For a while during the mid-Sixties, the Headstart program seemed to many the most promising of the “anti-poverty” operations carried on by federal and local authorities. Designed for very young children, it involved parents by requiring them to help out in nursery school; it made use of experts in child development and primary education; it had a catchy and politically neutral name, and in no way threatened the existing public schools. The children in the Headstart program were not only too young for the public schools but also too young to have ideas of their own. The defiance found among Job Corps youth couldn’t be expected from three and four-year-olds. The parents of Headstart children could also be counted on to teach colors and forms, to feed the children and play with them, and not spend their time organizing politically. Moreover Headstart was ideal in another way. It was a preparation for adjusting to public school. One idea behind it was that if young children were caught early enough they would learn to obey the teacher, observe the rules, and speak standard middle-class English; they would then fit more comfortably into the public schools.
Not all Headstart programs, however, were geared to preparing poor children to pretend that they were members of the middle class or black children to pretend that they were white. Some programs were more humane and concerned with the everyday lives of the children who participated in them. They also took seriously the rhetoric of the Office of Economic Opportunity which called for “community involvement” and they attempted to have programs run by the poor instead of merely hiring the poor for low-level jobs. One of these programs was run by the Child Development Group of Mississippi.
The state of Mississippi had two Headstart programs. One, the official program, was approved by the State Department of Public Education. It employed teachers from the regular school system and tried to prepare poor young black children for the Mississippi public schools. It taught them to sit quietly, raise their hands when they wanted anything, and obey their teachers’ commands.
CDGM was different. It grew out of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, the summer when the murders of white civil rights workers aroused the anger of liberals against Southern racism. Tom Levin, a white psychologist who was in Mississippi during the “freedom summer,” conceived of developing a headstart program that would involve workers from the civil rights movement who had worked in poor communities in the past. He also wanted to involve liberal professional teachers who could learn how to keep out of the way of poor people or train them to take control of their own programs. Levin’s notion of control by the poor was a very broad one. He envisioned the poor writing their own proposals, administering their own programs, and controlling their own schools. The political implications of these ideas were obvious—the white bureaucrats and politicians of Mississippi could hardly be expected to allow so much power to fall into the hands of poor blacks who owed them no loyalty.
Senator Stennis’s later opposition to CDGM bore this out. What is amazing is that in the early days of the Office of Economic Opportunity it was possible for CDGM to get a grant of several million dollars to set up a series of Headstart nursery schools throughout the state of Mississippi for eight weeks in the summer of ’65, and to indicate that they were interested in continuing support for the program.
Tom Levin and Polly Greenberg, who was primarily involved with the educational program, believed in creating schools and “environments” in which children could draw on a variety of materials and experiences and in which they would feel free to follow their own impulses; they wanted to show the children that they could learn from doing things that they would find enjoyable. They advocated the involvement of the local community in creating their own schools and often argued with parents who wanted a more rigid form of education for their children. Their philosophy of education advocated freedom, choice, and close personal contact.
Many parents, however, wanted a stricter system that they thought would quickly prepare their children to read, do arithmetic, and follow rules, and they didn’t care much for the liberal educational philosophy of some of the project’s directors—a common problem which white liberals and radicals run into these days when they try to teach in predominantly black communities. The whites, disaffected with middle-class and authoritarian education, try to impose their notions of freedom and openness on black parents who often feel their children should be given a standard authoritarian education and then be allowed to reject it once they have become rich enough to afford to do so. There is no easy solution to this problem. Although I myself believe that learning in a free environment is healthier than learning through compulsion, I can’t impose my notions of freedom on people who resist them.
Another guiding concept of CDGM was that of “new careers for the poor” advocated by Art Pearl, a professor at the University of Oregon, and Frank Reissman, a professor at New York University. Their idea was to create new ways in which people who were poor, and did not have the standard credentials, could work in such professions as health, social work, and education. Pearl and Reissman conceived of a variety of jobs which performed many of the functions now carried on by professionals; the poor and uneducated were allowed to do these jobs on their way to becoming full professionals. In a forthcoming book on The Atrocities of Education, Art Pearl shows how the work of teachers’ aides, assistants, and associates can be designed to allow them to take over much of the activity which full-fledged teachers now perform.
There are some fine ideas in the new careers model. Certainly it is true that poor people have many capabilities that are unused, and there is a need for new blood in the so-called “helping professions” of teaching, social work, health, which are so concerned with their “professional” prerogatives and their power over “clients” that they might more aptly be named the “hindering professions.” One problem arises, however. Opening these jobs to new people may become an excuse not to examine what is useful and what is harmful in the job themselves. The new careers training program can resemble the standard headstart program I described before—an attempt to train poor people to conform to middle-class professions which may themselves be irrelevant and obstructive. Of course, this is not true of all new careers. Pearl thinks of new careers as a way of bringing new people into the training institutions and the schools, and thus as a possible strategy to change the old jobs. I am a bit more skeptical.
Self-important “professionals” were, in any case, less evident in CDGM. Tom Levin knew in Mississippi how little relevance much professional knowledge has when applied to the complex human and political situations that faced him in the CDGM. Many of the professionals in the project knew that they had as much to learn about people and education as they had to offer. The professionals were encouraged not only to experiment and question their preconceptions but also to be prepared to be replaced as soon as possible by poor Mississippians. It is interesting to note that, according to Polly Greenberg, the people who found it most difficult to adjust to the atmosphere of improvisation and the experimental spirit of the centers as they developed were teachers with regular credentials.
Not everybody involved in the program was enthusiastic. Many veterans of the Civil Rights Movement were suspicious of receiving Federal money. They feared that they would be coopted, and, worse, that as soon as trouble developed the government would retreat and leave the poor people exposed to the violent racism of the white masters of Mississippi. They were not wrong. If it did nothing else, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes would be valuable for its description of the government’s betrayal of the poor people of Mississippi.
The book clearly explains how individual CDGM programs worked, how poor people gained confidence and the ability to take over the direction of the project as they worked with children, or developed programs of their own. It contains much valuable material that will be useful to people setting up nursery schools, as well as a detailed account of the problems in setting up an instant bureaucracy and trying to spend 3 million dollars in eight weeks. But what is most interesting about this book is the infuriating account of the political struggle over the project’s survival, an account which takes up at least two-thirds of its pages.
The first summer of the program in 1965 was relatively successful. Dozens of teachers and Movement workers got educational projects going and the reaction of local poor people and their children was often enthusiastic. The price of this success was the wrath of the Mississippi politicians, especially Senator Stennis. Stennis evidently put pressure on Sargent Shriver to eliminate CDGM or face a campaign by powerful conservative senators against the entire anti-poverty program. Shriver, a deft and calculating politician himself, naturally was willing to sacrifice this one program—even though it was the only one likely to accomplish what the anti-poverty program was supposedly designed to do—in order to save the other ones. It took the mobilization of liberal forces throughout the country to force the OEO to relent, and provide support for a full year program after the first summer. Of course there were concessions that CDGM had to make. Tom Levin was fired from his job as director. A series of technicians and financial experts were hired to take over the administration of the budget. The fight for survival at CDGM went on for the next two years until, as was to be expected, the official state Headstart program absorbed CDGM.
In more than 700 painfully detailed pages, Polly Greenberg traces this history. It is a familiar process, which I have gone through myself, as the director of a promising Office of Education program which was overwhelmed before it had a chance to develop independent strategies for its own survival. As one reads The Devil Has Slippery Shoes the question of the education of children recedes: everybody is too busy fighting the bureaucrats, the politicians, the liberal friends who are willing to help once or twice when there is trouble, but who have no stamina for a sustained fight and are unable to devote much time to working with the children. The question becomes mainly a political one.
The Devil Has Slippery Shoes raises, as does another recent fine book on a school that failed to survive, George Dennison’s The Lives of Children,* the question of how any interesting program can bring about radical changes in public education in the United States, and yet survive. The history of other projects poses the same question. The Children’s Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a small school run by Bill Ayers. It succeeded in involving both the black community of the city and the students themselves in the direction and the life of the school. The school managed to exist for several years. Ayers and one of the parents of the school ran for the school board in Ann Arbor, came close but didn’t win. At that point, the health department, the fire department, all the bureaucratic allies of the school board managed to harass the school out of existence. Other efforts along the same lines were defeated before they got going, such as Eric Mann’s Newark Community School.
All of these programs for educational change did not survive because they tried to change the public school system in one way or another. The CDGM tried to create a series of government-supported schools independent of the ones existing in Mississippi. The Children’s Community and the Newark Community School tried to create small independent schools that would be a basis for organizing communities to take control of the public schools.
The experimental schools that seem to survive (or at least the ones I know of) give up on the public schools system altogether. Many small private schools are springing up in California, for example, based loosely on the educational views of A. S. Neill or Montessori. Some of these schools charge tuition, and occasionally give scholarships to poor or black people to achieve some kind of social balance. However they are essentially institutions created by frustrated members of the middle class who can afford to bypass the public schools instead of having to fight to change them. Some of these New Schools, as they are called in California, have developed in communal settings to which many young people from the urban hippie community moved. These community schools are usually small and selfcontained; the teachers as well as the students are members of the commune. (The schools put out a bulletin which can be obtained from New Schools Exchange Newsletter, 2840 Hidden Valley Lane, Santa Barbara, California.)
Peter Marin, formerly principal of a New School (Pacific High) and now a resident at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, argued recently in a seminar in which I participated that the public schools are hopeless and should be abandoned altogether. He claims that education will change, and new approaches to learning emerge, only if no one shows up in school at all. I took an opposing view, that it is necessary to fight the schools, infiltrate them, get government or foundation money if possible, find sympathetic parents, help to initiate community control—to try anything because one cannot abandon the children who are forced to attend public school and for whom there is no alternative.
There is however one point on which I agree with Marin and it is a crucial one: The public school bureaucracy in the United States is a tenacious and vicious institution with considerable political power and the ability to destroy people who are financially dependent on it. Neither Federal funds nor grants from the foundations will provide the support necessary to change the public schools if local school districts in which changes are taking place do not continue to receive their share of the city and state budgets. The Ford Foundation, for example, helped to finance a community movement to take over control of the I.S. 201 schools in New York by giving money to groups of Harlem parents. But the I.S. 201 schools were able to continue with some degree of community control only because the city and state gave them financial support, and it is now extremely doubtful that this will continue.
Radical programs in education have been unable to find solid economic support independent of the public school system they are trying to change or take over. I feel that any group or individual who is serious about making public schools more humane and open places in which genuine learning takes place has to develop an autonomous economic base outside the public system itself. I don’t mean simply that teachers ought to moonlight or have extra jobs waiting for them if they get fired. I mean rather that teachers have to find ways in which they can continue working with their students whether or not their federal or foundation funds are cut off, and whether or not they are fired by local administrators. Too many of us have retreated from the students we worked with just because the money stopped or the grant ended.
I don’t know precisely how this can be done but a group of us in Berkeley are trying to find ways to continue working with our students if the day should come when we are thrown out. Berkeley is a particularly good place for this at the moment—the school district, though suspicious of us, is nevertheless willing to have teachers experiment with new approaches and has given us some support. We are exploring possibilities of opening an educational bookstore-coffeehouse, of getting an offset press and printing curriculum materials and writing by students, of running a theater group, a rock band, a series of shops, a photography studio, an underground cinema, a food cooperative, a housing rehabilitation service, etc.
All of these activities will depend on the participation of our students, and should offer the kinds of possibilities for learning about themselves and society that we try to provide in the classroom. We want this program to have a realistic economic relation to the Berkeley community, providing things and services that people will need and be willing to pay for. This plan could be of benefit to students by letting them do work of a kind that interests them and enabling them to learn skills; and it could help us to survive. We are also trying to sponsor teacher-training seminars and to provide places for teachers to meet and share ideas and strategies for working in the classroom and dealing with administrators. Our existence is still tenuous but we think we have found a way to stay in the community we want to change.
The CDGM was absorbed. However Liberty House, a poor people’s cooperative based in Mississippi, with retail outlets for its handicrafts and pottery in New York and Berkeley, has somehow managed to survive. Suppose the people involved in CDGM had put the time and effort they wasted on writing proposals and haggling with Sargent Shriver and his staff into building a modest economic base for the support of the CDGM nurseries, which provided badly needed help for the poor in Mississippi. I suspect that some of the veterans of CDGM might still be in Mississippi and, by now, relatively autonomous. They might also have provided a model for a new cluster of institutions that would surround the schools and add much to the defective education in them, while creating an economic base for a sustained attack on the public school system itself.
October 9, 1969