Co-founder Small Schools Workshop, author, professor
“It seemed to me as if education and social justice went hand in hand.”
He is a professor at DePaul University, in Chicago and the author, with Susan Klonsky, of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society (Positions: Education, Politics, and Culture). In the late 1960s he became the national secretary of the Students for a Democratic Society. He has stayed active in civil rights, anti-war and educational politics. He writes several blogs: Schooling in the Ownership Society; Education and Cultural Studies; and Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog.
Mike talks about the roots of his own activism and founding the Small Schools Workshop.
Blogging is just a tool, like writing a newspaper column or giving a speech or talking on the telephone with people. For me, it’s for sharing ideas about the politics of education, and hopefully building up kind of a resistance movement to the things I see going on right now in public education, the attacks on democratic education. So it’s kind of a resistance tool, meaning I think progressive educators and democratic educators are on the strategic defensive right now. Democratic education is under assault. How do you fight back? I’m an old community organizer and a political activist, but the way you do it today is different from the way we did it in the 60’s. I mean, there’s some similarities, but the tools are different. This is our leafleting. These are our flyers. We used to use a mimeograph machine and make stencils and then run them off, give them out to activists and they would go out to the campuses or go out in the neighborhoods and hand them out. We did a pretty good job with those.
I guess the most important thing to me is a social justice commitment, which I kind of came by honestly from my parents. They were political activists all their lives. They’re both gone now. My dad was a radical labor organizer, a writer, not formally educated. He was kicked out of high school for inviting a peace speaker to his school, back in the thirties. He left school in, I don’t know, as a young teenager. He hopped a freighter over to France and then hiked across the Pyrenees and joined the international brigades, the volunteers to fight against the fascist Franco Regime. He used to hang out with Hemmingway over there. Well, he met him. He got wounded, and when they found out how young he was, they sent him back. But they made him an honorary citizen of Spain, in fact. That’s why we were all kind of rooting for Spain in the FIFA games [International Football Association Federation].
He went to jail for his beliefs. He was tried under something called the Smith Act that made it a crime to conspire to advocate revolutionary politics. He was in the state penitentiary for a year or so. I was a kid. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Then he was on the run during the McCarthy period. We had moved out to L.A., and he worked with organizing a lot of the screenwriters and Hollywood people who had also been victimized by the McCarthy period. I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I grew up in a radical family. So that’s why I say I come by it naturally.
I got involved in the student movement in the 60’s. I became a head of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. I worked with the civil rights organizations and with SNCC and with all kinds of various groups. So for most of my life, I’ve been involved in trying to fight for social justice issues, racial equality, against war. I kind of found a home for those sentiments in the field of education. It seemed to me as if education and social justice went hand in hand.
In the 60’s, the student movement was really interested in issues of curriculum, creating alternative schools, things like the Freedom Schools in Mississippi and Alabama. I was involved in that. We also did that in the North, too. Community based small schools that had a freedom curriculum. Then the alternative schools movement in the 60’s, I was also involved in that. So to me, it was very natural in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the school reform movement was at its peak here in Chicago to get involved. To me this looked like a continuation of that earlier work.
School reform, in the early 90’s was kind of a big table, a big tent. I remember sitting in meetings with the civic committee people and with the mayor’s people and with community-based organizations and the black and Latino community, and that’s how it used to be. Not like that anymore. Now what’s called “school reform” is just the enterprise of a handful of people, and it’s all top down. There’s no room for dissention, no room for discussion, it’s the most undemocratic… The table shrunk. These people don’t like the democratic process. It’s messy, and they don’t always win. They have a sense of entitlement. “I’m the richest man in the world; I don’t have to debate with this poor African-American guy or this teacher. I don’t care what they think. I have my brain trust around me and my technology, and I have faith in that. So I’ll use the power I have to force this on people if I need to. Because it’s better for them. They might not understand it, but I know what’s best for everybody.”
In ’91 [Bill Ayers and I] started the Small Schools Workshop together. I had known Bill in SDS in the sixties. In fact, we had been very good friends in SDS; we were comrades, but we kind of exchanged polemics and argued against each other. We had a parting of the ways when SDS split into different factions. Bill was one of the leaders of the Weatherman faction, and I was one of the leaders of another faction. We didn’t really talk to each other for about a dozen years. We went our separate ways. But then when Bill came back to Chicago, enough time had passed. We put aside our political differences, and we found we had a common view of education, social justice, teaching, learning issues. He convinced me to go back to school, get my PhD, which I did at the time.
[The Small Schools Workshop] was really was teachers, especially young teachers in Chicago who were thrown into the turmoil of the school reform movement of the late 80’s and early 90’s. After Mayor Harold Washington died in 1988, the School Reform Act was passed. More power and authority was handed down or forced down from the top of the bureaucracy down to the local school, and many teachers started asking themselves, “How can we use this local autonomy to do things differently, to create some new learning environments that are smaller, more intimate, where we can practice innovative teaching methods and things like that?” And I happened to be doing a lot of research on those issues over at UIC. I was thinking and writing and researching about issues involving school size and student achievement, school size and school violence, school size and use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco on the part of adolescents.
I guess teachers thought we were experts. They said, “Can you help us do this?” Of course we didn’t know the first thing about it because it was new, but we did have our experience from back in the day in terms of these earlier Freedom School experiments that were outside the system. So we applied what we knew. We worked together in a workshop kind of environment with teachers and community people and parents and didn’t pretend to have the answers. That’s why we called it a “workshop.” In a workshop, people come together and shape things themselves with guidance, and we tried to provide that guidance and some research materials and other kinds of supports. Then we went to the system and said, “Let us have some space, some autonomy.” Somehow or other, we got the first small schools going in Chicago.
Next thing you know, we went from being outliers and radicals to being the flavor of the month and then soon we were working with school districts all over the country. Then the richest guys in the world came into it: Bill Gates with two billion dollars or so. Then our fate was sealed. The thing was turned into its opposite. Thing is, the Small Schools Movement has been transformed in a way for the worse by the corporate reformers and private charter school operators. Small schools now has almost become synonymous with privately managed charter schools.
Susan [Klonsky] and I wrote a whole book about it called Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. What it was –which happens to a lot of social reforms, whether it’s voting rights or whether it’s healthcare or what have you — part of the problem is, the powers that be are very adept at taking over reforms from the top. Making sure that they’re controlled and don’t get out of hand, I guess that’s a simple way to put it. Where you had this wonderful grassroots movement for educational change, you now have these forces which I call “power philanthropy.” The emergence of these newly amassed fortunes coming out of the high tech industry and held by a very small number of individuals who then, for various reasons, created these philanthropies. But not in the old style philanthropic tradition where you give away money either as a tax shelter or to improve your image or to help the poor.
But the Small Schools Workshop still exists; we’re still doing work. Even though we were really battered during the  election by all of the anti- Bill Ayers propaganda that the right wing — not just the right wing, the Clintons, too — put out. They tried to smear Obama and connect him up with the Small Schools Workshop, and that hurt us quite a bit. It made a lot of schools and school districts and foundations kind of leery
But we survived all that, you know? We still work with a lot of schools. I think small schools are still a vital idea and are going to have a rebirth, maybe they already are. We’re very proud of the work that was done, the hundreds of teachers that came through there. I see them all over the place now, kind of Small Schools Workshop survivors who’ve gone on to be leaders in their fields, be great teachers or what have you. We even had a reunion a couple years ago.
But we never created it to be, to even live this long. It’ll be twenty years old next year. Maybe that’s way too long for an organization to exist. Twenty years, you know?
Some people who have been at it as long as you have say they are discouraged, they want out. Someone told me the other day, “I’m done. Nothing worked.”
Well, it is discouraging. It is discouraging, but I’ve seen this many, many times. When you get my age, you know what this is like. Because I understand it, in a way I feel comfortable in it. I’ve seen it plenty of times. I almost expect it of them, so I’m not shocked when the Democratic Party goes corporate on us. Even if I don’t know what to do all the time. I know something has to be done. Also, I’ve survived it. I think it’s the human condition. That’s kind of our existential being. System pushes down on us, and we push back. That’s what life really is about.
And, of course, it’s not really true that nothing worked. It depends on what “worked” means, and in education especially, we oftentimes just talk about the how’s and not the why’s of what we’re doing. To me, it’d be like saying the Civil Rights movement didn’t work. Well, it transformed the lives of millions of people. There’s been some twists and turns or setbacks, but that’s not what “not worked” means to me. It seems to me we’ll always be struggling forever. Resistance is part of the human condition, and we should become good at it. We should welcome it, we should thrive in it, and then we should teach our kids how to do it, how to have a good time doing it, how not to let it beat us down, take away our spirit.
And you’re right. When the young kids see people from our generation spiritless with no heart for struggle, then that’s a defeat, that’s a discouraging sign. What we’ve got to do is show examples. Grace Boggs, I think she’s ninety-seven years old. Still vital and energetic, goes to speak anywhere. It rejuvenates her. In a way, she’s like a young kid. She’s got a smile on her face, even though she’s gone through so much hardship. So I think those are the kind of people we want to write about and hold up there. You also have to be open to change as you get older. You can’t become rigid and dogmatic. In fact, I was much more dogmatic, I think, in my younger days. I thought certain ideologies held the answer. Almost like religious beliefs. But I think one of the things I do become more rigid about is my belief that there is no one answer. So that keeps you going, I think. It’s also an openness to keep learning and to look to the younger generation for answers.
Read my conversation with his daughter, Amanda Klonsky, also an educator.
My interview with Mike’s wife, Susan Klonsky, is forthcoming.