalism of the media — the other major educational institution in our society — continues undiminished. The distance we have traveled is best measured by reminding ourselves that the Federalist Papers were published in three New York newspapers and then, in response to popular demand, published in newspapers throughout the colonies. There is no more damning evidence of the failure of education in this country than the quality of what the public craves or tolerates in its media.

While Coleman sees a crisis,  the academic establishment, she says,  moves on as if oblivious to the tumult and chaos; education is increasingly defined in economic and vocational terms while the health of the democracy is left to languish. Education, she laments is seen not as an intrinsic value but as a handmaiden to political, economic and religious interests and remains “… a blank slate on which virtually anything can be written.”

Coleman sees the purpose of education as being not to perpetuate the status quo but to challenge and change it for the better.

Our neglect of the distinctive power and responsibility of education is especially perilous in a democracy.

She connects this thinking with the nation’s founding philosophers:

From the beginning of this great American experiment in self-governance, education was universally understood to be critical in determining its fate. Thomas Jefferson put it most succinctly: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be….

Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” move off the table as beyond our ken. Incredibly, neutrality about such concerns is seen as a condition of academic integrity.

Coleman’s argument proceeds from there and includes the necessity – as she sees it – to take a stand on the vital issue on which democracy is founded.

Education, she says, is more than crudely vocational however lofty or urgent it is made to sound. She quotes President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union message of 1994 “We measure every school by one high standard: Are children learning what they need to know to compete and win in the global economy.”

And she asks:

That’s it? That’s the whole story?

One might reasonably consider economic well-being to be one of the desirable outcomes of a successful education, but that is a very different matter from its becoming the sole objective of such an education — the standard by which everything is to be measured.

She has much more to say on the subject and offers some ways forward and out of our current dilemma with an education focus on the compelling needs, human purpose and what it takes to educate for sustained  democracy and democratic values.

And her conclusion presents the  stark alternative: the status quo or revolution:

Finally, the world is right in its ongoing passionate commitment to the power of education, despite everything. Imagine what could happen if we do it right. Imagine what will happen if we do not. The stakes could not be higher. We are unlikely to have a viable democracy made up of experts, politicians, zealots, and spectators.

For Elizabeth Coleman  education –  aka the liberal arts and sciences –  should focus on broad subjects relevant to our immediate problems. And they are: Equity, the environment, health care, education, governance, and the uses of force. She believes that the task of  education – specifically colleges –  should be to re-engage communities around these pivotal issues and that our survival depends upon that refocus.

For some of the specifics of what she has in mind read the full essay: The Revolution Starts Now.


  1. If you would occupy your statehouse to keep your job, pay, and benefits, please also consider occupying your classroom.

    Give your students at least a day a week to follow their passions.
    Get rid of your furniture. Help kids borrow, bring, or build their own.
    Get rid of your textbooks. Or redact them.
    Ask kids to make sense of the world as it happens across media and technologies.
    Build communities instead of reinforcing expectations.

    It will be very scary, but not as scary as what others face. It will be very uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as remaining silent. It will cost us some, but without making some sacrifice we shouldn’t expect or ask our students to save us or our world.

    We are inspired by the “We are the 99%” messages spreading across tumblr and social media sites.

    We will collect stories about your classrooms, what you are fighting against and what are you doing to change it.

    What do you want for your classroom and your students? What kind of education do you believe in?

    Join us here and start transforming education! Reclaiming our Voice in Education!

  2. David – I really appreciate your comment as well as your link showing teachers reclaiming the profession as one that recognizes and respects their expertise, insight, passion and purpose.

    #Occupy Education indeed. And keep on #Re-Occupying in resistance to the forces that – in the guise of “reform” – want to undermine the very essence of learning by reducing it to a formula and a test score. We don’t teach to raise test scores. We teach children so that they may thrive.

    All power to creative, caring and committed teachers everywhere. Collaborate, connect and continue the good work. Let’s work together to reclaim and re-occupy the profession to serve the needs of the children.

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