One of the most surprising things about teaching Shakespeare to intellectually disabled teenagers is how easy it is. It takes practice and patience, but once you understand what it actually means to teach Shakespeare, you can get those ninth graders arguing about Julius Caesar or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or pretty much any complex text as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. The hard part is figuring out what it actually means to teach, and study, a work of literature.
This is a pressing concern for the growing socialist movement in the U.S. which has over the last couple of years received an infusion of new blood and energy. Many of socialism’s new recruits come with little to no background in socialist or political theory. This is not a bad thing. Any socialist movement worthy of the name will be composed of comrades of disparate backgrounds, interests, and educational experiences. At the same time, if our goal is to build socialism from below, we must make sure that the movement we build doesn’t reproduce the antidemocratic hierarchies and divisions of labor produced by the radically antidemocratic society we are working to overthrow. Which brings us back to how we teach and study literature.
As a socialist who’s also a special education teacher, I’m regularly reminded of how well the principles of bottom-up, democratic, anti-capitalist organizing fit with the principles of organizing a democratic, inclusive classroom. A quick note on the word “inclusive”: in the world of special education, inclusion refers to practices designed to counteract the inherently exclusive, ableist character of schools and classrooms which traditionally privilege speed (how quickly can you solve the problem?), domination (class participation = speaking a lot), and obedience to authority. In such a context, the term inclusive is a tacit acknowledgment that education, as nearly all of us experience it, is designed to exclude all but those who possess speed of mind (which has nothing to do with depth of thought), the will to dominate, and an eagerness to please authority. Disability is the blanket category applied to those who lack these qualities. For socialists, the ultimate goal is not “inclusion,” but the transformation of an educational system that rewards eager, assertive sycophants with academic success. For the time being, inclusive classrooms are subversive spaces that can serve as models for the schools and society we hope to build.
In many ways, a well-organized special education classroom embodies the broad characteristics of a democratic, communist society. In such classrooms, the production of knowledge and analysis is not the province of one expert teacher or even an elite cadre of highly intellectual students who feed their wisdom down to their less skilled peers. Instead, the production of knowledge is distributed horizontally among groups of students who work cooperatively to develop new ideas, questions, and analyses of the problems we’re studying. In such a classroom, the role of experts is not to deliver prefabricated positions or conclusions to their disciples, but to use their expertise to identify the key tensions, contradictions, or questions underlying a given text or curriculum and present them to the group as clearly as possible. Exploring such tensions, contradictions, questions is what education actually is, whether that education is in a high school classroom or a socialist organization.
In what follows, I lay out a few core principles and methods that I use in my special education teaching and explain how they might be applied to the socialist study group. After all, reading is reading and learning is learning. If our political education work is not developing new intellectual leaders, it is not because the texts are too dense or the new comrades are too green: it is because socialist organizations often cling to outdated, ableist pedagogy in our political education work.
The Text is Not the Point
The point of building a socialist organization is not to build organizations; it is to create a vehicle for struggle. When we fetishize the organization, we miss the point of our organizing which is to generate and sustain struggle.
Similarly, the point of organizing socialist study groups is not to organize study groups; it is to create vehicles for intellectual struggle. The texts we study in these groups are there to facilitate this struggle. If we fetishize the text or reading list, we miss the point of the socialist study group which is not to master a series of texts, but rather to generate and sustain intellectual struggle and growth.
As suggested above, texts facilitate struggle and growth by revealing tensions, contradictions, and questions that drive readers toward a critical understanding of capitalism and its attendant horrors. Therefore, the point of the study group is not to study texts, but to study the tensions, contradictions, and questions these texts illuminate. The text is not the point.
If the text is not the point, it does not matter if comrades read the whole book or article that we are studying. It only matters that the book or article has been presented in such a way that it leads comrades towards the tensions, contradictions, and questions we want to explore. If the text is not the point, the job of the study group leader is not to create and assign a list of important texts, but rather to identify the key tensions, contradictions, and questions that the study group will explore. Then, the study group leader should identify passages within texts that will illuminate these and point the study group towards them.
Accepting that the text is not the point is a critical step toward making our study groups more inclusive of neurodiverse comrades. The fact is, most of the comrades who feel comfortable taking the lead in socialist study groups are the comrades who’ve had the easiest time with reading, and have deep attachments to the books they deem important. Such comrades are probably strong readers and are unlikely to understand how complex and demanding reading is for a huge portion of the population. Comrades who struggle with reading – whether because of dyslexia, slow processing speed, poor vision, or any of the myriad obstacles that can interfere with this complex, multi-faceted process – have to work much harder (literally, they must do far more labor) than these well-read study group leaders simply to keep up in a study group. Building our study groups around tensions, contradictions, and questions – rather than around texts – allows comrades who experience reading in a variety of ways to engage fully in the group. Even if they have not labored through the entire text, they will have grappled with the key passages the group leader identified and with the tensions, contradictions, and questions therein. They will come to the study group ready to struggle through the same problems as their comrades and will not have been asked to perform considerably more labor than their comrades simply to have the experience of participation.
A Reading List is Not a Curriculum
In my experience in multiple socialist organizations, study groups are usually organized around a list of texts that address a unified theme or concept. These texts are sometimes ordered in a logical sequence; these sequences often reflect the group leader’s sense of how texts are most thematically or historically connected to one another. This is a fine way to plan a reading list, but a reading list is not a curriculum.
Just as the text is not the point of the study group, the list of texts is not the curriculum. A curriculum is composed of a series of clearly articulated questions, tensions, or contradictions that relate to and build upon each other.
For example, when I am teaching The Odyssey to my ninth graders, my students move from Book 17-23 (the books where Odysseus returns home to reclaim his place and identity) through a series of lessons built around the following questions: Is there any such thing as the self? Can one person have multiple selves? Is the self composed of the stories we tell? What makes a hero different from an ordinary person? Is the capacity for violence an essential heroic quality? Is justice possible without violence? Is love a type of violence? Questions such as these, asked in clear, direct language, are accessible to readers and thinkers at all levels.
Identifying and clearly articulating the concepts and questions that comrades will be exploring when we study a text is a key step for designing inclusive study groups. A sequence of such questions – rather than a list of books deemed essential by the experts – form the backbone of an inclusive curriculum. These questions become a common lens through which comrades who have widely varied levels of comfort and experience with dense, theoretical texts can view such texts. They also give comrades newer to theory a clear focus for their reading. Rather than trying to master a whole text, they can approach a study group’s weekly assignment focused on questions like: How is value determined? How does labor generate profit? What is a commodity?
Incidentally, the questions above all might be used to provide a focus for a group studying sections of Capital: Volume One. One of the great things about Marx’s writing is that his arguments are often structured in such a way as to lend themselves to the type of inclusive study I propose. The opening of Capital and its discussion of the nature of the commodity, and of value, are perfectly designed for a study group that wants to explore the nature of capitalist production via a series of clear conceptual questions.
In a study group focused on Capital: Volume One, designing a curriculum would mean identifying the questions comrades will use as lenses through which to choose each chapter, rather than simply deciding at what pace the chapters will be read.
Simplified Texts Are Elitist, Not Inclusive
I mention Capital not only because it’s a perfect text to approach via a series of questions and tensions. Capital is a foundational and challenging text. It is exactly the type of book that comrades should be studying, and it is exactly the kind of book that comrades who struggle with reading may find intimidating. To deal with this intimidation, well- meaning comrades may propose that we scrap Capital from our reading groups in favor of simpler, more accessible texts. Others may propose reading simplified versions of Capital that “translate” Marx’s language into something more like conversational English. While both of these proposals may seem inclusive on the surface, they in fact function to exclude comrades of varied reading disabilities from the intellectual life of the socialist organization.
In schools, teachers often make the same mistake with Shakespeare’s writings. While mainstream students read Romeo and Juliet in its intended language, students who struggle with reading are given modified versions of the text that simplify Shakespeare’s language to make it seem more accessible. The result is a deepening of the divide between “abled” and disabled students, who are participating in separate and unequal reading experiences. While the abled are encouraged to struggle through Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, the disabled are patted on the head for reading a modified text of no literary value. In fact, students who struggle with reading are the ones most in need of challenging texts because the only way to become a stronger reader is to read texts that stretch your capacities.
This basic principle is part of why Jacobin’s “ABC’s of Socialism,” while well-intentioned, is actually a perfect embodiment of the type of the ableist thinking that dominates much of the academic left. The book is built around a series of misconceptions about socialism that the authors – overwhelmingly academics and professional intellectuals – spend the book correcting. It is never clear who the audience is (would anyone who asks the question “Don’t the rich deserve to keep most of their money?” actually buy a book with this title?) but it is clear that the editors don’t believe their audience is capable of grappling with the deep theoretical questions and contradictions that make studying socialist theory intoxicating and inspiring.
Rather than approaching our comrades and potential recruits as schoolchildren in need of correction, the intellectual leaders of the socialist movement would do well to adopt the approach proposed by radical educator Paulo Freire in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire writes that the purpose of education, for any who seek to use it in the service of human liberation, is not to deliver correctives to the masses, but to present our comrades with complex, deeply meaningful intellectual problems. Through the process of solving such problems, according to Freire, people can “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves [so that we may] come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”
The late Seamus Heaney defined our task quite well when he wrote, “If our given experience is a labyrinth, its impassibility can still be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and presenting himself and us with a vivid experience of it.” If we (the poet), simplify our labyrinth or offer or comrades shortcuts through it, we are not being inclusive; we are depriving them of the opportunity to solve important problems and to solve them collectively.
The Best Way to Learn is to Teach.
If all this sounds like hard work: that’s because it is. Reading texts closely enough that you not only comprehend them, but also can identify the many tensions, questions, and contradictions that animate them, is exhausting. Articulating these tensions, questions, and contradictions in the form of clear, direct questions is also exhausting; yet, this is what teachers do, whether we’re teaching Shakespeare, Fanon, or Luxemburg. Thus, if we want comrades of all disabilities and experience to be full participants in the intellectual life of our movement, we must help them become teachers.
The socialist study group is the perfect place for comrades to develop their teaching skills. In a wonderful article about teaching theory to undergraduates, Professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins lays out a systematic, step-by-step approach to helping newbies to theory become teachers of theory. The methods she lays out are straightforward and could easily be applied to a study group on any topic.
In my ninth grade English classes, about two-thirds of the way through the year, I put my students into groups and assign each group a book of The Odyssey to teach. The students are often terrified – after all, they’re students, not teachers. They’ve been conditioned to be passive in their intellectual lives and to trust their expert teachers. Taking control of a lesson – which means making weighty decisions about the meaning of a text – is the opposite of passively receiving their ABCs. Nevertheless, these groups of 14-year-olds always find some unexpected way to approach Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, or his ordeal with the sirens. Without fail, they approach the process of teaching seriously and develop new intellectual powers through that process. They are able to do so because they have been presented, as Freire might put it, with a meaningful real-world problem and been given the freedom to work together to solve it.
Both Freire and Wazana Tompkins propose methods of teaching that could form the basis for socialist study groups that are far more functional and engaging than much of what is currently on offer in our movement. More than simply their methods, a critical ingredient lies beneath: trust and confidence in their students. If we do not have faith that all of our varied comrades are equally capable of contributing to the intellectual life of our movement, than we do not really believe in democracy, socialism from below, or any type of revolutionary social transformation.
At the root of all ableism is fear of difference. In many socialist groups, not being an academic or professional activist well-versed in socialist jargon is a form of difference. Is it any surprise then that even as the socialist movement continues to grow, its publications almost solely feature the works of graduate students and faculty, staff activists, and elite media professionals? Is it any wonder when these movement professionals refuse to turn over the reins of their political education programs to their comrades because they are worried these comrades might not promote the correct line or arrive at the right conclusions?
As our movement grows and gains new and unprecedented energy, we must prioritize political education. If we fail to rapidly develop a broad new layer of intellectual leaders during this apparent upsurge, our movement will fragment and contract when the assaults on it grow more vicious and intense. If we fail to trust our comrades to do more than canvass and knock on doors, why would we trust them to lead the new world we are going to build? If we don’t trust them to do that, how different are we from the elitist professionals who currently govern our schools, our cities, and our society?