Lessons from Freedom Summer    copyright 2004
by Kathy Emery, Ph. D

Paper presented at Voices of Freedom Summer (modified for current web posting)
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, September 17, 2004

As a former history teacher and current organizer in San Francisco, my primary interest in the orginial Freedom School Curriculum has been twofold.  One, The freedom school curriculum demonstrates that if society is to be improved, curriculum and pedagogy must be based on the asking of questions, not the answering of them.

Two, The freedom school curriculum demonstrates that history is fundamental to understanding the mechanisms of repression today and fundamental to the process of empowering students to be active agents of change. The Guide to Negro History and the Case Study of Nazi Germany are two examples of this.

I  have taken the explicit goal of the Freedom School’s Citizenship Curriculum(the asking of questions to improve society) and the central role of history in the Curriculum (using it to understand the mechanisms of repression and liberation) as models for my own thinking about education reform today.  In placing Freedom Schools in the context of the history of alternative education reform and asking how does such a context help us think more pro-actively about school reform today, I have come to the following conclusions:

If we want a more just society then

1.    teachers must be a part of the community in which they teach.

2.    school reform must be part of a social reform movement.

3.    the school community must be clear about the goals of education—and these goals must be explicitly articulated and defended at every opportunity.

How has my studying of the Freedom School Curriculum in its historical context led me to these conclusions?

Regarding the first conclusion: teachers need to be part of the community in which they teach.  While the Freedom School teachers came from outside Mississippi, they lived with and became part of the community in which they taught.  At the orientation in Oxford, the teachers were encouraged to be flexible, to not rely on the curriculum except for its basic pedagogical premise of asking questions. The actual experience of the Freedom Schools was created by students and teachers in active and often spontaneous collaboration. And this was dependent upon the teachers knowing and respecting the students.  This was a crucial element of the success of the schools and stands in stark contrast to the scripted, drill and kill curriculum being imposed on so called low performing schools today.  Furthermore, the rhetoric of the current high stakes testing agenda today is intended to widen the historical divide between teachers and parents in order to cement corporate CEO’s control over modern school reform. Time does not allow me to talk more about this point, but it is the topic of my dissertation , which has been published by Heinemann in a smaller version.

Regarding the second conclusion: I believe that school reform must be part of a social movement since education is inextricably connected to the social, political and economic structures of society.  It was not a coincidence that the students at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom School convention included in their platform the topics of public accommodation, housing, education, health, foreign affairs, federal aid, job discrimination, the plantation system, civil liberties, law enforcement, city maintenance, voting and direct action.   These categories are relevant today (perhaps substituting the corporate system for the plantation system) and are still interdependent.  For example, students can’t learn in school if they are not healthy and properly housed.  Parents can’t support their students effectively unless they have a living wage job that is secure from arbitrary abridgment of their civil liberties.  The damage done to communities by the corporate system cannot be effectively resisted unless students, parents and teachers operate within a curriculum built upon basic and secondary set of questions such as those posed by the Freedom School curriculum. 

These questions were:

(Basic Set)

1. Why are we (students and teachers) in Freedom Schools?
2. What is the freedom movement?
3. What alternatives does the freedom movement offer us?

(Secondary Set)

1. What does the majority culture have that we want?
2. What does the majority culture have that we don’t want?
3. What do we have that we want to keep?

Freedom Schools were part of Freedom Summer which was part of the civil rights struggle. The schools contributed to the successful creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which began the dismantling of the all white political structure in Mississippi.  The structures created by the civil rights movement were necessary to the emergence of over 40 freedom schools in Mississippi in 1964.  Without structural support, alternative schools cannot proliferate.  The struggle today over small school reform is one over which structures will provide support – will they be part of a social movement or be co-opted by corporate funding?  The history of alternative schools movements have shown that when corporate funding is relied upon, the funding is pulled as soon as a critical mass of schools move from alternative schools to oppositional schools or when the crisis leading to such support has subsided.  This is why I believe that school reform efforts must be part of a social movement that aims to establish—for everyone— decent housing, health care, living wage employment, civil rights, community-based policing, immigration reform, voting rights and full funding of public institutions and public space.

My third conclusion: I have learned from Freedom Summer is that reformers, especially educational reformers, need to understand the difference between means and ends.  Raising test scores is not a goal of education. It is a means towards creating obedient task completers and legitimising an increasing pool of dropouts and pushouts (see various papers). Without clarity over what are methods and what are goals, good methods are too easily co-opted to promote bad goals.  This can be seen by comparing Freedom Schools to the schools that grew out of the two alternative school movements in our history.  It behoves us to look at this history since we are in the midst of a third major alternative school movement today.  It is not a coincidence that all three of these movements have relied on corporate foundations during periods in  which capitalism was and is in crisis.   In all three alternative school movements—the progressive reform period from 1900-1940; the free school movement from 1960-75; and in the small school reform movement today—corporate funding of alternative schools has allowed progressive means to be co-opted to serve status quo ends.

For example, in  1907, the steel magnates of Gary Indiana hired a student of John Dewey’s to be superintendent of a new school system.  William Wirt designed the structure of the schools to reflect progressive methods, such as allowing the student’s interests and knowledge to form the basis of the curriculum and allowing students to work at their own pace.  The corporate leaders, however, were not interested in these means because they might promote democracy. They were interested in Wirt’s progressive methods because they believed such practices would allow them to cut the school budget while simultaneously relieving opposition to the new tracking system they were putting in place.  The business leaders of Gary were clear about their educational goal—to prepare students to transition seamlessly into the new workplace.  By  1915, progressive methods had served their purpose so Gary’s steel owners ordered Wirt to eliminate all the structures, pedagogy and curriculum that didn’t promote budget cutting efficiencies. 

Another example of the cooptation of progressive means for status quo ends is from California.  In 1963, the federal govt stopped funding continuation schools.  Yet concern over the increasing numbers of dropouts and pushouts by California businessman Max Rosenberg led to a coordinated lobbying effort to get state funding for these alternative schools with the intention that these troubled students would be taught how to re-adjust to the factory-like conditions of the mainstream schools.  In 1965, the California state legislature mandated that all school districts must provide continuation education for those suspended from school for ten or more days.  That year 700,000 students were enrolled in California continuation schools.  By 1979, that number reached one million. Teachers and parents advocated for continuation schools because their progressive methods seemed to indicate different ends than those pursued by comprehensive schools.  The student-centered, multicultural and experiential curricula spoke to more effective means of producing employable adults who would also have the ability and interest to continue to learn and grow.  But state and district administrators turned these schools into dead end dumping grounds, marginalizing the schools through poor funding and paralyzing leadership. 

Today, the Gates foundation has entered the school reform business by deciding to fund,  and thus control, the small school movement.  The small schools movement started in New York City 20 years ago and has inspired educators and parents across the nation by successfully demonstrating a vision of schools in which teachers, parents and students know each other well, and have the autonomy to create responsive curriculum and pedagogy.  But such a vision is now being co-opted by the high-stakes testing agenda of the Business Roundtable of which Bill Gates is undoubtedly a member. When the Oakland, CA school district was about to enroll 25 percent of its student body in small, autonomous schools last year, the state government took over the district, appointing a superintendent with absolute power.  The new Oakland superintendent, Dr. Ward, has completely eliminated parent and teacher participation in district policy.  One of Ward’s first acts was to close four small schools.  Gates money continues to fund technical support for small schools in Oakland but now the schools operate with highly controlled community input and must adhere to the single criterion – raising standardized test scores—that the nation’s corporate leaders wish to impose on all districts in the nation.

These are examples of how alternative instruction and curriculum was and continues to be co-opted to serve status quo goals in all three alternative school movements. While there have always been individual alternative schools that have withstood the pressures to serve the interests of big business, Freedom Schools remain the best if not only example of a alternative school movement that was given structural support by a social movement. They were not co-opted by corporate business leaders through their control of state and foundation organizations.  This is because Freedom Schools were part of Freedom Summer and thus their curriculum and pedagogy served the goals of the movement.  Without being part of a social movement, without teachers being part of the community, and without the community being clear as to what the goals of education should be, school reform efforts will inevitably be subordinated to the goals of corporate business--schools will continue to be a sorting system and a method of social control instead of a place in which all students learn how to build community, master academic skills, understand contemporary issues, and be active agents of social change.

I do not make these conclusions solely on the basis of the history of Freedom Schools and Freedom Summer.  It is only in the context of the history of alternative school reform and my experiences in Oakland and San Francisco that  the Freedom School Curriculum illuminates, like a laser beam, the important variables that modern day reformers need to take into consideration when making strategic decisions.  Right now, we are living through the second major transformation of the U.S. public school system.  As I argue in my book and dissertation, the Business Roundtable is leading corporate America in a process that is transforming the public school system so it legitimizes the growing polarization of wealth and contributes to the disappearance of democratic processes.  Right now, educators, parents, students and other community activists must decide how to oppose corporate America's high-stakes testing agenda by organizing around reform that promotes and reinforces democratic decision-making and community formation.  The history of the Freedom Schools and the Freedom School Curriculum can serve as an example and inspiration toward this end.