Public Intellectuals? Try Public Students Instead.

Schools must aspire to be more than just dispersing knowledge to the willing. Reducing education to a commodified exchange is one of the lowest common denominators in human existence. It makes educators and students powerless to affect change in their learning, let alone the world. Everyone involved becomes incapable of acting in democratic relationships.

The Public Student by Adam Fletcher, SoundOut Student Voice Series #11

My work focused on schools is an attempt to address the discrepancies facing the larger roles of young people throughout society. Disenfranchised from social purpose beyond schooling, I strive to reinforce the notion of young peoples’ public personhood and existence beyond the crass economic subjugation that motivated the identification of “youthhood” originally.

In the same way we honor public intellectuals such as “Barbara Ehrenreich to Tom Wolfe to Samuel Huntington” and my own mentor Henry Giroux, I want to heighten the role of the public student. This modern learner is the engine of democracy, fueling all other social, cultural, spiritual, educational, and economic developments throughout society.   Without the specific role of student, democracy would simply fail. Today’s neoliberal education policy would reduce the role of student to that of consumer and product as well, and oftentimes denies their roles as producer and engine. This occurs not only in classrooms, but also in school offices, school boardrooms, and education administration offices.

Without the specific role of student, democracy would simply fail. Today’s neoliberal education policy would reduce the role of student to that of consumer and product as well, and oftentimes denies their roles as producer and engine. This occurs not only in classrooms, but also in school offices, school boardrooms, and education administration offices.

That said, in a society that systematically segregates young people from adults, I think its important to acknowledge the unique role that only children and youth occupy, which is that of K-12 student. In our modern social construct, that has been the only place in society specifically designed for children and youth, and the role of student is the only formal role for them.   

In reality, today that place and role are being claimed by economic imperialists who believe schools only need to serve the capitalist hegemony, rather than the larger democratic good. Students are innately attuned to this discrepancy of purpose too. Over several decades they have come to see their role in school as that of prisoner. This is reinforced by succeeding generations of parents, teachers, administrators, voters, and politicians.  

I want to reframe the place of schooling in society so that it’s seen as the right that it is, as the powerhouse of democracy, and as the hope for the future that it is and should be.

Acknowledging the distinct identity of students is vital to integrating them throughout the education system that serves them, which is the purpose of my work in schools. That identity is one as the public student.

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Understanding El Che

Che Guevara is given a lot of room by my contemporaries, radicals and liberals alike. Because of his practical and applied radicalism, they regard him as a sort of martyr for all kinds of movements. One of my teachers, Peter McLaren, even wrote a book about Paulo Freire and El Che, comparing their leftist politik from a modern critical consumption.

However, in the standard American practice of parsing words from historical figures in order to prove a point, some of my people are misinterpreting Che’s words. A facebook friend recently did this, citing  the following Guevara quote in order to incite his peers to action:

Education is the property of no one. It belongs to the people as a whole. And if education is not given to the people, they will have to take it.


The challenge of El Che’s perspective here, in this quote alone, is that it positions “education” as an item, a product to be manufactured and consumed. This is one of the dilemmas of citing ideologists out of context. The perspective of this single quote isn’t what education is. Instead, education happens any time learning happens with purpose. That cannot be taken or given, and only comes from the people. If we keep positioning education as a commodity that can be bought, sold, and controlled by any force, we continue to surrender our ability to make, propagate, and promote learning with purpose.
We must not cut out the source from the fruit; an apple without a tree isn’t an apple anymore. El Che without the radically dispossesive nature of his philosophy is no longer El Che. 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!