Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 2 - No. 1
Spring, 1998

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At a time when anti-authoritarian social critique must be reevaluated and developed, it is especially important to engage, challenge, and transform the institutional settings in which this work takes place. John Schumacher helps us understand some of the dilemmas faced by those in the university.

On Choosing to be a Radical Professor
by John A. Schumacher

How do you, as a radical, expect to influence people? Will people read what you have to write? Or hear what you have to say? Will they be ready to read or hear it? Or do their lives have to cease being smooth first, so that they ask questions where before there were only routine answers? A radical needs a nose for situations in which people are ready for a radical lesson, or alternatively, needs to be a facilitator of that readiness.

So, why not choose to be a radical professor? You will work with people at the most liberal time of their lives (though one wonders how long such a time will survive, as today only 27% of first-year college students - less than half of what it was 30 years ago - think that keeping up with politics is a worthy life goal), and the residue of academic freedom and tenure provides more opportunity for being radical than you will find in, for example, secondary education. Being a professor also provides a living, not the "decent poverty" advocated by Paul Goodman, but typically not embarrassingly more either.

You can be a radical professor in various ways, but the primary divide, again, is between those who stress writing or speaking and those who stress helping people get ready to read or hear. Few do both well, but only the latter is necessary to being a successful radical professor. Headstrong, I started out by trying to change the minds of my students, rather than making it possible for them to change their own minds. I needed to learn how to be a facilitator.

Anarchism is just one subject among others at the level of writing or speaking, but has no peer when it comes to learning how to be a facilitator. I will try to explain this, but first I want to say a few words about the university context.

The University Context
How can you influence young people if you can't sing? In 1971 I chose to teach college-age young people at a research university in the USA. I had more opportunity then to develop my radical agenda, both in and out of the university. Everywhere you turn today the capitalist bottom line is taking over. Let me give an analogy.

Recently two university professors from Uruguay spoke to my department about the problems of developing a successful research university in their country. They were concerned with the quality of the science faculty, but the same can be said of any faculty: (1) to achieve prestige, one must meet international standards, and (2) to do research, one must have funding. The dilemma is that, for (1), international standards pull scientists way from addressing specifically Uruguayan problems, and, for (2), given the financial status of Latin American countries (old hands at dealing with the IMF restructuring that now focuses on Southeast Asian countries), funding for science is increasingly international - read, "foreign capital" - pulling scientists away from Uruguay as well. The old one-two punch, as we say.

I am sure I do not need to spell out this analogy, though certainly one thing to note is that (2) is increasingly a factor in (1), no matter where you are. I was joking the other day, as a take-off on the renaming of Albany's sports and entertainment arena as the Pepsi Arena, that soon a university will become the Pepsi University. But the sponsor does not need to be up front, after all, to exert control. (See, for example, Peter Montague, Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly #581, January 15, 1998.)

Academic standards that you must meet for tenure, and continue to meet every year for raises, promotions, and so on, are inevitably going to pull you in the wrong direction. Blind peer review, for example, is a conservative process, working along the established hierarchical lines of a profession. But longer odds do not mean no odds at all. And here people who stress writing or speaking will have better chances than those who do not. Teaching, let alone helping young people to be ready for a radical lesson, is not high on university agendas these days.

Gaining support for your research is part of meeting standards for tenure and so on, even in the humanities. And again the funding process is problematic in the same way that the scholarship process is. The IAS itself is an excellent example of the right idea: provide some funding, no matter how little, that will also count for professional review.

So, it is not so much that a university will try to shut down a radical directly, but rather indirectly, through what look like the routine application of academic standards and the routine competition for scarce funds. Oh sure, you are always subject to the established hierarchies of other professors and administrators who will decide your case, and they may well be more in need of a radical lesson than your students are. But today it is easier not to hire someone in the first place, or not to support someone in the competition for scare prestige and support, than it is to say someone is too radical and risk one's own reputation, no matter how small the risk. Only 1/4 of college instructors have tenure, and 1/2 of the positions at four-year universities are filled by adjuncts!

But the deepest irony is that the necessary condition for being a successful radical professor tends to drop out of the picture along with the minimization of teaching. Let me now explain.

A Facilitator in a University Context
I understand being radical, first, as getting at the root questions underneath the answers we live out in the routine of our society and, second, once successful in the first phase, as living these questions. In the course of my career I began to present this understanding as having a radical conscience. I did not want my students to think that to be radical they needed to change their routine answers. No, they needed only to have radical consciences: little birdies in their heads, so to speak, chirping the root questions, reminding them that it is always possible to change their answers.

It is no easy task to keep this possibility alive. For example, one day - yikes, now over 20 years ago! - my first child came home from elementary school, and asked me why the boys were told to get off the bus first and help the girls off. She had noticed that she was bigger than a lot of the boys, and that she could have helped them off. What a root question at 6! But what happens if no one in her life helps her to keep it alive? What will she be like by the time she is a first-year college student?

To be a facilitator of such young people, however, you cannot teach root questions, no matter how well you have developed them - and your alternative answers - in writing or speaking. If anything could be said to be the motto of George Dennison's First Street School - an anarchist experiment (The Lives of Children, Random House, 1970) - it was that "learning is not the result of teaching." (See John Schumacher and David Wieck, "Childhood and Authority: An Anarchist Theory," Human Affairs, 1983.) The irony of the radical classroom is that students must be free from the necessity of believing what the professor says, or of doing what the professor asks them to do, just because the professor says or asks it. Yet because of the authority of power routinely invested in our school teachers, all of us tend to resist this radical ideal.

Students have to ask root questions, again, in a way that sticks with them, in their consciences! Because you cannot require someone to do this, that is, you cannot require someone to be free from your authority — and here is the heart of anarchism — the authority of power is necessarily counter-productive. You must learn how to exercise merely the authority of competence, though not even this authority is required: my favorite technique is to turn a class around a root question I myself am still working on so that I am not tempted simply to "tell the truth"! As Caroline Estes (Social Anarchism, 1985) put the principle of consensus so well: everyone has a piece of the truth, and no one has all of it. (See my "Questions for Students of Justice," forthcoming in Contemporary Justice Review, 1998.)

Though I cannot go into detail here, the very physical arrangement of class activities must work independently of what I say or ask: by itself the arrangement must indicate that what happens between the students, face to face, is crucial - what I call "the osmosis method" (Human Posture: The Nature of Inquiry, SUNY, 1989; and "Our Responsibility for the Future in Higher Education," The Raven Quarterly, 1991). My favorite technique here - the perfect complement to asking an unanswered root question - is to break the students into small groups, preferably of 4 or 5 like-minded students, to work out their take on the root issue in question. If I facilitate this process well, the culmination is a circle of reporting in which all sides of a root question become evident to the participants.

It is precisely in the context of this kind of conversation that I am freed to give a radical lesson. Instead of being just another requirement - or teaching - what I say is simply my contribution to the conversation. Everyone will hear it! And, ideally, the conversation will never stop, if only as little birdies in peoples' heads. Occasionally people who are not my students come into my office just because a class conversation carried over to the dorms. Or a former student writes years later to make my day: the chirping birdies got another person to join the radical conversation - a domino effect. Indeed, I am a domino effect of one of the best radical professors ever: David Thoreau Wieck (see the obituary I wrote in the last IAS Newsletter).

Oh sure, it is important to have something radical to say or write, and to say or write it well. If you are choosing to be a professor to develop a radical critique of our society, that is fine, especially if you can get it published in a way that passes academic muster — hard enough, without the double whammy: it will be useless in the classroom unless it can be worked into your facilitation of root questions, and even then a simple joke with a radical heart is often heard more easily. Whatever you say or write, you will need to bring it alive in the conversation of your students.

To be defensive against root questions or radical lessons is to fail to be inspired by Paul Goodman's concept of drawing the line (Drawing the Line, New Life Editions, 1977). Students and professors alike must draw the line beyond which they will simply not give routine answers, but realize how the authority of power is implicated in these answers. Lots of people, in lots of places, need to draw the line. For the most part, this has to happen on its own. Oh yes, you and I can help, again through the domino effect, and perhaps through our writing and speaking, but, again, there are lots of people and lots of places that are not likely to hear of us. We must have faith that, facilitated or not, enough people will develop a radical conscience.

~ John Schumacher


John A. Schumacher is a Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is the author of Human Posture: The Nature of Inquiry (Suny Press, 1989).