Abolition (Free, Open) Education

If debt refusal becomes a point of self-affirmation, what then happens to education? The tactical answer is the common sharing of education in non-hierarchical institutions, as part of the strategic goal of creating free public education from pre-K to PhD. Yet this goal of abolition education since Reconstruction has always been undermined by debt. What’s so important, I think, is the emerging possibility of discussing this as a collective failure rather than as a set of individual problems.

Abolition education was forged by Reconstruction. Du Bois highlighted the complementary actions of the newly elected South Carolina Convention in ending imprisonment for debt and creating free, public education. While they complained mightily about their “loss” from the abolition of slavery

usury laws had been repealed by the planters in 1866, and interest rates rose to 25 and 30 per cent. Banks commonly charged from 18 to 24 per cent.

Nonetheless, South Carolina committed itself to creating public education by means of an annual levy on all property and a poll tax. The reason was clear: for the first time, those without property were making decisions. Twenty-three out of 47 white delegates and fifty-nine of the 74 African-American delegates paid no income tax. In our own time of millionaire representatives and billionaire financing, this seems scarcely credible.

The “free common school system” was in place by 1868 and made permanent in 1870. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, Wall Street financiers refused to back South Carolina bonds in 1868. Finally, with interest rates of between 15 and 20 per cent, bonds were issued, driving South Carolina into over $20 million of debt by 1871, at least half of which was payment of interest, a situation enabled, wrote Du Bois, by the

financial graft of Wall Street and its agents, made possible by the slander and reaction of the planters.

Debt has never been a separate question to public education in these not-so-United States.

On my way downtown for an Occupy meeting today, I looked up at the subway ads–no less than four for-profit “colleges” were advertised at my end of the car. These institutions like ASA College, Professional Business College and the Grace Institute are outside the research universities discussion about humanities versus STEM subjects: all degrees are vocational. That does not mean they are cheap: ASA expects tuition to be about $12,000 a year and total costs to be about $30,000 a year, according to its own website.

While this debt is, then, being imposed on people as a structural requirement for work, we still can’t ask people to renounce the formal structures of education: it’s going to be a process. Much of that might involve rethinking how we got here in the first place. Today I saw a discussion between the artist Deborah Kass and the young artist Amy Lincoln that highlights these issues:

Ms. Lincoln: …I don’t like the stereotype, the bohemian idea. We’re definitely very career-oriented. You have to be serious about spending time in the studio. You have no free time. You never have the day off…I know a lot of people who have to work a lot because they’re paying off a $30,000 student loan.

Ms. Kass: I didn’t get an MFA. I didn’t have a student loan. We expected our parents to pay for college.

Ms. Lincoln: We all got MFAs and the art market was booming. You could get picked up by a gallery at a student show. We had really high expectations. Now, there is so much angst over, “I want to be showing at such-and-such gallery, and this curator called but then I never heard back….”

Ms. Kass:I didn’t have any expectations. What you expected didn’t exist yet.

For all her debt, Lincoln sells work for between $300-700 in Bushwick where she lives. There’s no disgrace in that, far from it, and it’s interesting that in the short discussion, Lincoln doesn’t question her choices.

By contrast, J, the PhD student who I mentioned yesterday as being saddled with scary debt, wrote to me:

I used to have trouble sleeping at night because I was afraid that they would bring back debtors prisons … and hating myself for having taken out loans. It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around it and to decouple the value and necessity of education from the burden of the debt, and to see that debt structurally.

Here we see the full wisdom of the OWS slogan highlighted by McKenzie Wark: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.”

Interim tactics: consider learning, or teaching, at free, open institutions like The Public School, OWS’s own OccU, or following courses by using free syllabi provided by institutions like MIT. If you teach, allow people to audit, sit in, podcast and live-stream. If you write, make it available free by open access means (you can publish it as well, of course, if you can find a press that will give you rights to your own work: and good luck with that).

I know people can’t learn how to be doctors like this and that’s why this is a tactic. Let’s also remember actions like those of the South African Students Movement in 1976, who refused to participate in the apartheid school system and set in motion the collapse of the regime. At the same time, many individuals deprived themselves of education to make things better for others.

So it is heartening to see the success of Chile’s high school students who did not walk out but occupied their schools:

“The assembly is the control center,” Cristóbal explains. “All students participate and at times it’s open to teachers. We have watch duty and volunteers come in to make meals. Teachers teach, but they also learn from the students. At the beginning we had classes subject by subject, but later we saw that parceling out knowledge wasn’t the real way to learn, and we all got together for each subject.”

The high school system is the key to an abolition education in the Americas. Here in New York the high schools are more segregated than they were before official desegregation. There was official celebration last week when admissions to the city’s selective high schools produced a class that is 6% African American and 8% Latin@–in a majority minority city. Behind that failure lies the still-greater disaster of data-driven quantification of education as a standardized test score result.

From Chile to South Africa and South Carolina, the impetus to a free, open public education is clear and elusive at once. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Arizona has banned the teaching of Paulo Freire’s classic The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We might want to begin by re-reading it, assigning it, making free copies of it, and discussing it at Occupies everywhere.