Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice
reviewed by Howell Baum - June 26, 2006
Title: Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice
Author(s): Jeannie Oakes and John Rogers with Martin Lipton
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747033, Pages: 206, Year: 2006
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Most Americans know that great numbers of urban students are African American and Latino, in addition to other groups of disadvantaged minorities. They also know that city schools do not do very well by these students. Yet most Americans are indifferent to these students’ predicament, and school reformers have been unsuccessful in doing much to improve their prospects. Jeannie Oakes, John Rogers, and Martin Lipton ask why past reform has failed and how academics can contribute more powerfully to school improvement.
The authors and scholars at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) are interested in the relationship between knowledge and power. Past school reformers have regarded failures as the result of educators’ or policymakers’ ignorance and, like typical academics, have pushed research-based proposals on the assumption that new knowledge would provide the Archimedean lever for change. What they have typically overlooked is that individuals and institutions have interests that compete or conflict with using new knowledge, educating minority children, or both. In short, they have thought of school reform as a technical problem, rather than a political problem.
Where then does this put academics interested in improving urban schools? What do they have to offer? Where does their knowledge fit in? This is the book’s question. The authors’ answer—one that uses John Dewey’s framework—which they call participatory social inquiry, is what is often referred to as participatory action research. University faculty form partnerships with students and community members to help them design and reflect upon their actions. Simplistically, one might think of academics as providing knowledge so that their partners can act powerfully.
The book’s ambiguous title, Learning Power, refers to three types of relationships between knowledge and power while suggesting three roles for academics. First, students (and others associated with or interested in them) can develop a politically sophisticated understanding of how individuals and institutions exercise power in ways that affect their education and their lives. Thus, scholars might teach about the sociology of education and race, enabling students to understand how social institutions have shaped their schooling. Second, students and their allies can discover how to develop and use knowledge powerfully to influence others. In this conventional academic ambition, researchers might help students analyze how current practices can create problems but also use findings to change policy. Third, students and their sympathizers can learn to engage powerfully in collective action. As a result, academics could help students or community members plan, design strategies, and reflect on their actions.
The authors present four engaging cases of their own partnerships with students, teachers, and community organizations. Most of their success involves the first mode of learning power: they help people develop structural analyses that show them how external social institutions, more than internal personal shortcomings, have contributed to their situation. Some cases show the third mode, the development of organizing strategies, though it is unclear in what ways IDEA staff advised their partners on strategy. There are few examples of the second, conventional academic mode: rarely does anyone succeed in using research to change policy. The cases involve impressively robust university-community partnerships. IDEA’s interventions succeed, often quite movingly, in changing individuals’ lives; however, there are few changes in schools, communities, or public policy. Community organizations are more successful at blocking bad policies than initiating good ones. What’s the explanation?
One might start with the concept central to the book’s title and analysis: power. Much of what the book portrays is garden-variety community organizing or education organizing. Low-income minority group members (or their teachers) start out with the sense that things are not right, they learn that they share problems caused by others, and they organize and strategize to influence the others and improve their conditions. Low-income people, particularly when they are parents, and especially if they are single parents, have little time for civic activity; they find the language and culture of public meetings foreign, if not intimidating, and they doubt their intellectual and political authority to speak or act, particularly in the ostensibly esoteric field of education. People participate and then drop out. Unless organizations are somehow able to pay their staff, they are unlikely to last long. The odds are stacked against poor people. Others have class and institutional advantages against them.
This is correct but the authors add further explanation. The middle class and social institutions benefit from power in more than a conventional sense. Their position is supported by unquestioned cultural norms. Until disadvantaged students and their communities can overturn these norms, they have little chance of success. Most simply put, the norms are those of the market, with a meritocratic twist. Tacitly, Americans know that what matters most are economic rewards; that these are scarce; that these do, or at least should go to those with the most intellectual ability; and that, in the contest among the intellectually gifted, the poor and certain racial and ethnic minorities have little to offer in their attempt to gain the scarce rewards. The result is individualistic competition, anxiety, and indifference to others.
There is a great deal to this analysis, though, in moving from social institutions to cultural norms, it makes the target and strategy of change more elusive. In fact, the four cases focus on influencing social institutions and do not explicitly address cultural norms. At the same time, the analysis is incomplete. Oakes, who has written much about tracking, as well as Rogers and Lipton, argue that a broad culture defines the poor and minorities as deficient. It is worse than that. Deficiency might inspire compassion and succor. There is something in the minds of many white Americans that regards African Americans as bad and dangerous; furthermore, this mentality makes it virtually impossible for many white parents to recognize black children as children like the ones they love. How otherwise would one explain the neglect of so much human potential in the cities?
The book’s strength is its cases. They show the creative potential for academics to engage in participatory action research to improve schools. They show, too, how much time, effort, and resources are necessary to make even the smallest gains.(Why in the name of all that is reasonable should the burden of making schools work fall on the poor and powerless?). It would be helpful to have more everyday details about the cases; for example, who exercised leadership how, where resources came from, whether staffing existed, what happened when these things were scarce, what became problems, when conflicts arose, and how they were addressed. From such details readers could learn more about how and why the described outcomes occurred and what they should know when engaging in such work themselves.
The book would benefit from more explicit conceptual treatment of the relationship between knowledge and power. The authors are right to begin with an interest in power, the second word in the book’s title. At the same time, their criticism of mainstream school reformers is only partly on the mark. Many do misconstrue reform as a technical problem, a problem of ignorance. But to say this is not to say that knowledge does not matter, but rather to say that knowledge cannot be powerful. As the cases indicate, the essential question is what knowledge matters and how. Here it would be useful analytically to differentiate types of power that are mixed together in the cases. For example, one can distinguish the exercise of power vis-a-vis the external world from the internal experience of being powerful; both matter, as does their relationship. One can also contrast the conventional adversarial view of power (defeating others) with an alternative cooperative view (being able to accomplish something with collaborators that no one can do alone). Examining the dynamics amongst these different types of power and knowledge would bring conceptual, empirical, and strategic rewards.
Strikingly, the authors’ interest in learning, the first word in the book’s title, shapes the discussion in a way that diverges from at least certain kinds of power. Although learning aims at knowledge, which contributes to power, the authors creatively draw on Dewey’s pragmatic thinking about experimental social learning. Whereas a steady focus on power would lead to a clear, if troubling, analysis of conflicting interests, the learning perspective is both more cerebral and internal. It offers an understanding of cooperative power, but it loses sight of adversarial power. As the title indicates, the two must be integrated. The book offers rich case material for examining these issues. It provides reassuring evidence that researchers and scholars have something valuable to give students and community groups in trying to improve education. The book has a clear moral vision. It will stimulate a great deal of learning about power.