history & transitions

At the Highlander Center for Education and Social Research in New Market TN in 1992 with Ann, a Detroit-based activist who was organizing mutual aid among Lesbians who had retired from the auto industry. Ann was very ‘out’ while I was circumspect about my sexual orientation when we visited communities organizations. I was surprised that so many local queer men would find me at every stop, until I realized Ann was sending them my way!

Last week in my class at Rhode Island School of Design, Leadership of Social Change, I led a unit on The Highlander Folk School. It got me thinking about my roots as an educator. As I get closer and closer to my last day teaching in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program, I’m starting to get some perspective on the shape of my career.

Highlander was started by Myles Horton in 1932. It began as a labor school, and by the late 1940s was focused more on Civil Rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent time there, as did Rosa Parks. The real work of Highlander in that era, though, was being a place where thousands of unnamed civil rights activists could gather, learn from each other, and prepare for the work they’d do in their home communities. By the 1970s, Highlander increasingly focused on the local concerns of people in The South and Appalachia. And, by the 1990s, when I spent time there, they were becoming increasingly global in their vision, looking at inequities of the global north and south. I participated in a leadership institute, designed for people like me — people who were interested in Highlander’s work, but weren’t part of their constituency.

Highlander helped me connect the reading of Paulo Freire I’d done in college, the reading of bell hooks that animated my early career, the work I’d done teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) with refugees in Providence, RI, and my broad interest in applying non-hierarchical, learner-centered practices at the Swearer Center for Public Service (which I directed at the time). It helped me understand, practically, how liberatory education worked in communities. As I’ve written before, it also helped me better hone in on my life-long question: how do we learn?

I resisted graduate school for a more than a decade. Working at a college, I didn’t want to become a professor (ironic, I know). While I hadn’t read Marx at that point, I sensed the problem of academics working from within the privilege of the ‘irony tower’ and the disconnection of theory and practice. But after a while it became clear that I had to pursue graduate education if I wanted to continue to pursue the work I was doing. So I started to look for a school that would allow me to pursue education in the arts in a liberatory context

I went to Goddard as a spy. Part of a network of ‘Progressive’ colleges started in the 1930s — along with sister schools (especially Black Mountain College, but also Bennington College, Bard College, et cetera) — Goddard was the closest to its roots in John Dewey’s theories of learning. I wanted to see, if like at Highlander, it was possible to pursue a learner-centered approach in higher education. When I was hired after graduating to be a faculty member, I saw it as an extension of this research. Twenty-one years later my research is concluding.

Goddard is messy. Administratively it’s always been problematic — with short-live administrations and mostly inexperienced and provincial administrators. Like many small schools, it’s tuition-driven, but like none I’ve ever seen it seems hellbent on alienating its alumni — making fundraising exceedingly difficult. The faculty haven’t proven adept at building coalitions, and collegiality is too often trumped by ideology. A pedagogy of individualized learning has largely translated to an internal politics of individualism — making the place unwieldy and without a cohesive center. Given this context, it’s often been surprising to me that within pockets of the college the teaching and learning have been very good. I feel badly that I now have an inkling that even that’s about to change.

Still, having now made the decision to leave, it’s now baffling why I stayed so long. I say ‘decision,’ but in a sense I felt forced out by the provisions in a new contract — which upped workloads while (in real dollars) lowering pay. It also changing the methods of instruction, making the college more standardized and less learner-centered. When the contract required me to reapply for my job, I took stock of the time v reward ratio of the work, and ignored the ‘invitation.’ The new contract forced me to look at my work conditions over a long period of time. And I concluded that the only tangible reward of the job — for almost a decade — was the conversation with students. And those kinds of conversations are available in many other contexts. I also realized that Goddard’s new model would offer less opportunity for the kind of transformational conversations that had been at the center of my experience.

For a long time, I put a lot of energy and reputation into building the program in which I’ve taught. I thought that was my professional obligation. But I’ve come to question that, and this turning point underscored a fault in my thinking: An institution hires you on the basis of your reputation and its hunch you can serve it well. You give it your all, allowing yourself — your ethics, values and labor — to be the face of a program. You work longer hours than you’re paid for because you’ve become a true believer in the work at hand. You see this as service to the institution, to which you become grateful for the opportunity to purse what you see as your work. You fool yourself into thinking your labor is going into ‘your program’ or at the very least into a program you’ve built with colleagues. Yes, this is hubris, and when the chips are down the institution always shows its hand: it’s not your program and never was. You actually have very little control over its destiny. And, while you’ve invested much in the institution, the institution has never really cared about you. 

I suppose this is my eulogy for a Goddard College that was. I’m old enough to know that everything has a life cycle, that everything ends. This might be particularly true for experimental, radical projects. But I also know that from endings come beginnings. It’s sad to see my era at Goddard pass, to be sure, yet ironically, at the other two colleges where I work — and in my community work — I’ve been asked to be more progressive and experimental in my teaching.This might illuminate a dimension of liberatory education that I’ve long suspected: this pedagogy works best in opposition to rigid structure or as part of a process of renewal. People yearn for holistic, individualized learning because our schools — our workplaces, our political lives, our social lives, our family lives — are fragmented and too often impersonal. We’re hungry to be witnessed, not for whom we’re told we should be or perform, but for who we are. I’m grateful to have had a career in which I’ve developed a capacity to witness and hold space for the particularity of learners. 

I started this with Highlander, and I should should end with Highlander. In 1962, the governors of the Southern States colluded to close Highlander and confiscate its property because of its work with Civil Rights leaders (and because it was a non-racial, integrated school). Famously, Myles Horton laughed as state troopers padlocked the school’s property. When asked by reporters why he was laughing, he replied ‘My friend here thinks he’s padlocking Highlander, But Highlander’s an idea. You can’t padlock an idea.’

May we all move forward with profound ideas.

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