November 2, 2014

Part 4: "Stayed on Freedom": Social Movements and Re-Inventing Education

1964 was Freedom Summer.  It was an effort organized by the major civil rights organizations at the time, SNCC, CORE, SCLC and NAACP, to register voters and educate young people in Mississippi to become agents for social change.  As detailed in a COFO memo to Freedom School teachers in May, 1964:

"The purpose of the Freedom schools is to provide an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately, new directions for action."

Freedom Schools were the educational efforts that brought together more than 3000 students in 41 schools across Mississippi.  However, these "schools" were radically different from traditional 'Western' schools.

They were multi-age and had students ranging from small children to the elderly.  They met anywhere and everywhere from church basements to parks, homes, kitchens or under a tree.  When a host church in McComb, MS was bombed for hosting a Freedom School, the classes were "held on the scorched earth next to the blown out wall."  The teachers were primarily volunteer college students and questioning was the mode of instruction.  They questioned the institutions of racism and prejudice, what does the majority culture have that they wanted or didn't want and more.  It was a free-form environment where a teacher could toss out his or her entire plan if the students were interested in discussing something more local and more relevant to their experience.  Empowering the students was the focus, not the teacher or the curriculum.  There were no grades, no homework and the only test was life in Mississippi after Freedom School.  

Staughton Lynd, a history professor at Spelman College, was chosen as the Director of the Freedom School program.  He described the program like this in 1965:

"...our approach to curriculum was to have no curriculum and our approach to administrative structure was not to have any (I will explain this in a moment). So my answer to the question: “How do you start a Freedom School?” is, “I don’t know.” And if people ask, “What are the Freedom Schools like?” again I have to answer, “I don’t know.” I was an itinerant bureaucrat. I saw a play in Holly Springs, an adult class in Indianola, a preschool mass meeting in McComb, which were exciting. But who can presume to enclose in a few words what happened last summer when 2,500 youngsters from Mississippi and 250 youngsters from the North encountered each other, but not as students and teachers, in a learning experience that was not a school?" 

Lynd commented on the free-form structure:

" helped us to break away from the conventional paraphernalia of education, to remember that education is about a meeting between people.  We said at Oxford: If you want to begin the summer by burning the curriculum we have given you, go ahead!  We realized that our own education had been dry and irrelevant all too often, and we determined to teach as we ourselves wished we had been taught."

After hosting the Freedom School convention in Meridian, MS, where students put together their own mock political program, Lynd had this conclusion:

"But in the not very distant future candidates running for Congressional office will be real, not mock, candidates, and will have to declare themselves intelligently on a variety of issues. These candidates may come out of Freedom Schools. If we do not take their program seriously, it means not taking their ideas seriously. If we do not take their ideas seriously, we should ask ourselves what the Schools are for."

Once again, like Gandhi's Nai Talim, we find Freedom Schools cast off traditional education in favor of empowerment.  Age grades were set aside for multi-age learning.  Curriculum was thrown out the window in favor of what was socially relevant.  Cultural norms were questioned and the results needed to be taken seriously.

"The Freedom Schools challenged not only Mississippi but the nation. There was, to begin with, the provocative suggestion that an entire school system can be created in any community outside the official order, and critical of its suppositions. The Schools raised serious questions about the role of education in society: Can teachers bypass the artificial sieve of certification and examination, and meet students on the basis of a common attraction to an exciting social goal? Is it possible to declare that the aim of education is to find solutions for poverty, for injustice, for racial and national hatred, and to turn all educational efforts into a national striving for these solutions?"
-Howard Zinn

For more information on Freedom Schools, check out these first-hand accounts and resources.

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