No Education No Life: How the Algebra Project Is Educating for Insurgency
Much of the debate going on in educational circles today concerns differing ideas about how students can accomplish certain agreed-upon goals. Mainly these consist of the 3 R’s—reading, riting and rithmatic—with a touch perhaps of American history. Some wish to provide teachers with greater scope, better resources, and fewer students in the classroom. Others, the multimillion dollar “reformers,” promote a regime of ceaseless testing, managerial authority, privatization, and “teacher-proof” curricula.
But suppose you conclude, based on observing the thousands of segregated Ferguson’s and Baltimore’s throughout the USA, that the huge number of students in schools of poverty are ill-served by these very goals, that poor, often black and Latino, students, even if they pass every test and climb into community colleges, will never—a few tokens aside—get an even break in 21st-century America. What then?
Can the goals of schooling themselves be transformed? Can schools become sites not of failure and exclusion, but of insurgency and transformation? Can the young people now marginalized, enraged, and trapped in disastrous institutions become agents of creativity and growth—and real learning?
Jay Gillen’s essential book, Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty shifts focus from the adults fighting about schooling to the students themselves as the key actors in their own education. The question Gillen addresses is how might we think about the ways students can, indeed must, organize themselves, those close to them, and the many others with whom they contend for a future.
At the center of Gillen’s treatise is his and his students’ experience with one of the three r’s, rithmatic, in the form of the Algebra Project. The Algebra Project was first devised by Bob Moses, a key figure in the efforts of the young organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to challenge and eliminate racial segregation in its most intransigent bastion, Mississippi, in the 1950s and 1960s. The Baltimore version of the Project has been highly successful in providing what Gillen calls a “crawl space” in which students begin to learn how to mobilize the organizational resources necessary to confront the school boards, politicians, and courts that stand in the way of their educational development.
Because educational and political authorities see math as vital to 21st-century schooling, they are willing to provide some funds to those who succeed in teaching it, and they interfere less with the process. Gillen puts it: “Math hides the student insurgency as it learns how to walk.” This approach differs from the admirable Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, which was banned by Arizona lawmakers despite—or perhaps because of—its success in motivating and educating students to confront injustice.
A project seriously devoted to teaching math is insulated against the charge sometimes registered against radical education projects that they are indifferent to students of poverty learning the basics. Mathematical knowledge is, of course, a goal of the Algebra Project, just as the vote was the goal of SNCC organizing in Mississippi. The brilliant analogy between voter registration and learning algebra in school, which Gillen has derived from Bob Moses’ work, is apt, first, because young people are key to implementation.
Seeing students as key actors is not the only similarity. Both projects were also directed at changing oppressive institutions, the segregated political system in the 1960s, and the segregated school system today. Further, both the vote and mathematical literacy are necessary to full citizenship in the technologically-driven 21st century. To vote in Mississippi of 1964 and to be able to deploy math knowledge today are important goals in themselves.
But their importance also derives from the sense of empowerment their achievement provides, especially to those who must press through the institutional barriers to such accomplishments. Empowerment and real education (not education for test taking) is what the Algebra Project is about. To put it a bit differently, “As with voting rights, the point is to encourage students to begin to demand—of themselves and of the system—what society claims they don’t want” [Jessica T. Wahman, “’Fleshing Out Consensus’: Radical Pragmatism, Civil Rights, and the Algebra Project,” Education and Culture 25 (1) (2009), 11.]
Mathematical literacy has to do not with the capacity to fill in bubbles on high stakes tests, but with the ability to solve ever-new problems on one’s own and, most important, to teach your knowledge to younger students, as Algebra Project instructors do. But underlying the Project is an even more fundamental goal:
As Gillen explains in his book: “What we seek to encourage, however, is the methodical rehearsal of roles that emphasize the collective purposes of the troupe, acts that self-consciously grow through demands on self and peers toward demands on a larger society. The educational system does not serve the students’ purposes now. They must learn to use the crawl spaces we make available to them to prepare for organized acts that will render that system unworkable, and compel change.”
Built into the Algebra Project’s approach is a theory having to do with the process of organizing for change: “acts that self-consciously grow through demands on self and peers toward demands on a larger society.” What is being proposed is analogous to Gandhian Satyagraha, or the non-violent direct action associated with M.L. King and, differently, A.J. Muste. “Demand on yourself. Demand on your peers. Demand on the larger society. This is an ordered series: the first is prerequisite to the second, the second is prerequisite to the third. . . . attempts to change the unjust arrangements of a society will be crushed unless the insurgents have developed a discipline that can withstand the oppressor’s attempts to fracture their unity and weaken their organization” (Gillen, p. 125). One begins with self-discipline, with the willingness to undertake tasks, like registering to vote in McComb, Mississippi, or participating seriously in inner-city Baltimore schools, that are necessary and potentially dangerous. But one cannot move to the next stage without undertaking the first oneself: one cannot propose to others that they register to vote or come to school regularly and put time and effort into learning, without attempting it oneself.
Such change requires forcefully addressing the larger society, but as Gillen is quick to point out, “it is not the demand on the larger society, but the demand on peers that is the beginning of political action. The language ‘demand on peers’ is unfamiliar. But it is another way of saying ‘self-government’ or ‘democracy’”
As the late Vincent Harding, put it, “we are practitioners in an educational system that does not yet exist.” Gillen explains that, “the problem is developing an understanding of how the “educational system does not serve the students’ purpose now” and a practice (to return to our original quotation)—“that will render the system unworkable, and compel change.”
What you want to “render . . . unworkable” is, among other matters, the systematic starvation of public education, particularly in schools that serve poor and working class students. Courts order the State to provide adequate funding to the Baltimore schools, for example, but when that funding is not forthcoming, Baltimore Algebra Project activists demonstrate, march on Annapolis, engage in a hunger strike, carry out “die-ins” at meetings of school authorities. They stage direct actions to extend student bus tickets to 8 p.m. so that all can participate in the math tutoring central to the Project’s work. They organize against police violence—no small matter as we know in Baltimore and elsewhere—and put forward alternative narratives to those offered by the powers that be. They teach algebra successfully to younger students but also develop sessions on public speaking, civil disobedience, organizing tactics and the other skills necessary for pursuing their goals in the public arena. Their goals are not only teaching mathematics but demanding quality education as a “Constitutional Right” no less important than the ballot.
The Algebra Project’s goals need to be seen for what they are: not the tinkering around the edges that might elevate a few students’ math test scores by some fraction, but as a radical (to the root) transformation of the system now in place to “educate” students of poverty. Gillen’s analysis of the project does not argue that public schools are somehow failing. To the contrary, he insists that “Schools for young people in poverty are marvelously successful at teaching about the scarcity of resources, arbitrariness of authority, and shunting of joy to the peripheries that characterize the society they are actually growing up into”.
Students are not merely the victims of a perverse system that places them in a school to prison pipeline. They are, in fact, crucial players in the dramas of the classroom. Any “reform” that omits them—and most do—will fail. But can or even should students—and particularly students in schools of poverty—be thought about as change agents? Gillen’s book reminds us that historically, it was often young people of color who carried through abolitionist activities against slavery, as well as the heroic efforts to disrupt segregation in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s. The young people who sat in at lunch counters in Greensboro, who marched in and to Montgomery, who went from house to house in rural Mississippi demonstrate the power that engaged youth can bring to creating social change. .
A comparable struggle is the movement to opt students out of high stakes tests. This is not, from one point of view, a “radical” crusade. Most of those who have been active in it would probably not see it as a challenge to American capitalism. But insofar as it has the potential to undermine the authority of the “reformers,” it is genuinely subversive.
As a brilliantly conceived act of civil disobedience, it is a direct challenge to the “reformers” who have hung their hopes on testing as the pivotal instrument of change. To be sure, the self-proclaimed “reformers” have also tried to privatize public schools into money-making charters; break teachers’ unions; and promote the authority of managers over that of the people who do the actual work of teaching. That effort has been almost entirely negative: it argues that schooling in America is broken and must be replaced, one way or another. Only then will . . . well, test scores go up. That then becomes the be-all and end-all. In the final analysis only significantly improved test scores can make a case premised on . . . improved test scores. “To squash the test,” as one teacher put it, is thus to cut the legs from under the effort to change the schools from above. Those who live by the test will die by the test.
And so we find ourselves back to the empowerment of students. The idea is not to train students to fill in bubbles but to teach them algebra and geometry, as well as how power operates, how poetry means, and how schools and communities can be changed. As students learn by placing demands on self, then on others, and ultimately on the society, they are learning, too, the practice of democracy, which is finally a system in which the critical decisions about a community’s institutions are made by all the members of the community and not by absentee governors, self-appointed philanthropists, or affluent testing agencies.
The conflict over the schools, as Gillen’s work helps to clarify, is really a conflict about the future of America. Are our schools and communities to be ruled by the 1% and the politicians and bureaucrats they buy? Or by the 99%, who know what the so-called “reforms” imposed on them and their children really add up to.