Youth in the Lead

02/18/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

A review of Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty by Jay Gillen.

Sometimes a little book comes along that changes everything. It makes its mark by reframing and redefining something that is right before our eyes but needs explaining from a new perspective. Jay Gillen's Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty, from AK Press, is just such a book. With deft strokes and clear explanations, it shatters the standard narrative on the "achievement gap" -- the gap in grades and test scores between the privileged and the oppressed in our society.

Gillen, who has worked for years with Bob Moses' Algebra Project and has developed successful work with marginalized students in his own role as a Baltimore high school teacher, brings a wide intellectual palette and a razor-sharp observation of specific moments to his analysis. All too often, academics, policy makers, and administrators pontificate on the education crisis without once respecting the point of view or the voice of the young people themselves.

Gillen recalls the period before the Civil War when political divisions raged over the "slavery question." White factions in the various sectors debated and argued. But the whole crisis was fueled by the actions of the enslaved Africans themselves, according to Gillen. "Each insurgent act of running away or of poisoning or arson or violence against a slaveholder had it own origins in the mind and body of the slave." (p. 41). And the vast majority of the fugitive slaves were between ages 13 and 29. It was the affirmative actions of the enslaved, he argues, regardless of laws or political debates, which caused the slavery crisis. If these youths had been docile, compliant, agreeable, there would have been no debate.

And then he argues, "The uncontrolled movements of young people in poverty today, and particularly of the descendants of slaves, generate debates about educational 'reform' in much the same way that the uncontrolled movements of their insurgent ancestors generated debates about the status of slavery before the Civil War. The indocility of young people in high schools, for example, provokes tensions and hardening of positions around school discipline and policing." (p. 42). If students did what they were told, there would be no crisis in education. Failing schools are not places where students attend, pay attention, and try, he argues. They are where students cut class, refuse to pay attention, evade and defy authority, and roam the halls. (p. 57) African American and Chicano Latino students, colonized and oppressed students, are not passive objects of the system, they are the central actors in it. Eric Toshalis in his recent book Make Me! Understanding and engaging student resistance in school makes the same point.

This is not to say that the resistance of students today is the same as resistance to slavery, but it follows a somewhat similar political pattern -- white (mostly white) people in conflict with each other over policy without the recognition of the key actors. This insight is earth-shaking but it is not without precedent. Paul Willis in Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs made a similar point about working class English youth in a regional industrial city -- they resisted schooling not because they were ignorant or morally flawed or failures. They resisted because they knew the system would never work for them, the ascendance into the middle class was a pipe dream, and they were preparing for a life of active and agentive participation in working class factory life.

What Willis and Gillen expose is that too often we talk about "education" as if students were faceless automatons and the body of knowledge were a single thing, a set of settled truths, a desirable accomplishment that promises an end to poverty and a happy life. The truth is that such an unchallenged framing of education has only led to decades of reproduction -- reproduction of the same class and colonial hierarchies that the country was founded on. But as Gillen says, "Imagining that the purposes of schools are settled is a way of hiding the political world of young people. Imagining that all that remains to do is simply the implementation of proven technologies for the production of accepted social purposes misrepresents the sociological and political problem. The problem is that the social and political purposes of the country are contested and young people are participating in working toward a settlement of the contest, even while their political role remains unacknowledged." (p. 50)

Schools are sites of contention. Struggling students are not simply misinformed about the right thing to do. Perhaps they have taken a good, hard look at their options and the possibilities that schools might serve their interests -- and they have affirmatively chosen to resist. These young people see schools in the midst of a series of institutions that oppress their communities -- institutions that provoke alienation, resistance, and passive or active hostility. Youth pursuing their own purposes continually disrupt the smooth functioning of school.

Gillen's book serves as a criticism and a corrective to so much that passes for pedagogy and policy in schools. No doubt, all cultures worry about the moral development of children and adolescents. But in current U.S. culture, those in power presuppose and never question the rightness and legitimacy of the master narrative and the moral righteousness of those who rule. Adults constantly make moral judgments on students, as in the following statements that are heard far too often in teacher lunchrooms and school meetings: "They know right from wrong. They are stubborn and obstinate; they are trying to 'get over' or to get away with bad behavior. They are lazy or disrespectful. They are traveling with the wrong crowd. They should try harder. They are choosing not to try or are choosing to disrupt." Or even, "their parents are lazy, obstinate, ignorant, and allow their children too much freedom." (p. 52)

These statements do not constitute analysis or understanding of the situation. They are the kind of reflexive racism that justifies further control and repression. In this context, schools worry constantly about classroom management, discipline, and compliance. Generally, they come up with technocratic, behaviorist systems that ascribe moral failure to students. These systems define unacceptable student behaviors and prescribe fixes based on the goal of winning compliance. Consultants are paid millions of dollars to generate lists of goals and objectives, standards, and indicators that have a "scientific" sound. (p. 49) But these regimes of control never address the content of education or its purposes. Instead they rely on coercion.

Gillen points out how the infamous Taney declaration of the Dred Scott decision (the black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect) can be seen reified in the way that students have no interests that schools are bound to respect. The physical movements of youth are proscribed and controlled. Thirst, hunger, excretion -- the most intimate bodily needs -- are closely regulated. Students are judged and ranked on a daily basis, subject to testing and sorting, ordered to do arbitrary things by adults. If we are going to talk about bullying in schools, we should give first attention to this bullying by teachers and administrators that goes on all the time.
When we begin to probe the fundamental assumptions in today's educational terrain, we find ridiculously backward and colonialist ideas about what it means to be good and "advanced," and what should be judged as bad or "primitive." (p. 55) Educational ideology is still dominated by what Edward Said analyzed as Orientalist thinking -- the idea that the West (Europe and the U.S.) are guardians of rationality and civilization; and the "other" - the East, the Mid-East, basically all the Third World as well as people of color within the metropole -- are savages needing to be tamed.

We see this belief in practice in endless regimes of control, not just control of the body but even of the mind. One charter school corporation has a practice called "SAVE." This is a requirement that whenever a student is heard to be speaking in slang or their home vernacular, the teacher is to clap her hands twice and say, "SAVE!" This acronym means, "Standard American Vernacular English!" In other words, stop talking like you talk, speak like a white middle class American. Not only is this interruption practiced by the teacher but students are encouraged to interrupt and correct each other. Such practices recall the mission of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania which set out to "kill the Indian" in the students in order to make them compliant in white society.

The orientalist turn is found also in the suggestion by foundations and education psychologists that African American youth can't sublimate emotions, can't put off gratification. This is a pseudo-scientific way of claiming the uncontrolled id, the animal nature, of these youth. It is seen again in the denial of youth identity and decision making, the claim that reduces a young person's development to nothing more than parenting or social environment. And parents and communities are thus slandered and identified as wanting.

But the truth is that the resistance of young people is based on consciousness -- indeed on a pretty accurate evaluation of their circumstances. The truth is that young people are deeply engaged in profound intellectual pursuits and literacy practices with their peers, even as there is a "strange absence of intellectual engagement in high schools." (p. 60) African American youth, Chicano Latino youth, immigrant youth, queer and othered youth, engage in complex thinking and develop subtle understandings and analysis of the double bind they are in. What is subversive about their actions is that they distinguish their own interests from that of the school and act accordingly.

Finally, Gillen imagines what kind of places school could be if adults listened to Black and Brown youth. "If evaluation were integrated into the actual purposes of children's lives, it might be possible for teachers and students to collaborate toward creating a world that meets their needs." (p. 53)

And he knows what he's talking about because he has been in just such practice in the Insurgent Algebra Project, which he has learned from Maisha Moses, Lynn Godfrey, and Bob Moses. Building powerful schools does not mean finding new and clever ways to co-opt youth into serving adult purposes, but rather acting as allies in solidarity with their freedom movement. "Building alliances between and among young people and adults will require pragmatic ways of relating to each other that are generally considered strange in schools." (p. 144)

One may argue that the task is too challenging, the proposal is too radical, and the enemy is too strong. Gillen's conclusion reminds us that such a transformed approach to education is not only possible, it is the only way forward. It makes me think of the question of asymmetrical warfare. American military strategists worry about this all the time. America has all the resources and the greatest military machine the world has ever seen. Yet since World War II they have not been able to "defeat" anyone. The poor, the invaded, seem to be able to throw them off even with paltry weapons and resources. The Pentagon's gory and elaborate development of means of violence do not represent U.S. military power but its very weakness. And I think you can make an analogy here to education. The powerful have the test writers, the foundations, the state governments, and the department of education. But they don't have the people and in fact are being thwarted again and again by the self-motivated actions of those at the bottom.

Gillen's Educating for Insurgency reminds us that these are the people, these are the forces, who ultimately hold the trump card. It may be a war of the flea, but in the end it is human beings who shape the world to their purposes. There is yet hope.