Education for Liberation
Social practice is the cornerstone informant of the approach of People’s History. Knowledge gained on the basis of social practice, returns to social practice to enrich, improve upon, and strengthen the latter. In other words, in this process, knowledge is deepened and made more all-rounded, then returns to social practice to perform the latter at a deeper, more fruitful, level. “This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level.” (Mao, p308).
Being subversive, People’s History requires a strategy and tactics to implement its curriculum and to achieve the other goals which making our own history necessitate. Taking the Boston Public Schools as an example, we the people have been subject to the dominant culture and its political/economic impact on curriculum.
“Official” history, the history as taught by those who have had the power and control to determine history curriculum in public schools in this country — that is, people representing the interests of the large corporate establishment which runs this country — present history through the following process: From the “scholar,” (economically and politically privileged White men with degrees garnered from other similarly situated “scholars”) who write history books which reflect the history of their class/people. These history books are presented to the students of the Boston Public Schools as their textbooks. The students are enjoined to read the textbooks, and on the basis of this reading, to write some papers about what they learned about history through these textbooks. This is the process of “official” history, history as taught in the Boston Public Schools: From the brains of White men in power, to text, to the brain of the student; from head to book to head; from ideology to ideological tract to ideology.
People’s History is people in motion, in large groups, working together or in struggle with other large groups of people, in collective and conflicting efforts to take care of the needs of large groups of people — nations, peoples, classes, genders, countries, etc. This activity is summed up by the participants. This sum up takes many forms: written — in books, articles, essays, stories; oral history — the stories of the people in their millions, passed by word of mouth, from generation to generation; art — poetry, fiction, theater, movies, song and dance. These forms constitute the spirit of our history. These forms, the appropriation of people’s movements in literature, stories, art, in turn serve to facilitate the entrance of the people back into their history to create a new future.
When Mao Tse-tung adjures us that “this form [of practice to knowledge and again back to practice] repeats itself in endless cycles,” he drew his principle with regard to practice and knowledge from the experience of participating in and studying 40 years of Chinese revolution. Likewise People’s History, as we apply it, gains its principles from participating in and studying the African American Peoples Liberation Movement. The language, or wording, of People’s History, in this context, must come from this history.
As existentialist author, William Pinar has pointed out, “The American self is not exclusively or even primarily a European American self. Fundamentally, it is an African American self…” (Pinar, p62). “Understanding curriculum as a racial text means understanding this country as fundamentally a racialized place, as fundamentally an African American place, and the American identity as inescapably African American…” (63–64) This is to say that, as I am an African American teacher, the universal lessons of American history can only be achieved conceptually in the context of the genuine appropriation of the lived experience of my people. For example, as the various stories of how people got to America are examined, Americans of African descent are revealed to be the only peoples who were forced at gun point to come here. In this connection, America can only be understood fully through our story. This is also to say that the student — in my classroom — who is a Salvadoran refugee from the U.S. war against the peasants of El Salvador, also owns the truth of American history that includes all of us genuinely. Only by appropriating the particularity of her experience can the universal truth of American history be grasped. And it is only the Salvadoran refugee who can tell this truth of American history. American history seen through the eyes of Womanism includes everyone. The male version of American history necessarily excludes the truth of half the population. Grasped in this way, People’s History does not make demands on White men in power that it cannot enforce by the united will of the people, regenerating our way, making history.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty witnesses how those in power find themselves in People’s History with these words: “Historical responsibility transcends the categories of liberal thought — intention and act, circumstances and will, objective and subjective. It overwhelms the individual in his acts, mingles the objective and the subjective, imputes circumstances to the will; thus it substitutes for the individual as he feels himself to be a role or phantom in which he cannot recognize himself, but in which he must see himself, since that is what he is for his victims…” (Humanism and Terror, p43). American history grasped as African American history “is universally true because it is impossible for anyone to escape from its domain in his practice” (Mao, On Practice, p305). American history, from the White American or European perspective cannot contain the universal — by the logic of its own coming into being, longevity, and passing away, it must contain falsehoods, half-truths and omissions. The Euro-American version of American history is universally true only in the chronicle of its demise.
For example, the Boston Tea Party, understood in the context of the defining social events of the period of the formation of America — the European colonization of and annihilation of the Native population, the European subjugation of Africans, and the forcing of millions of Africans to work after the Natives were cleared away — is significant in the formation of a country which was being established on the foundation of genocide and slavery. The Boston Tea Party, understood — that is, in the perspective of the ancestors of the perpetrators of genocide and slavery — as a central foundation stone in the forming of America as we know it, is necessarily the chronicle of exclusion. This story can only sound credible if the student is told nothing or almost nothing about the Native population and the African population. As soon as these populations are restored to their rightful place in the center of the period, the Boston Tea Party becomes a detail. And it is only this telling of the story which genuinely includes the large majority of White people — indentured servants, laborers, exiled paupers (“criminals”), women and children — for whom the Boston Tea Party was a mere detail (a change which affected the form of government) when compared to the above mentioned central motive events of the time. It is only this telling of the story, which restores the large majority of oppressed White people to their rightful place in the center of the period. American history from the White perspective is an exercise in exclusion. American history as African American, Native American, working class, or Womanist, is a history of inclusion.
The truth of Mao Tse-tung’s pronouncement about the development of knowledge on the basis of practice can best be understood by American history students in language that comes from our history. As Mao says, “Practice, knowledge, again practice and again knowledge,” we students and makers of American history say, in the wording of African American people, from body to spirit and back to body. From body to soul to body. The “body” is the masses of the people engaged in making history. The “soul” or “spirit” is our efforts at bringing to fruition the lessons of our work — whether these are through our songs, our stories, our poetry, our literature, and so on. And the return to our body is the continuing effort to live our lives as our true selves, righteous, powerful and free. This includes the necessity of transforming our reality — for instance, the reality of a white supremacist curriculum for history in the BPS; and replacing it, on the basis of our organizing, with a curriculum that reflects our process and honors our way — body, spirit, body.
History curriculum, in the dominant way: from head to book to head. People’s History: Body (of the people in our millions) to soul to body.
Mao Tse-tung. (1967). “On Practice.” In Selected Works of…. Peking, China: Foreign Languages Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1969). Humanism and terror. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pinar, W.F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.