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An Interview With Herb Kohl: The Politics of Education

Stan Karp


KARP: Your first book, 36 Children, along with Jonathan Kozol's Death at An Early Age, and others spoke for a generation of committed white radicals who took the perspectives of the civil rights movement into their schools and classrooms. Looking back at that period, how would you evaluate the school reform movement of the 1960s? What were some of its strengths and weaknesses?

KOHL: One main strength was that we were firmly rooted not just in educational issues, but in the whole tradition of radical politics and radical history. School reform was tied to a larger community that was on the move to change things. And while there were a lot of people on the left in the 1960s who were coming from the outside to change the world, for example, going into the communities of the poor without strong local ties, many of those who focused on schools were working from the inside. I was a practicing teacher, so I knew the parents of the kids and it was really through particular incidents that we connected to larger struggles.

But in the 1960s a lot of times, you didn't really change the system, you just did your own thing. Struggles were sporadic and, at times, even contradictory. At one school you might have progressive teachers taking over running things, at another school you might have progressive parents and teachers organizing a total boycott, or going totally outside the public system to create free schools or alternative schools. People didn't really talk to each other or coordinate citywide or districtwide campaigns. We were running too fast. There was the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, people running from the draft. We were caught up in the moment, a very exciting moment, but it didn't necessarily encourage the formation of sustainable institutions.

KARP: We've just gone through another decade of high-profile school reform. How would you compare the school reform movement in the 1980s with that of the 1960s?

KOHL: Well, for one thing, reactionaries in the 1980s became very good at stealing the language and rhetoric of social change. But the agenda was completely elitist. All the talk about "educational excellence" was really about adding a little bit of color and gender diversity to the upper strata, but with no change in power. Conservatives sought to give more rewards to the already successful and more punishment to those they branded as "failures." In some ways, conservatives adopted progressive attitudes when it came to certain teaching practices. Many conservative reformers (though not all) were open to using the whole range of progressive, Dewey-inspired learning techniques when it came to math, science, or reading. But the actual content of curricula they promoted, particularly in social studies, was Christian and patriotic gore. There's a fundamentalist church in my town that uses the best whole language reading methods you could imagine, but the content of the program is Pentecostal religion.

There was also a conservative economic agenda, I think, to maintain a large number of moderately educated unemployed people to put pressure on unions and those with jobs. So now when companies "restructure" they fire older, more expensive workers, and hire younger ones who know something about computers but nothing about unions.

But there are also some positive developments, too. Contrary to the stereotypes, most of the activists I knew from the 1960s are still working in schools and education, and in many cases, they are better positioned with more power to promote change. Another thing, when I wrote 36 Children I was attacked a lot for criticizing the public schools. Now everyone thinks drastic change is needed.

KARP: There are conflicting left perspectives on public education. One view says that better, more democratic educational institutions are the key to solving a host of problems from economic opportunity to racial justice. Another view says that schools are servants of existing privilege, a large sifting and labeling operation that recreates and reinforces hierarchies of race, class and gender with no interest in providing educational excellence for all. Which view is closer to your own?