A Personal Reflection on Teaching and Learning: La lotta continua
by Richard Brosio
I have become familiar with the Rouge Forum only recently. As a result of my participation in the Summer Institute on Education, in June 2003 at the University of Louisville, I am optimistic about the important role the RF can play in progressive democratic politics in schools and society.
In this article, I have chosen an autobiographical approach to demonstrate connections between one’s ideas and commitments and the events and circumstances of life. It is well known that the Ford Motor Plant in River Rouge, MI was a gargantuan one in size and impact. The attempts at unionization were very difficult. The company was among the most fiercely resistant to the collective workers’ wishes and demands. The complex issues, problems, and possibilities that characterize the 1930s Great Depression must be understood in order to understand why the unions won in important sites like the auto industry and how the victories in great work towns like Detroit had important consequences for workers who struggled elsewhere.
“grew up” in
was a “foreign”
connection to all of this as well. My
mother and grandparents were born in
does all of this
have to do with our current struggles? How
do the struggles at the Rouge,
and various people
interacted with and took advantage of the structural crisis that
What follows are three anecdotes from my teaching that illustrate important lessons about the struggle for authentic democracy. I believe these lessons are part of the historical tradition to which we radical democrats belong. Authentic democracy was always the politics of the working people. Currently, political rightists claim that they are for democracy, however, this is impossible on the face of it. The people/demos have always had to struggle against the rich, powerful, and privileged classes who considered themselves entitled to profit from the labor of the working classes. The Bush junior administration’s claim that it intends to construct a democracy in conquered Iraq must be seen for what it is – namely the expansion of capital and empire with a compliant group of Iraqis serving as the fig leaves for great power aggression.
first story features
me as a high school, social studies teacher in
We have talked about Marx in terms of his motivation and the milieu of which he was a part. With respect to motive, he belongs to the tradition of Western thinkers [and activist revolutionaries] who sought to free human beings by enlightening them. His motives cannot be divorced from his time and place. By the nineteenth century Western society was reeling under the blows of rapid industrialization. The safeguards of the old order were being inundated by unprecedented materialism, impersonality, and immensely powerful economic institutions [in sync with the developing capitalist system]. It is not surprising that Marx began [to turn from philosophy] and write increasingly in a materialistic [political economy] idiom .... Marx was a child of his times. However, he was a break-through pioneer thinker too!
As I have reread this lecture –after thirty-seven years –it is not surprising that as I continued to study Marx’s work it became increasingly clear that he was not a determinist. In fact, the third chapter of my Philosophical Scaffolding for the Construction of Critical Democratic Education (2000) is called “Various Reds: Marx, Historical Materialism, and the Openness Of History.” Marx’s view was that human beings do make their/our own histories, although neither under conditions of our choosing nor just as we like. Consider these questions: How would the pedagogy of our fellow teachers look if they understood humanity on these terms? And what kinds of new understandings would their students have about the world and their role in it?
The second story comes from my time (1972-2000) as a social foundations of education professor in a teacher education department. The site is one of the largest “producers” of K-12 teachers in the country, namely Ball State University. I used Heinrich Böll’s short story “The Balek Scales” in my sociology of education course. The author takes us to Central Europe in the late nineteenth century that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Balek family was the aristocratic governors of the particular territory where the struggle occurred. We are told that the adult workers labored in flax sheds in which the air was full of dust that contributed to their short life spans. The children labored also as gatherers from the woods that were owned by the Baleks, in addition to the sheds. The children had to take the mushrooms, flowers, herbs and other pickings to the chateau where the goods were weighed and paid for by Frau Balek herself. Böll describes this well: “There on the table stood the great Balek scales, an old-fashioned, ornate bronze-gilt contraption, which my father’s grandparents had already faced when they were children.” ****(Heinrich Böll: 18 Stories (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966, pp.26-7). The weigher had to throw weights onto one side of the scale to balance out the children’s’ pickings so that the swinging pointer came to rest on the black line. It was unlawful for anyone in the village to have a scale!
The protagonist of the story was the person to test the justice of the Balek scales. He began by keeping meticulous records of everything he picked and delivered to the chateau, including how much he was paid. It happened that he was in the chateau to receive holiday gifts from the owners for his and three other families. The packages of coffee were wrapped and sealed in a far off factory. Each weighed one pound. The young protagonist was alone in the room where the Balek scales stood so he had a momentary opportunity to test the scale. When the servant returned to the room the protagonist demanded to see Frau Balek!! He was refused. Our protagonist took the bag of coffee his family was entitled to and walked a long distance to a place outside the Balek jurisdiction. A friendly pharmacist confirmed with his scale what the protagonist learned about the erroneous Balek scales.
After the boy returned home he calculated exactly what he had been cheated of over the years. He told all the working people of the village who then performed a silent protest against their masters during a church service. Frau Balek confronted the protagonist but the boy shot back with the exact amount that she still owed him. Before the woman could respond the workers who sat in the church spontaneously raised their voices and sang the hymn: “The justice of this earth, oh Lord, hath put Thee to death ...” (p. 34). The next day the aristocratic boss’s gendarmes arrived on the scene. They destroyed the boy’s records, smashed the house, and killed his sister. Workers in other villages also rebelled; however, the combination of arms and altar broke the strikes. The last paragraph of the story reads as follows. “My grandfather’s [the protagonist] family had to leave the village .... They became basket weavers, but did not stay long anywhere because it pained them to see how everywhere the finger of justice swung falsely. They walked along their cart...over country roads...and passers-by could sometimes hear a voice from the cart singing: ‘The justice of this earth, oh Lord, hath put Thee to death.’ And those who wanted to listen could hear the tale of the Baleks ... whose justice lacked a tenth part. But there were few who listened.” Consider this: How does Böll’s story parallel the everyday life of workers (and students) today? How can we (and our students) put today’s scales of justice to the test? How do today’s high stakes tests of students serve as a modern version of the injustice wrought by Balek’s scales?
undergraduates in a cultural foundations of education class at the
I conclude with a desire to engage with the readers concerning the ideas and issues articulated in this piece. As Gramsci and his comrades exclaimed: La lotta continua (the struggle continues).