September 16, 2009

Centennial Student Democracy

Debating High School Politics – by Jamie Burnett

We reprint this article in full on the blog for debate and discussion -- a short version will be published in Rebel Youth Magazine. (Image: Freaks, by Cristy C. Road)

However long this article ended up being, it could have been longer. I simply can't get into all the complexities of a year of activity in a magazine article. My recent obsession has been the product of a year spent really committed to the idea of high schools as a site of organizing. About a year and a half ago I began being involved with the YCL – it was only late that fall that I began really focusing on the place I was.

The school

That place was not attractive to me as an activist. My high school is a pretty middle class high school. A significant portion of the student body – especially those who really participate in the “school life” – has parents who are doctors, engineers, senior managers, professors, small business owners, etc. This means that when we talk about the school’s “politics”, there’s something like two groups of people (of course the whole story is more complicated). One is often simplistically – and I would argue, dangerously inaccurately – commonly referred to as “politically apathetic”. They’re not necessarily comfortable in the school. They don’t go to class or assemblies a lot, and when they do, they don’t think much of it. They very rarely identify as “political”. They’re more working class, and they’re generally less likely to go to university.

The other group is more middle class. Their parents are, say, professors at the University, or engineers, they’re a bank manager or they own a business. None of these groups are homogeneous or exact, but there’s a general tendency for these people to do well in school. They’re more likely to be “politically aware”. They participate much more in extracurricular, in clubs, and sometimes in what are generally considered to be “activist” groups. Some are more right wing, some are more liberal. But there’s a very visible class character to how “activism” within the school works – the implicit assumption is that those who are “political” are those who do well in school, and those who tend to do well in school just happen to be of a privileged class.

I didn’t find either of these groups particularly appealing at first. The first group just wasn’t that concerned about a lot of things that were basic staples of my everyday life. But the latter group, though a lot of them insist on being a Green Party sort of left wing, was and is in many ways a lot more problematic. Their politics tend to be exactly what one would expect from a progressive dominant class. They continue to do progressive things, but they're limited – no doubt in part because of their class position – and they can give the appearance of believing that they are saving the world and everyone else is wrong. They tend (and I can only speak in general tendencies) to become uncomfortable or even confrontational when politics becomes challenging, unpopular, or potentially contentious – and this will be important later. When the other group of students doesn’t care about what they’re doing, they believe it is because this group of students is ignorant and bad and not as enlightened as they are.

Another way of putting this: the liberal way of doing politics excludes working class students (or people in general), and when they live in a society and attend a school where they learn that this is what political activism is, it's easy to come to believe that they must themselves not be interested in politics.

Why high schools are important

High schools are politically important for several key reasons. Firstly, the class composition of high schools is in almost all cases very different from the class composition of universities. Those who believe that political activism is something best left to those who have attained or are attaining postsecondary education – especially in a society where that access is tightly restricted along class lines – are either totally delusional, or hate the working class. There are a lot of problems with universities as a site of resistance, the most commonly named being that in their capacities as students they don’t have the same relationship to production that workers do. But this on its own hardly precludes the value gained by politicized campuses over the last half-century. Moreover, many of the other problems with campus activism relate directly to the class character of universities.

I’ve also believed for a long time, and still maintain, that the struggle for youth liberation is one of the only major historic struggles against oppression that receives almost no attention from mainstream leftists. Unfortunately what little attention it does get it mostly gets from anarchists. If people said many of the things they say about teenagers about women, they’d be totally ostracized from public life, never mind leftist communities – and I’m talking about cases where they do so with as much rational basis. There is no real reason for this; a perspective in favour of youth liberation is as compatible with Marxism as is feminism. In fact, feminism is greatly enhanced by the attention it gets from a rigorous Marxist analysis of how it fits into a whole society.

One of the few Marxist books to even hint at, in any great detail, this relationship is the 1976 book Schooling in Capitalist America. Coauthors Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles outline several significant theses. Perhaps the most important is the idea that schools look the way they do in capitalist society because their express purpose is (in the eyes of the dominant class) to shape workers for capitalist production and “citizenship”. For example, one would expect an ideal capitalist school to teach, in addition to useful technical skills like mathematics, communication and computer skills, obedience, acceptance of the hierarchy of production, and on a broader social level, some sort of comfort or even appreciation for the capitalist nation state and its “liberal democracy”. While no real society is quite so simple, and schools are already a site of significant struggle (though here students have largely been excluded), this is the basic way in which schools function. As for the more subtle complexities, I’d like to explore the details of the relationship between schools and the capitalist state in a later article for this publication.

Thus any serious political analysis of schools entails recognizing that they play a crucial role in capitalist reproduction – not producing commodities as such, but reproducing capitalist society and its labour force, making sure capitalism keeps happening. It’s worth considering, at least, that disruption of this process could be for that reason alone a valuable avenue of struggle. This is in addition to the fact that many if not most students intuit if not articulate that capitalist schools are horrendously insulting, dull, and stifling of personal development, and thus they should be changed regardless of their place in production. The alienation of capitalist production pales in comparison to that felt by those “working” in schools and not even producing so much as alienated commodities.

Gintis and Bowles warn, as another central thesis of their book, that liberal reform is not a sufficient mechanism for creating fundamental change in schools, because ultimately schools are shaped by the real forces which control society and politics – that is, economics. In fact, capitalism can use liberalism itself as a way of maintaining schools in their interests but with a friendlier, more “progressive” face. Therefore they argue, to see “real” change in schools, we need to change the whole society. While ultimately, in the broadest sense, this is true – and the abolition of capitalism should be a goal anyway – it hardly prescribes the sort of work I’ve been doing lately, and which I’d like to introduce to RY in this article.

The action
The work I’ve been doing over the past year eventually materialized into a group called Centennial Student Democracy. The basic mandate of the group is to fight for student democracy, that is, student participation in the functioning of the school. This can entail relatively small things, like bringing a student voice to discussions about dress code or code of conduct. While these are not things that get any revolutionary very excited, it goes very far beyond this. The group is actually developing incredibly quickly, and incredibly well – it got started late in the year, and most of its members have very little “activist” experience, in some cases even in the narrow water-bottle-selling sense the school is familiar with. But what is developing is a sort of institutional criticism, not just “why can’t we wear t-shirts with swear words”, but “why are some programs and departments better funded than others”, “why is X taught and Y not”, “what is the relationship between marking and learning”, or even “why is that relationship so tenuous”. Coupled with serious proposals for action, this will create, at a minimum, a better school.

It’s not a way to change an entire society, or even an entire educational system, but it is something else – a way to create a political space. It’s a way to create a political space, not simply on a university campus, but at a high school. And if it works, which it has a lot of potential to, it can provide a model for similar projects at other schools. What I’ve deliberately avoided doing, and I’ve had disagreements with activist friends about this, is creating some sort of a leftist activist club. The main reason is because it hasn’t worked, and I’ve certainly tried. But I’ve also found that this sort of a format, at least right now, is not something accessible particularly to working class students. A group that focuses on immediate concerns within the school is one which welcomes people – a diverse group of people which however has a number of similar concerns – into a potentially very political space that they might not otherwise find themselves in. As I mentioned before, the usual sort of “activism” in my school tends to end up looking like the usual sort of liberal charity, which is neither useful nor appealing to people with real problems.

This is something I and several others believe we should avoid, and it's not a trivial task to do so. The people who are coming out so far are mostly of the more “middle class” group of students – that's okay, but for the reasons I've already mentioned it has its challenges. However, there's a surprising and exciting awareness among the group itself that this is a problem, and there's a real commitment to ameliorating it.

There are a lot of questions and uncertainties – for example, the reaction of the teachers and administration is mixed and not yet clear – but what has already been accomplished is impressive. Of course it’s not the answer to all of our society’s problems, but I’m convinced that high schools are a valuable field of struggle that is far too often ignored by the broad spectrum of the left. If you’re interested, there are a lot of things you can do. If you’re in high school, especially – high schools aren’t fun places to work, but they’re important places to work. If you’re not in high school, support those who are. High schools are places which present real problems for students, but those same students have real potential to fight for a better society.

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