By Christia Mercer
Like most American cities, New York, where I live and teach, is teaming with professors and other highly trained professionals willing to share their knowledge. It’s also full of people eager for knowledge of the sort that will benefit their lives. One Harlem resident posed the question we should all be asking, “Why is education restricted to classrooms when it can happen wherever people want to participate? Why can’t it happen here?”
It can. It will.
New York’s Education from the Inside Out (EIO) Coalition is working with community members, activists, and professors like me to organize two Radical Pop-Up Schools, Saturday, June 20. The brainchild of Dionna King, over 30 community organizers from across New York City will transform Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Herbert von King Park in Brooklyn into schools.
Pop-up and free schools of various forms are increasingly popular. The idea behind them is that teaching doesn’t have to be restricted to the classroom. Because plenty of people are ready to share their expertise and many others have questions to ask and challenges to address, pop-up participants are committed to create spaces where diverse groups can have an open and free exchange, sometimes blurring the boundary between teacher and student.
Our schools will differ from other pop-ups in their outreach to educationally disadvantaged communities. Motivated by the conviction that people who seek to advance their lives through education should be able to do so, the EIO Coalition asks us to rethink educational opportunity. Although the Coalition primarily works to create access to higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated members of our community, Dionna King and her colleagues are beginning to imagine a bigger movement. We hope our schools will be a model for others.
After asserting that “people by nature desire to know,” the great ancient philosopher, Aristotle, distinguishes between people who know stuff and those who know the right stuff. Insisting that people who know the right stuff will care about the right things and navigate their world better, Aristotle also suggests that people who care about the right things bear a responsibility to share their knowledge. Roughly 2400 years after Aristotle’s observations, the great American writer and philosopher, W.E.B. Du Bois approaches much the same point from the position of African-Americans’ struggling to be educated. In a letter of 1905, he admonishes a young woman “of some ability” who has “become hopeless of trying to do anything in the world,” insisting: “Ignorance is a cure for nothing.”
As a professor at Columbia for over two decades and the first person in my own family to get a liberal arts education, I know something about the fear of ignorance, the heady joy of learning, and the struggle to learn the right things. Learning stuff can be gripping, enthralling, life changing. Sharing knowledge can be equally compelling.
Scheduled for the weekend of Juneteenth, our Radical Pop-Up Schools celebrate the power of knowledge to transform lives. First celebrated 150 years ago this Friday, Juneteenth is the most widely recognized commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was the law of the land beginning January 1, 1863, the enslaved people of Texas only began to learn about their freedom a year and a half later when union soldiers embarked at Galveston on June 19th, 1865. As the historical reality of Juneteenth implies, legal equality is one thing and knowledge about how to enact it something else entirely. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois notes, “education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution.”
The organizers of pop-up schools are not the only ones to recognize the truth in Aristotle’s claim about human nature. Recognizing the educational value of non-classroom environments, Columbia and New York University undergraduates joined forces with young professionals throughout New York City in 2013 to imagine “knowledge driven events in unusual locations.” Describing themselves as “aspiring actors, doctors, economists, writers, and bankers,” the organizers of Raising the Bar have created events that bring 50 of New York City’s “brightest minds” to 50 neighborhood bars scattered throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. Free reservations are made on-line where most lectures fill up fast.
Thousands of New Yorkers attended the most recent event on June 2nd, despite the chilly wet evening. It’s not an easy gig. I’ve perched on a rickety bench to stand above the crowd and, more recently, resorted to using a cellphone’s flashlight to read quotations in our bar’s dim light. But it was worth it. The audience seemed genuinely engaged as they sipped beers and cocktails in packed Greenwich Village bars, asking so many lively questions during the Q & A that organizers eventually called time. I’ve been delighted to contribute to Raising the Bar and hope it has a long life. But there’s no denying that, like many pop-up schools, its audience consists of young professionals and other New York elites who already know how to acquire and wield knowledge.
What about our neighbors who don’t? Dionna King and her colleagues at EIO are committed “to de-privilege education by making it accessible to all.”
What makes our schools on June 20th so exciting is that they will pop-up in educationally disadvantaged communities and focus on topics of vital importance. Knowing the right stuff for a young adult recently released from prison or for a single unemployed mother can be a life or death matter. The EIO Coalition intends to make available the kinds of knowledge that will most benefit underprivileged members of our community and help them navigate and overcome challenges. There will be discussions about inequality, incarceration, financial planning, health, trauma, and justice. One of our goals is to speak honestly about higher education, its barriers and privileges; another is to imagine ways to negotiate the legal system and rethink the means to justice. To return to the words of Du Bois, “Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.” The EIO Coalition chooses education over ignorance.
With the rising cost of college, fewer and fewer low-income Americans can afford any higher education at all while many others are discouraged from completing college applications. Part of the problem lies with the Common Application, the undergraduate college admission form used by over 500 colleges across the country. Because the Common App requires a social security number, undocumented high school graduates, many of whom have been in the States their whole lives, cannot complete the form without calling attention to their immigration status.
The form also deters formerly incarcerated people, even ones who can afford college, from completing their application. Beginning in 2006, the Common App has included a question about applicants’ criminal record with the result that formerly incarcerated people are often required to submit supplemental information. Because official criminal records can contain erroneous information and, for juveniles, are frequently sealed, a significant percentage of these applicants give up. In New York State alone, there are roughly 52,000 parolees and 119,000 probationers, many imprisoned for non-violent crimes during the harsh sentencing that began during the tough-on-crime era. All 64 schools of the State University of New York require information about an applicant’s criminal history. A recent study reveals that formerly incarcerated people were nearly three times more likely than other applicants to discontinue their SUNY application. No wonder activists are working to change the college admission application.
If low-income, undocumented, and formerly incarcerated Americans can’t gain access to the privileged spaces of higher education, then we privileged educators will take higher education to them. We invite community members, professionals, and professors from across New York City to join us in discussions of topics crucial to our democracy.
Our schools will have no lectures. Rather, we will all be in dialogue with one another on topics that concern the community. Medical experts, lawyers, artists, financial advisers and professors in literature, psychology, history, philosophy and other disciplines will join members of the community to discuss issues central to our lives. There will be picnics and yoga, music and games for children. High school students will share their experiences with younger children; low-income college students will discuss their paths to higher education.
According to Du Bois, “the function of the university” is “above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.” Since so many Americans wishing to advance their lives through education have no opportunity to do so, our Radical Pop-Up Schools will do what they can to nurture knowledge of life and promote a better civilization.
As Du Bois eloquently makes the point in The Souls of Black Folk, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not…. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest … we sight the Promised Land?”
Although our Radical Pop-Up Schools will not be the Promised Land, they will point the way.
For information about the Radical Pop-Up Schools, click here.