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Posted at 01:14 AM ET, 03/25/2011

Indignez-Vous: Lessons for activism in education

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This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

Stéphane Hessel escaped from a POW camp in World War II. Then, outraged by the Nazi collaborating Vichy French government, he became a hero of the French Resistance and one of the leaders of the National Council of Resistance, an agency that helped shape the reform spirit of France in the years immediately following the liberation.

Late last year, when he was 93 years old, his short book, “ Indignez-vous! ” became an overnight sensation in France. Released by a two-person publishing house run out of an attic, it soared to the top of the French best-seller list and has sold one and a half million copies.

This brief manifesto urges young people to use peaceful resistance to revive the ideal of the French Resistance, resisting the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” and defending the “values of modern democracy.”

Although the book has been translated into English and is available in England with the title “Time for Outrage ,” the only U.S. publication was in the March 7th issue of The Nation. Hopefully there will soon be greater availability in this country.

Teachers, parents, and students would do well to read it.

Although Hessel’s focus isn’t on education, his comments on public education in France are instructive. Hessel describes how the 2008 educational reform plan in France ran counter to the Resistance’s call for a practical opportunity for every French child to have access to the most advanced education, without discrimination. And he applauds the young teachers who refused to implement those reforms despite the threat of layoffs and salary reductions.

While the French reforms differed in some respects from those in the United States, Hessel’s words clearly speak to us as well: “They got angry, they ‘disobeyed,’ they decided that these reforms diverged too far from the ideal of education in a democratic republic, were too deeply beholden to a society of money and failed to develop the creative and critical spirit sufficiently.”

I read “Indignez-Vous!” the day before I watched Inside Job and was reminded of the rip off of American citizens by a small group of mega wealthy financiers and business tycoons, none of whom have gone to prison. Then I read a widely circulated letter written by a teacher in Wisconsin that captured the spirit of the resistance to the outrageous behavior of that state’s neo-fascist governor.

I emerged from those few days wondering why there isn’t more overt resistance here among educators, parents, and students who are deeply committed to public education. There is clear justification for such resistance. Education and the teachers to whom it is entrusted is a cornerstone of the “values of modern democracy.”

The combination of the mania for standardized testing and the attack on teacher status and rights is lethal for teacher morale, instructional effectiveness, and the curriculum. Teachers have been named and shamed for having students with low test scores. And across the country cuts in school funding are undermining education in most communities, while tax policies and corporate welfare continue to reward the wealthy. In the spirit of Hessel’s book, none of this should be tolerated.

The lessons from Hessel are focused on channeling justifiable outrage into non-violent resistance. It’s our job to figure out how to do it to save public education in this country.

What may be the most effective path to changing our public schools is non-violent guerrilla action: parents, students, and teachers resisting. The heart of the Resistance in France was small, localized action, not high profile marches and demonstrations. The latter may help create a feeling of solidarity, but the former is needed to implement real change, and this new digital age gives us formidable tools to spread the impact oflocal actions.

The actions should be small and localized, but they should be coordinated across the country through internet communication. Blogs can help, along with effectively coordinated cyber-organizing and use of the media. Organizations such as Rethinking Schools can help also. There should be a network established for this purpose.

There are models out there. Here are a few examples. In Pennsylvania, Michelle Gray and Tim Slekar are helping educate parents in ways of resisting standardized testing. Vicki Abeles’ film “Race to Nowhere” highlights the negative impact of our pressure-cooker culture and education system on students and teachers and has been drawing audiences throughout the country. A social action campaign to help organize parents, educators, students, experts and organizations advocating for change has recently been launched . Tom and Amy Valens’ film “August to June”is also starting to reach parents and educators across the country. They too have a Facebook page that is helping build a network committed, in part, to resisting the testing craze.

In each community the focus may be different. There are no prescriptions that are good for all. But mutual support across communities is needed. The Internet provides a marvelous venue to share information and assist in the development of effective strategies. The combination of a Hessel inspired spirit and the new technology has the potential to effect critical educational change.

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By  |  01:14 AM ET, 03/25/2011

 
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