education, utopia, and democracy: Ira Shor’s “When Students Have Power”

Published online 12 January 2007.

I want readers of this diary to confront our society’s need for utopian dreaming through a reading of Ira Shor’s When Students Have Power.  So I will start with a bleak, dystopian projection of current social trends, and discuss Shor’s book in terms of what utopian thinking can do for education, democracy, and society as a whole.

Dystopian introduction

A grand cultural canyon yawns between education and democracy, which simply represents the distance society itself has to travel to reach the democracy it claims to already offer.  (211)

Imagine yourself in a future, thirty-some years from now.  A distant relative of Prescott Bush resides in the White House.  Nobody voted for this guy; but since elections haven’t been held since the Federal government was privatized, it doesn’t matter.  All the meaningful politicians have been assassinated, and all the meaningful dissidents reside in a gulag of prisons modeled on the prison currently at Guantanamo Bay.  The oil is running out, the topsoil is severely degraded, and the weather is so erratic (thanks to global warming) that famine, tropical disease, and death due to heatstroke have become commonplaces.  There is another gulag of prisons where people are imprisoned for failing to pay the taxes which all must pay, regardless of ability, in order to prop up what is left of the corporate profit rate.  The US dollar no longer purchases much, so the taxes are purposely set very high.  The people in this second-tier gulag form an enormous conscript labor force producing goods for the world’s few rich people, most of whom live in Scandinavia, Hokkaido, or in luxury condos on Canada’s balmy Arctic coast.  The main employment outside of this prison system is in the police force; yet police are so underpaid that they commit most of the robberies.  A second employment-sector is in the private security business, protecting the homes and businesses of the semi-well-off from the police.

There is, however, still an Internet – the mainstream Internet, however, is heavily censored, except for this one clandestine Internet channel set up by a cadre of the semi-well-off.  You somehow have the luck to log onto this clandestine Internet channel, using a laptop you stole from the local mall (at the cost of a few lives, legally murdered by private security forces).  You log on, and during the group chat you explain how things could be different, how a general revolt could re-establish democracy, get some control over US policy, re-order economic priorities, re-educate the public, and establish a global ecologically sustainable society without any more of the mass dieoffs that have already reduced global human population.  Your presentation is organized, cogent, and optimistic.  You send this out in a manifesto, which is routinely dismissed by all of the other subscribers.  “Not going to happen,” they all explain.

Congratulations!  The future “you” has made it into a world where utopian dreaming no longer has any power!  And the future “you” is still alive, amazingly enough, if perhaps not for long.  But perhaps, if this is your fate, you ought not to spend so long on such self-praise.  May I suggest, improbably then, that the thing to be doing to avoid such a possible future is to be promoting the act of utopian dreaming, in classrooms, in public fora, here, and everywhere.  We, you and me and everyone else, have to get back into the exercises of imagination that allow us to picture the world as possibly being a better place in the future.  (Those of you who are already saying “not going to happen” may stop reading here.)  But how are you going to do that?  You are going to have to use the vehicles the future “you” proposed in the dystopian future described above: education, and democracy.  In short, you will have to be practicing democratic education.  You are the teacher, and in preparation, you pick up the practical guide par excellence to democratic education; Ira Shor’s When Students Have Power.

When Students Have Power is a 1996 book about a composition class Shor taught at the College of Staten Island, a community college in New York City.  For this class, Shor chooses to teach a thematic unit in “utopia,” and, moreover, in this class he attempts to share power, democratically, with the students in the class.  Shor describes his students as “urban, ethnic, working class,” (9) and his room as drab and windowless. So he has his work cut out for him.

Having taught working-class students in a community college setting myself, I can attest to the difficulty of the task Shor sets out for himself; democratizing education for students who have been poorly prepared for the democratic negotiation of power.  Teaching under such circumstances is not merely the presentation of course material to the willing; it is an intervention in the lives of students who are there, for the most part, because they want to accumulate credits, degrees, and moneymaking jobs.  Such students typically see conformity as the ticket to something better; Shor, seeing that conformity has led to the “Siberian syndrome” in many students, wants to convince them otherwise.

Beginning the class

One of the first things Shor analyzes in this book is the seating arrangement.  “I found that the students’ relationship to seating is a significant text revealing the power relations embedded in schooling, or the social power ‘circulating’ in the discipline of school, as Foucault (1980) put it.” (10).  Within these power relationships blossoms what Shor calls the “Siberian syndrome,” the tendency of alienated and marginalized students to seek out the far corners of the classroom, which Shor repeatedly refers to as “Siberia” throughout the book.  “Siberia,” for Shor, is a place in the classroom where students attempt to participate as thinly in a class as they possibly can, talking and writing sparingly.  Shor starts to combat the “Siberian syndrome” through what critical pedagogy calls a “pedagogy of questions.”  He asks these questions:

  1. Why did you take this course?
  1. If you could change one thing for the better about this College and your education here, what would it be?
  1. If you could change one thing for the better in New York City, what would it be?
  1. Do you want any class time spent on the war with Iraq?

It needs to be mentioned here that this class was in session around the time of Bush Senior’s war on Iraq.  Shor continues: “In addition I verbally asked them to write on two questions about ‘Utopia’:

  1. What does “Utopia” mean to you?
  1. What questions do you have about “Utopia”? (39)

From this list of questions, Shor received all kinds of answers about what was wrong with New York City, the College, and so on, which became “generative themes” for the course as a whole.  In short, the course became focused upon the students’ answers to Shor’s questions.  It became, to a certain extent, student-directed.

One of the first responses Shor got, however, was one of “why do we have to come to class at all?”  Shor, unfortunately, had to cling to his attendance requirement – but, in the process of organizing the class, came up with several innovations that made his student-directed class work anyway.

First off, Shor’s class negotiated, between students and teacher, a set of contracts, outlining what each student needed to do to (in terms of writing, attendance, class participation and so on) get a grade of “A,” “B,” etc. for the class.  The dispute about “do I have to attend class?” was resolved (or so Shor says) by the creation of what he calls “protest rights” (suggesting the students could protest any aspect of the class they wanted) and the creation of an “after-class group” entrusted with the overall design of the class.  Shor had the students read two utopian novels: B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (an important work, to be sure, but a rather boring read – I could have warned him!) and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.

Doing the work

The rest of When Students Have Power is an analysis of what happened in this class.  One of the main difficulties, Shor reports, of teaching a class like this is that students tend to develop higher expectations of a class like this than a class when they are left with the “Siberian syndrome.”

The good news is that higher expectations work against the depressant, anti-intellectual effects of the Siberian Syndrome.  The bad news is that I, the students, and the process cannot continually deliver on rising expectations, for reasons simple and complex, such as the lack of class time, inadequate student experience in democratic arts, prior habituation to unilateral authority, demands of current jobs and private lives, institutional limits on me, such as required letter grading, my divided attention across three crowded courses each term, etc.  Over the years, I have been learning the dangers of promising more than I can deliver.  So, the exuberant release of some students’ expectations is a problem that can and did trouble the ACG (the after class group) especially.  (149-150)

At the same time as some students were demanding immediate utopia of the utopia class, others were continuing to resist, and hide in Siberia, Shor reports.

Nevertheless, this class substantively tackled issues of teacher-student relations, global environmental problems, problems with the College of Staten Island campus itself (most severely the parking problem, which Shor depicts as a serious deterrent to enrollment), problems of race and class.  In Shor’s depiction, the far more important achievement of a class such as this is not that students were coerced into having the “right” opinions, but that students were convinced by this class that their opinions were important, that they should express their opinions, and that expressing one’s opinion could potentially lead to action, which in its turn could forward meaningful social change.  These are just the sorts of things that we as teachers need to be encouraging in an era in which authoritarian (and demeaning) social policy, corporate-controlled computerized voting, and money-driven electoral campaigns have lead to a practical annulment of democracy.

Shor reports that “students had largely positive feelings about the class,” (204) and that for the most part it encouraged them to look critically at society.  He reports that “almost half of the students indicated they would consider taking action to make change – ‘Because things are not going to change on their own,’ as one wrote.  But, others were ambivalent or negative about acting on what they learned.” (205)  I would judge this result as pretty good for a reactionary era like the 1990s.

Dear, patient teacher-readers: if we are to avoid the dystopian outcomes I described above, we need to be teaching some form of this stuff.  Student bodies that have been sentenced, through NCLB and other agencies, to “Siberia” are rendered incapable of preventing dystopia.  The money the Powers That Be use to buy us off will not be of value if currency crises and ecological disasters have deprived us of things to buy, and this they will surely do.  “Rise like Lions after slumber/
In unvanquishable number…”


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