SNCC & Today's Education Struggle
At the 50th Anniversary conference/reunion of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, NC, we gray-headed Freedom
Movement veterans met with more than 50 college activists from a number
of HBCUs, and young activists from organizations such as the
Young Peoples Project,
The Gathering For Justice, and other groups. The topic was today's
education fight. A number of the plenary speakers including Jim Lawson,
Harry Belafonte, Bob Moses, and others raised education-related issues,
and there were well-organized small-group discussions on the topic.
Starting from the premise that a quality education is a fundamental
human right, we looked at two questions:
- What defines a quality education?
- Should we have a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to a
The main points that I took away from the discussion:
- The fight for a quality education from pre-K to PhD is a key civil
rights struggle of the 21st Century.
- Framing the issue around "quality education" raises the problem of
defining "quality." The power-structure defines a "quality education" as
one that trains young people to be docile and productive hired laborers
in an economy that serves the interests of the elite. But for us, a
"quality education" is one that prepares young people to be sovereign
citizens of a democratic society. So perhaps a better way of stating our
goal is "democratic education" or "empowering education," rather than
- The phrase "sovereign citizens of a democratic society" uses the
word "citizen" in the broadest sense --- making no distinction between
"legal" and"illegal," or social security card vs green card vs no card.
"Citizen" is used in the "We the people" sense that all who contribute,
work, and live in a community are citizens of that community regardless
of arbitrary divisions imposed by the power structure.
- At root then, a "quality education" is a question of political
power. A very few special schools for the elite (Andover, Punahou,
Harvard, Yale, etc) inculcate in their students the assumption that they
will be the rulers of tomorrow and prepare them for the acquisition and
application of political and economic power. But the schools of the many
do the opposite — they instill a sense of political
powerlessness. At best the schools for the many prepare young people for
a life of hired labor, at worst they don't even do that. But even the
"good" schools that train well-paid hired labor cannot guarantee that
those "good" jobs won't disappear as soon as the power elite can find
someone somewhere to do that work at lower wages and greater
- The Freedom Movement of the 1960s won victories by exposing the
contradictions between the best aspirations of American traditions and
the racist/exploitative realities, and by organizing and mobilizing
masses of people to demand that America live up to its promises. Can we
do the same around education? Can we make the Constitution a tool for
reaching/educating/organizing large numbers of people who are not (yet)
radicalized, by demanding that a "quality education" be made a
constitutional right like free speech, freedom of religion, trial by
jury and the right to own a gun?
- The very first words of the Constitution are: "We the people ...
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of
It does not say: "We the President"
It does not say: "We the Congress"
It does not say: "We the Supreme
It does not say: "We the states"
It does not say: "We the citizens"
It says "We the people ... do ordain and establish..."
Copyright © 2010, Bruce Hartford
Copyright © 2010
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