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Educating for Democracy: Report from Occupy Wall Street

  When I was just out of college in 1964, I was given a wonderful present: my parents paid for my airline ticket and gave me the “Europe on 5$ a Day” stipend to enable me to do the “Not-So-Grand Tour” of the Continent. One of the places I visited that impressed me was “Speaker’s Corner” in Hyde Park in London. There, passionate people of all political opinions lectured, harangued, disputed, discussed, and were often heckled or cheered by a crowd of opponents and supporters who might have been there for the pure fun of arguing but also wanted to be enlightened to others’ opinions, even if they didn’t agree with them.

    When I visited Zuccotti Park a few days ago, I wasn’t exactly taken back to “Speaker’s Corner” from the 60’s, but recalled my own passion and involvement in the anti-War and Civil Rights movement of that time. Although there was a certain unity of purpose in that generation’s commitment to peace and social justice, there were major disagreements on the means of achieving it, particularly within the Black leadership of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin’s Way or Malcolm’s Way as well as the SDS and more militant anti-War movements.

     What I found at Zuccotti Park, which you probably have seen on the news or if you get the link to the dynamic and highly informative website http://occupywallst.org/, was to me a return to that time when “civics” wasn’t an archaic word and young learners actively discussed issues in an informed as well as emotional way. Because unlike my recent experiences with demonstrations and protests I’ve attended as a commentator and reporter of education news, the group most widely represented at Zuccotti Square were not the very young—the grade school children demonstrating against the closing of their schools—or those of my generation, protesting in labor unions on job cuts and give-backs, but that vital force of college and grad students who are educating themselves about the forces that are increasingly forming, deforming and controlling their lives: the Worldcorp.

   One of the many signs I saw that seemed to capture both the hope and skepticism of the mostly young demonstrators read: “If voting could change anything it would be illegal.” But as an educator myself, I saw in the dynamics of the Square what I would call the ideal “Learnspace” which was in sharp contrast to most classroom arrangements. In one corner was a “Library” with books about social and political issues arranged by category in boxes; in the middle of the Square, a  “Communications” booth with schedules of events and announcements. And throughout the area were people of all ages, although mostly young, discussing, arguing, informing in  Random Connections to Learning that, as an educator, I believe are the most vital parts of the educational process. It was messy, somewhat confusing, with some of the discussants falling on slogans, but vitally important in order to give the many who are “unconnected” to the Movers and Shakers a chance to let their minds breathe.

    I interviewed Timothy Grantham, a short, intense young man who seemed encased in wiring from the many feeds and blogs he was administrating. He, like many others I questioned, seemed a little vague about the educational objectives of the group, but knew that “the corporations control education.” I talked with a number of students who felt they needed to get some control over their own lives rather than resign themselves to a future  of debt and joblessness that seemed to be facing them. I met a dignified, grey-haired woman, about my age, who had been a direct victim of the corporate world at its worst: she’d lost her pension and “everything else” in the Bernie Madoff scam and was now reduced to one meal a day and weighed less that 100 pounds. She was not the kind of person you’d expect in the same plight as those who are haunting the City subways and streets with increasing frequency. Like me, she was a University of Chicago graduate from the 1960’s and we briefly reminisced about our days there.

    What made me hopeful, as I marched from Zuccotti Square to City Hall Park with mostly people less than half my age who chanted “We’re the 99%” was the energy and determination of the young who are not only learning about their world in a very brutal way, but are trying to do something to change it. They were accompanied by a phalanx of police, some of them looking as if they were shepherding a mob of wild-eyed anarchists rather than peaceful marchers who may have inconvenienced the area shoppers but might have made some of them wary of their next purchase from China.

      When we got to the rally, which was in support of DC 37, the largest public employee union in New York City, I felt that I was once again in familiar territory: in this instance protesting the layoff of hundreds of low-wage school employees, mostly minority, who are the backbone of the public school system as custodians, food service providers and aids. There were speeches, a call from one of the union leaders to “Shut  the City Down,” and even an unexpected appearance of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz who chastised the Mayor for the firings of so many workers whose families are completely dependent on their small salaries. But as much as I recognize the importance of union rallies, what I felt was a more hopeful sign for change was happening at Zuccotti Square where it is just possible that a group of young people will find a program of action that might be able to unlock the locked in economics of the Worldcorp which at its present rate of rapacity, will make this planet uninhabitable for the human species in several generations.

        Occupying Wall Street gives evidence that groups of people who are affected by a serious problem can educate each other in many ways to find a solution. But although the technology that the late Steve Jobs pioneered makes many connections possible, it is the actual presence of human beings directly interacting with one another for a common purpose that, at least for me, offers the best hope of a more sustainable future.

Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky is an early-retired English Professor who taught writing and drama at SUNY-Cortland (1968-2005) and is presently teaching English and writing a...