Radically practical

When you consider the contributions of the Highlander Folk School to both the labor and civil rights movements, few U.S. educators have had as much broad, social impact as Myles Horton. (A case could be made for Charles Elliot or E.L. Thorndike, I suppose, but I’m thinking of positive impacts here.)

Horton was without a doubt a radical. He was deeply skeptical of capitalism, which he found antithetical to democracy. He was also a vocal critic of the public education system, which in his mind offered very little useful learning to students but proved remarkably successful in sorting them, ultimately disenfranchising most.

But when it came to the question of action – of what people could do to make a difference – Horton was surprisingly pragmatic. In a 1989 interview with Susan Walker and Ike Coleman (published in The Myles Horton Reader), he explained:

Defying the school system is almost like defying the weather. What you need to do is learn to live with it, learn to get out of the rain, or enjoy it, or make something out of it. You can’t change it. That’s there. The only way you can change the schools is to change the system…It’s impossible to conceive of having a democratic schooling system without a democratic economic system. But in the meantime we’ve got to live with it, try to use the school to change the system, and to do that you’ve got to use guerilla tactics. You can’t defy it, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. To change things you have to understand it. And if you don’t understand how the system works, you can’t go about changing it. But you better…respect its power and its existence.

The Workshop School: Learning to get out of the rain.