On October 28, 2017, NYU Metro Center brought together a panel of experts to discuss ways that educators can help resolve one of the world’s most pressing problems: the global suffering of hurting people. Following the event, we published an article on the NYU Metro Center blog, titled Marching Closer to Our North Stars: Notes on Education for Liberation, in what we hoped would be the beginning of a long set of conversations about inspiring justice through education by blurring borders of geography—from Chicago to Caracas. We had no idea then that, less than two years later, the world would turn its focus to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. In this blog, we offer thoughts on how the crisis positions education in a world where despots threaten freedom.
Our October 28, 2017 event featured a passionate dialogue, affirming that Black, Brown, poor, and indigenous lives do matter, that the survival of vulnerable children across our globe cannot be waged in the open with bombs and grenades. It must be won on another battlefield—in our classrooms. To understand the magnitude of this conclusion, we felt it important to understand the global scale of human suffering. Thus, we focused on cities in Venezuela (Caracas) and in the U.S. (Chicago).
In 2016 alone, Venezuela had an estimated 28,479 homicides while in the same year the U.S., a country more than 10 times larger, had an estimated 17,250 homicides.1 In Venezuela, violence has been made systematic through destabilizing government actions of displacement, institutionalized corruption, stripped democracy, heightened military and police corruption, politicization of judicial systems, dismantling of protections for vulnerable people, the exploitation of resources, the shutdown of media outlets, entrenched poverty, and extreme levels of desperation, including visceral conditions that inspire famine and drought, all of which disproportionately and consistently target vulnerable people.
In his 2019 State of the Union Address, President Trump suggested that the crisis in Venezuela was caused by socialism, pledging that the U.S. will never be a “socialist” country. “Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” the president said. “America was founded on liberty and independence—not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free . . . Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
The crisis in Venezuela seems removed from many people in the U.S., including the president. However, the tragedies that sweep across American cities suggest that this crisis is closer to us than we like to believe. In the U.S., suffering among vulnerable people is likewise abetted by legislation and state-sanctioned practices that have supported the militarization of the police and of vigilantism, extrajudicial killings, mass deportations, the world’s highest incarceration rates, racial and socioeconomic segregation, invasion of privacy, health and food deserts, and a housing crisis, all of which disproportionately target Black and Brown bodies—the tragedies of economic oppression and racism are dark legacies of both the U.S. and Venezuela since the arrival of the first colonial settlers. The crisis in Venezuela may have little to do with socialism, but rather a familiar form of national despotism fueling crises across American cities.
At the root of these crises is a fundamental set of questions about the inequities it breeds across our globe, including conditions that hurt children and obstruct learning. Thus, it would be a mistake to think of issues of global suffering outside the context of how compliance and negligence are achieved. That is, it would be impossible to discuss solutions to the rise of despots and the threatening conditions they inspire absent a discussion of education. As we argued in a previous post, education has the potential to move our humanity closer to liberation. Education that does not end in liberation is not education, but what educational Marxists see as indoctrinating systems (“ideological state apparatuses”), which promote further forms of violence.
There is no middle ground here. Philosophers of education have theorized at least two purposes of education—to prepare either citizens (i.e., civic readiness) or elites and workers (i.e., career and college readiness). Each of these purposes is too often funneled through the machinery of the state, and it doesn’t matter if that state is governed by democracy or dictatorship, whether its economic principles are socialist or capitalist; the state—regardless the political regime—has often used education to subjugate rather than liberate. History has suggested that whenever a despotic leader achieves power over a nation, this condition intensifies.
What the crisis in Venezuela teaches us is that there is no room in education for compliance or for the maintenance of a culture of rule that oppresses people to affirm its control. According to Paulo Freire, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Freire implies a third and, we think, most essential purpose of education: that is, to liberate. Education for liberation requires deep study and contemplation that can only be meaningful when it transcends thinking confined to borders, which are hegemonic by definition. Classrooms are the natural places where this type of study is possible, and yet in both the U.S. and Venezuela the most critical site of education—schools—is part of an establishment sanctioned by the same state that sanctions violence against vulnerable bodies. This is what we see throughout Venezuela; it is also what we see throughout the U.S.
We suggest that advocates for social liberation do not abandon schools, but work to reframe them using the steps we describe below:
- We must stop educating to govern and begin educating to liberate. Schools may be the only societal institution that could possibly make this shift, although the caution here is relying on the state to reform them, which, as we have established, works in strict opposition to liberation and peace. How do we use education in ways where learners can identify the institutionalized and normalized practices within education systems (a) that exclude them from decision-making, (b) that segregate them, (c) that privilege ideologies, narratives and ways of thinking, and (d) that socially stratify learners within hierarchies of value that serve the state’s project of control?
- Education must be localized, globalized, and everything in between. Within this revised context, we can engage new questions about the ways that states oppress through, for example, global capitalism, privatization movements that profit from murder within and outside the term “war,” and other contributors and sustainers. If we simply accept how states and organizations define violence, if we do not consider violence from different angles, then we are complicit in our evasiveness and we cannot ask the questions that might frame our liberation and the liberation of others.
- Education must frame schools as sites of sanctuary. In the way that colonization erodes sovereignty and erases people, education must do the opposite: that is, give fugitive people reprieve. To do this, we must ask: how might the project of education commit to safety from forces of power that homogenize, silence, and erase?
- Education must resist, but it also must create something beyond resistance. The critical consciousness that allows learners to see “the master’s tools” is crucial, but what is done with that knowledge is perhaps more important. If learner identities remain only in constant opposition to the state, then transcending the confines of the state will not be possible. Teaching the opposite of hate and violence is what transcends resistance—that is, how do we teach for love and acceptance, embrace pluralism,2 and allow learners to create new realities with these lessons?
We have learned from the crisis in Venezuela (and beyond it) that current framings of education cannot and will not accomplish the tasks of ending human suffering and advancing freedom. According to Audre Lorde, “. . . the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” In the midst of the crisis in Venezuela and the crises in the U.S., we are reminded that the seeds of revolution begin with a commitment to constant reflection, a reframing of education itself, and a discovery of the master’s tools and the ways they are ever redesigned—and the will needed to see beyond them.
1 Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. (2016). 2016: OVV estima 28.479 muertes violentas en Venezuela. Retrieved from: https://observatoriodeviolencia.org.ve/2016-ovv-estima-28-479-muertes-violentas-en-venezuela/. We also note that in both cases these homicide numbers are large. By comparing extremes, one gets a picture of how dire the crisis is in Venezuela.
2 Southern Poverty Law Center. (2017). Ten ways to fight hate: A community resource guide. Retrieved from: https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide
David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Pamela D’Andrea Martínez is a research scientist for the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, an adjunct professor at New York University, and a doctoral student in urban education at New York University. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.