In the U.S., the public education system has been shaped by different goals. On the one hand, the wealthy elite have required a disciplined work force with enough education to work. But the working class and poor also want education to enrich our lives, to give our children a better future, and ultimately to have the knowledge necessary to change society. Between these two goals there has always been a struggle over the quality of education workers receive.
Learning to Revolt
In the American South enslaved Africans were the main workforce. The only education slaves received was violence and the threat of death. But slaves resisted, organizing huge uprisings. There are 250 recorded major uprisings of slaves in the American South. Often these revolts were led by slaves who had found ways to educate themselves and others. For this reason, in the South, teaching a slave to read was a major crime punishable by huge fines or public whipping.
Learning to Be Free
After the Civil War, the ex-slaves of the South used their new freedom to organize. The Southern plantation owners were defeated and barred from holding political office. Poor black people and white people ran the South. Over 2,000 ex-slaves held public office from the local level to the U.S. senate. The former slaves and poor whites in power demanded public schools so that they could learn to read, write, and control their own lives. Public schools were established and operated for a few years. But quickly the wealthy Northern elite who controlled the federal government allowed the former slave owners to use the force of violent groups such as the KKK to regain control. By the 1890s, new so-called Jim Crow laws were put in place to deny black people rights, including the right to an education.
Learning to Organize
At the same time that the freed slaves were demanding public education in the South, a huge working class movement grew up in opposition to the harsh conditions of wage labor in the factories, mines, railroads and other industrial workplaces in the North. Education was a tool of these workers to learn how to build their own organizations, and fight for a better world. Workers demanded good public education, but the workers movement didn’t just rely on the government for education. Workers organized their own schools that met on weekends to discuss everything from politics to science and literature. At this time every union hall was also a library and a study center. Self-education was the fuel that drove the workers movement.
Learning Our Own History
During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, activists and organizers shook the foundations of racism in the U.S. The movement demanded more and better public education. One of the first fights was against segregation, which enforced inferior schools for black children. The movement fought for better schools, but it also created its own schools. One part of the movement was the creation of Freedom Schools, schools to teach the hidden history of African Americans, as well as basic skills and literacy. Just like the workers’ movement, these efforts had the goal of giving people the tools to change their world.
Sometimes the demands for the kind of education we want get integrated into the public education system. The workers movement, the civil rights movement, and many other struggles have forced the public education system to change. In some schools, education today incorporates a little bit of the history of oppressed people, and other perspectives. Some schools offer a chance for young people to learn music, play sports, and explore some of their talents. And the Community Colleges provide poor and working class young people and adults with access to continued learning.
But every one of these gains is being stripped away day by day. And there is only one explanation for these attacks. The ruling class and the workers and poor have different goals – they want disciplined obedient workers while we want to realize our full potential as human beings. We want a different education than they want us to receive. And we will have to fight to get it.