By James Anderson


Finishing work at the end of this last academic term resulted, for me, in two realizations.

First, I fucked up (more on this later).

Second, the existing higher education system, and the socioeconomic system within which it operates, is even more soul crushing and sick than I previously grasped.

The realizations have led me to wonder to what extent transformative pedagogical work is possible within the existing institution of higher learning. Similarly, I started more seriously considering whether it makes sense for educators to embrace critical public pedagogies outside the classroom while working to change the system within which they labor. Conversely, I started considering to what degree the dominant, market-driven mode of education actively undermines compassionate and quality pedagogy. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated and intensified, as well as more roundly called into question, that dominant mode of education and the larger system that it helps reproduce. The recent wave of protest in response to enduring and repeated racist state violence also gives us reason to pose the prevailing system of education and deeper systemic patterns as relational problems.

After explaining the above, I want to argue for a critical public pedagogy capable of translating superficially individual problems into social struggles while conveying what kind of critique and collective action can enable us to transcend the existing educational and societal systems. I will go on to posit that a critical public pedagogy of “abolition democracy,” an educative philosophy and practice I expound upon below, might be just what we need during this critical juncture.

Allow me to explain.

My Mea Culpa

As stated before, I fucked up.

To understand why requires recounting some recent history.

In a scene grotesquely reminiscent to what happened to the chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, decades ago, police murdered 26-year-old Breonna Taylor when they forcibly entered Taylor’s Louisville, Ky., apartment in the middle of the night and shot her eight times on March 13. Barely two months after police killed Taylor, an officer in Minneapolis, Minn., murdered George Floyd when he kneeled on the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25 – despite Floyd desperately crying out, “I can’t breathe,” just as Eric Garner did a few years before him when police in New York City were strangling him to death.

Uprisings against racist police violence exploded across the US soon after Floyd’s murder.

I did not immediately make an announcement in my classes about what happened to Floyd or about the demonstrations against racism and state violence that swept the country. I didn’t think students would want to hear from me on the matter, and I didn’t want to presume I knew what best to say to them. My classes at one school were also all online this past term, which meant there was an inescapable dearth of intimacy in interactions with students. I never met those students in person. Not feeling more connected with them, and knowing they surely felt the student-instructor relationship was far more distant in the remote instruction environment, I was reluctant to address what I should have sooner. In one class, I discussed recent events in light of history when recording a lecture about Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool (1969), which grapples with social conflicts surrounding race and features footage of the protests and police repression that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That was insufficient, to say the least.

I fear what I went on to communicate to students in my classes was too little, too late.

No matter what I should have said, I regret not making other concrete changes to the curriculum toward the end of the term, especially at the university where I teach.

The Black Student Union – along with a representative from the Sisters Affirming our Socio-Cultural Identities student organization and two officers from the undergraduate student government, not to mention signatories from multiple campus organizations – sent a letter to the chancellor and to the university’s administration on May 31. In the letter they demanded, among other things, the cancellation of (or postponement of or the option to take or not to take) final exams.

None of my classes featured finals. Students had major work due prior to finals week, though. Since most of that that work was assigned weeks (in some cases months) prior, many students completed the work long before the due dates toward the end of the term. That being the case, I was hesitant to scrap the work due toward the end and to reorganize the curriculum in those classes. I told students at the very end of the quarter that they could receive, if requested, an Incomplete, which could maybe help lessen the workload during a time of grieving and mobilizing. I also told them I was willing to give anyone who requested it a Satisfactory/No Credit option in lieu of a final grade. And I extended the window of submissions for a final project slightly, keeping in mind the grading that would still need to be done (primarily by the two TAs in the one class I taught with TAs – and  ~150 students enrolled).

In retrospect, I wish I had arrived at a solution that better accounted for the ways recent events impacted students.

Even with the new full-time job of answering emails the pandemic produced for instructors, I tried to promptly to respond to the flood of messages I received from students (and others) throughout the quarter. Yet I regret being too terse with replies and at times becoming frustrated at having to repeat what I already wrote and explained.

In preparation for a summer course, I tried to make some adjustments to the syllabus and to course policies to avoid making some of the mistakes I made during the spring term.

Yet issues remain in terms of trying to teach effectively and empathetically – let alone trying to practice anything akin to a transformative pedagogy – not just for me, but for anyone within the higher education context alluded to above.

The System is Sick

Writing in early May about the impact of the pandemic on public higher education, Corey Robin pointed to the political and historical decisions “which have slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, shifted the burden of higher education from public to private sources. The tax subsidies for big gifts to Harvard and Yale find their counterpart in the proportion of revenues that public colleges and universities now derive from tuition.” In 2017, as Robin noted, public post-secondary institutions started receiving more money from tuition than from public funds, indicating an insidious shift in social values that had developed over decades of disparaging notions of the common good.

In his piece, Robin recalls how working class pressure – not “sentimentality about the poor nor a noblesse oblige of good works” – provoked significant public support for colleges and universities during and soon after the Great Depression.

Economist Richard Wolff has argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the US toward a depression far greater than what the country experienced in the 1930s. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in early July that unemployment fell by 2.2 percentage points to 11.1 percent in June, but that still leaves 17.8 million people without reliable income. Yet the numbers have been deceptively lower the last few months because of classification problems. The decrease in unemployment numbers in June also has a lot to do with the nascent reopening of the economy, which has subsequently resulted in an explosion of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

In California, hospitalizations related to COVID-19 increased 56 percent toward the end of June, and in counties like Riverside – where I reside – hospitals have come close to reaching surge capacity, according to the Los Angeles Times. Across the US, some 53,000 new coronavirus cases were reported on July 3, slightly below the record of more than 55,000 set the previous day. Less than a week later, Riverside County set a new record for COVID-19 cases and deaths – 1,377 and 18 respectively. Statewide, even with the governor rolling back the reopening and placing 33 counties containing 92 percent of California’s population on a watchlist, the number of confirmed cases started to creep toward 400,000 as we neared late July while counted deaths due to COVID-19 surpassed the 7,700 mark, a coronavirus tracker maintained by the LA Times revealed. That is still less than the 32,400 the virus killed in New York, but it represents a growing number of the more than 138,000 killed by the virus nationwide. Across the US, total cases exceeded 3.6 million on July 19, an increase of more than 74,000 new cases since the day before, per CDC numbers. Whether this is a “second wave” of the pandemic or a continuation of the initial wave that prompted a delayed response leading to the economic shutdown and shelter-in-place directives back in March is unclear. What is clear is that the pain and suffering seem far from over, and none of this bodes well for an economic recovery that could benefit working people.

The dual dangers faced by workers within a pandemic-riddled capitalism make the prospects for a smooth, speedy recovery appear preposterous. Soon after the shutdown, those deemed “essential workers” faced the choice of risking their lives and health by working in situations that could expose them to the virus, or risking their livelihoods by deciding not to go to work and losing jobs and income as a result. Many of these workers organized in response, demanding employers improve working conditions in ways that would limit transmission of the coronavirus and reduce their likelihood of contracting COVID-19 on the job. Only a week after baristas at the once-beloved Augie’s Coffee in Riverside, and at other locations in Southern California’s Inland Empire, tried to unionize in late June, the owners shutdown the IE cafés and laid off 54 employees, putatively because of the pandemic but, workers believe, as a crass union-busting tactic. The beleaguered baristas created a fundraiser campaign in response, and people can still show solidarity by donating to it.

The Augie’s example illustrates additional obstacles to successful organizing and the enlarged arsenal of repressive tactics available to employers during this critical juncture, though even transnational conglomerates are evidently not immune to the educative effects of a livid labor resurgence punctuated by people, deprived of economic democracy and the wealth they create, fighting for a livable future. In industries where Black workers are disproportionately represented, thousands plan to walk off the job and participate in a Strike for Black Lives demonstration on July 20 to pressure corporations like Amazon, Uber and McDonalds to pay a living wage and support unionization. Notably, the American Federation of Teachers is supporting the strike, along with other labor unions and organizations.

Despite the increasingly dire working conditions far too many now regularly contend with, I suspect we will see more strikes in the coming weeks and months. I sincerely hope we do so long as those conditions remain dire and disruptive direct action based on withholding labor remains the most efficacious kind of contestation in the socioeconomic sphere.

To get a firmer grip on this conjuncture, add to the perilous labor situation frustrations over layoffs, concerns over where rent money is going to come from next month, as well as the stress and anguish associated with the isolation-inducing quarantine. Those factors surely helped catalyze the wave of rebellions that swept the US after video went viral of a police officer killing George Floyd. The similarities between police choking the life out of Eric Garner just a few years prior surely made the most recent incident of state terror and lethal, anti-Black policing even more incendiary. Legacies of anti-Blackness and interrelated police violence in the US, as well as the movement for abolition of the prison industrial complex and the evolving Black Lives Matter movement organizing that emerged after unrest followed the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., no doubt furnished historical fuel for the recent protests.

Yet Robin was right to point to the organizing during the Great Depression that helped realize meaningful changes in the socioeconomic structure. In “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail,” Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward recounted how

as the depression worsened, as the work forces of entire factories were laid off, as whole neighborhoods in industrial towns were devastated, and at least some political leaders began to acknowledge that a disaster had occurred, attitudes toward what had happened and why, and who was to blame, began to change among some of the unemployed. They began to define their personal hardship not just as their own individual misfortune but as misfortune they shared with many of their own kind. And if so many people were in the same trouble, then maybe it wasn’t they who were to blame, but ‘the system.’

Crucially, people’s perceptions of ostensibly individual failures evolved. People came to comprehend Depression-era personal hardships as outgrowths of social problems requiring collective action to address. Piven and Cloward argued that the kind of collective action most readily available to the scores of unemployed persons rendered disposable by the Depression involved institutional disruption.

From New York to Oklahoma, bands of the unemployed engaged in organized looting to obtain food in 1930, Piven and Cloward documented. Marches and demonstrations, they noted, took place in major cities across the US on March 6, International Unemployment Day. Early on, the press did not report on the organized looting and related mobilizations “for fear of creating a contagion effect,” and later the press referred to the actions as riots. As the Depression persisted, Chicago “became the scene of frequent ‘rent riots,’ especially in the black neighborhoods where unemployment reached catastrophic proportions and evictions were imminent,” Piven and Cloward wrote. The militant “tactics frequently culminated in beatings, arrests, and even killings, but they also forced relief officials to give out money for rent payments,” the authors observed.

As the authors made clear, a tradition of community and labor organizing antedated the Depression-era actions. In the early 1870s, anarchists in Chicago organized large meetings of the unemployed under a “Bread or Blood” banner, which led to a 20,000-person march on City Hall and subsequent storming of relief offices that compelled the city to provide relief for an additional 10,000 people the following year.

“These experiences suggest that when unemployment is severe and widespread, at least a partial transvaluation may occur among the poor,” Piven and Cloward surmised. Their work suggests a transvaluation of beliefs about circumstances and lived conditions can be brought on by extreme social dislocation, “and just as the scale of the calamity in the 1930s was unparalleled, so too was the protest movement that arose among the unemployed.”

Industrial uprisings also punctuated the period. “Desperation strikes to resist wage cuts,” Piven and Cloward wrote, “erupted among textile workers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.” Some 150,000 miners went on strike in southern Illinois in the spring of 1932, “and by summer the coal-mining countries of southern Illinois had become a battleground between armies of miners and deputies as thousands of miners descended on the still-operating mines to shut them down.”

After Roosevelt took office in 1933, his administration passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. It stipulated policies for wages and hours and formally instantiated the right to collectively bargain; although the state’s promises would not all be upheld, Piven and Cloward pointed out, the NIRA nevertheless emboldened the spirit of downtrodden workers. Later, unsatisfied with the New Deal, workers would build a movement based on withholding labor. Drawing on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Piven and Cloward highlighted the fact industrial disputes rose from 841 in 1932 to 1,856 in 1934, as 1.5 million workers took to the picket lines.

They went on to note that after an ephemeral economic recovery in 1934, working conditions worsened again – yet passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which backed workers’ rights to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining in 1935, “only reaffirmed for [working people] the justice of their struggle and their sense that victories could be won.” Workers launched sit-down strikes in the GM Fisher Body plants in Cleveland and in Flint, Mich., and sit-down strikes spread to plants in Detroit and a factory in Indiana, while walkout strikes took place in cities like St. Louis and Toledo. There were 48 reported sit-down strikes in 1936, Piven and Cloward commented, but “in 1937 there were about 500 such strikes lasting more than a day and involving about 400,000 workers.” Severe “economic and social dislocations” underpinned massive labor struggles that decade, and Piven and Cloward claimed the struggles were victorious in several key ways (e.g. they garnered wage concessions, better working hours, social safety net policies at the federal level, the right to organize and union recognition despite initially staunch resistance from the business class).

Similarly, significant “economic and social dislocations” brought on by the 2020 pandemic, coupled with evidence of state-sanctioned racist violence repeating itself, probably did more than just spur rebellion. The confluence of factors also revealed the systemic nature of deep-seated social problems, clarifying for many the futility of individualism divorced from the social struggles required to liberate our individuality.

Put another way, COVID-19 and graphic evidence of ever-more police murders of Black persons lit a fuse. Righteous rebellion ensued, as did courageous organizing efforts among workers whose jobs are most likely to expose them to the coronavirus.

While the full pedagogical effects of all this won’t be known for some time, we do know the disruptive tactics elicited a backlash. The NLRA of 1935 should have protected the kinds of organizing that employers like Amazon have fired workers for doing during the pandemic, as Josh Eidelson noted. Yet, it did not – hence the reason to return to the argument in favor of institutional disruption put forward by Piven and Cloward.

Their indictment of over-emphasis on electoral and legislative strategies at the expense of potent, grassroots level agitation still holds weight. Their critique of channeling local and organic unrest into ineffectual organizational forms is also instructive, though I think it could use additional nuance. To be sure, bureaucratic business unionism with top-down and employer placating decision-making could function to subdue a lot of potentially transformative civil unrest going forward. Trade unions, bereft of a larger, more radical labor movement, also leave the underlying socioeconomic system and its penchant for recurring and exacerbating crises intact. On the other hand, labor unions, tenants unions and the like can embody in embryonic form the rudiments of another society that does not (yet) exist, but is perhaps struggling to be born, to borrow part of a famous line from the late Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci. Those incipient forms might also help forge “a new world in the shell of the old,” to draw from the old Industrial Workers of the World adage.

Any way you slice, it seems to me that the existing system was and is sick. The global outbreak of COVID-19 made our sickness, previously papered over in part with veneers of consumerism and myths of meritocracy, more readily apparent. As myriad pundits and public intellectuals have already said, the pandemic laid bare the shortcomings of a system that has generated mass immiseration – and concomitant resistance – for generations.

The pandemic further revealed the failures of our society, and it fundamentally altered the social and economic landscape. Likewise, protests and the deliberate disruptions of everyday life following the murder of George Floyd have revealed an unprecedented level of indignation over the persistence of racist violence and over the immense social harm produced by policing that purportedly serves to address harm. With calls to defund the police entering the mainstream, there is reason to think, or at least hope, this wave of unrest could lead to significant structural change.

Historical forces have also placed a spotlight on the unsustainable and unjust operation of higher education. Moreover, these forces have affected colleges and universities in ways that could irrevocably alter those institutions. That portentous prospect raises a question: Could the pedagogical import of the pandemic and the public pedagogy of protest provide impetus for intentional reorganization of the academy from the ground up?

In light of the critical juncture we find ourselves in, I tend to think so. I suspect such reorganization will require a critical public pedagogy capable of transforming the dominant values and conceptions responsible for social reproduction.

Abolition Democracy as Critical Public Pedagogy

Pedagogy occurs in the classroom, as we know. In contrast, public pedagogy, as used here, encompasses an informal mode of education that occurs outside formal learning environments. We can refer, as Henry Giroux has, to the corporate public pedagogy of a conglomerate like Disney, which commodifies innocence in ways that belie how education implies notions of citizenship and culture that are never innocent. Drawing on Giroux, we can think about neoliberalism as a form of public pedagogy that reduces democratic decision-making and people’s agency to consumer choices on the market while it replaces public spheres with spaces defined by commercial logics of profit maximization and self-interest.

The recent protests against racism and racist policing are also, in my view, forms of critical public pedagogy. The protests have altered people’s understanding of state power and race in the United States. The protests have reshaped commonsense views of policing, allowing previously taboo philosophies of PIC (prison industrial complex) abolition to enter political discourse. Popular language has changed, but so too has people’s understanding of what is possible and what is necessary. It seems possible that the US might be compelled to reckon with the history of racial capitalism, and much of the public appears to have reached the conclusion that this is (finally) an urgent matter. There is a sense that in this unparalleled historical moment we can take small, meaningful steps – like defunding the police – “on a broad stairway toward abolition,” as human rights attorney Derecka Purnell described in a piece about becoming a police abolitionist.

Moreover, street and neighborhood mobilizations and the organizing undergirding the uprisings perform a pedagogical function. By coming together in a struggle to realize (and to reconceptualize) justice, despite and even because of the risky context posed by the pandemic, people are rediscovering sociality. They are engaging in corporeal learning, which Jennifer Sandlin and Jennifer Milam have suggested is a key facet of critical public pedagogy.

I want to suggest educators within and against academia in its extant form consider adopting and developing a critical public pedagogy aligned with “abolition democracy,” the theory and practice popularized by Angela Davis, who borrowed the concept from W.E.B. DuBois.

In his “Black Reconstruction in America,” DuBois detailed how the abolition of slavery in 1865 only abolished that pernicious, “peculiar institution” in a negative sense. The brief period of Reconstruction that followed formal emancipation held promise. However, the government’s refusal to protect the democratic participation of ex-slaves for any extended period of time, as well as persistent and intensified forms of repression – like the Black Codes, the convict leasing system, public lynchings and police terror – ensured the abolitionist project remained incomplete. The positive construction of anti-racist community life conducive to meeting materials needs, and the creation of democratic institutions that could provide former slaves and the rest of the population substantive say over the decisions affecting their lives, never had the chance to take firm enough root to displace the vestiges of chattel bondage that continued to forestall freedom.

Davis applies those insights to PIC abolition. Defunding the police and emptying all the jails and prisons is only part of the “abolition democracy” project. That “abolition democracy” entails restorative and transformative justice work that steadily diminishes reliance on police and courts. It entails transcending a conception of justice predicated upon state violence and retribution. It entails organization of people that can respond to crises without a state-backed monopoly on violence and without arrests that leave predominantly poor people of color in cages or dead. It entails correspondence and solidarity with those struggling on the inside – with the more than two million people in the US locked in cages and made invisible (even to some abolitionists). It likely entails redirecting funds away from police and prisons and reinvesting them in, among other public goods, education.

In relation, it also most certainly entails concerted effort to transform the prevailing socioeconomic system driving so much of the poverty, despair and social tensions that engender harmful behaviors used as justification for mass criminalization. Education about the problems intrinsic to the system, and practical education focused on abolishing that system while laying the foundation for another possible world, are both, I think, critical facets of “abolition democracy” and indispensable for developing “abolition democracy” as a pedagogical project or critical public pedagogy imbued with the power to reconfigure our reality.

Pedagogues as Protagonists and Storytellers Creating a New World

Broadly speaking, any movement for thoroughgoing, informal education would be remiss not to espouse certain values that go against the grain. Along the same lines, it would be prematurely fatalistic not to articulate a vision for another world where formal higher education can truly thrive. A vision informed and amplified by a disruptive-and-necessarily-constructive public pedagogy of abolition democracy could help create the preconditions for a quality and compassionate classroom pedagogy. The pedagogical impact of the 2020 street demonstrations together with the dislocations created by a protracted pandemic produced an unprecedented opportunity that organizers are already seizing.

Experienced organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba explained in a May 2020 podcast the indispensable role of storytelling in organizing, and I too believe narrative needs to play a pivotal role in these ongoing efforts. Instructively, Kaba also cautioned against confusing telling with storytelling. The former often comes in the form of sharing startling statistics and presenting verifiable facts. That can be quite compelling, but combining evidence with stories about our struggles and ourselves can make figures and empirical data more meaningful and persuasive.

This recent New York Times op-ed by Amna Akbar illustrates the pedagogical power of storytelling. The author made the case that the convergence of movements to defund the police and to cancel rent represents “a new political moment” rife with hope for the future. That is, the author developed an appealing narrative regarding the elevated popularity of politically cognate ideas. Because of its appeal, the story has political – and pedagogical – potential.

Beyond persuasion, the stories we tell are critical when it comes to cultivating the relationships needed to build power to win. We would be remiss not to use the digital sphere, including social media as well as the other spaces where people might dwell or could be enticed to visit online, for participatory narrative that empowers people to envision themselves and others as protagonists in a changing story we can co-create. These new media spaces, when appropriated as part of an abolitionist public pedagogy, prove integral when it comes to aiding in the recovery of agency and in promoting the belief that systemic transformation is possible.

Speaking to the various projects she launched when interviewed for the aforementioned podcast, Kaba also stressed that the approaches that make someone an effective organizer are the same kinds of approaches that make someone an effective digital organizer. Setting clear goals, arriving at the best plan to achieve those goals, deciding what tactics to use concordant with the broader strategy, bringing people together to cooperatively brainstorm germane ideas in service of a project, and communicating in ways that reinforce solidarity in struggle are all useful for organizing IRL, as they say, and in the cybersphere.

Engagement with the digital world further reveals the desperate need for new paradigms to revivify journalism. As a report from the University of North Carolina Huffman School of Journalism and Media noted, a quarter of the newspapers in the United States that existed 15 years ago have disappeared, leaving 1,800 communities that had local news outlets circa 2004 without any such news source. There are also 6,000 fewer journalists now than there were in 2018, the report confirmed. Concurrent with those trends, the largest newspaper chains have grown larger “with the creation of a handful of highly leveraged mega-chains formed by the union of large publicly traded newspaper companies with large hedge funds and private equity firms,” empowering corporate executives without real connections with newsrooms to make decisions that affect the fate of journalism, as the report explains. Meanwhile, tech titans like Google and Facebook monopolize the advertising revenue that used to support reporting, and the pandemic has put the nail in the coffin of many other local newsrooms, the would-be lifeblood of communities and participatory civic life. Yet a self-governing society can hardly, well, govern itself, if resources are not devoted to the investigative reporting – and to the reporters – we need to provide the labor-intensive and time-consuming coverage capable of creating individuals equipped with the knowledge needed to intervene in and reconstitute a world on the brink of calamity.

Additionally, autonomous initiatives for disseminating content on the web will likely become even more important for organizing and educating, given the growing number of cases of corporate social media censorship. While styled as progressive, in reality that censorship follows in the historical trend of speech suppression targeting left-leaning voices. As Andrew Austin argued, the Left Libertarian tradition rightfully rejects subordinating the free speech right, enshrined not only in the US Constitution but also in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the property right prized by capital. Even if resistance prevents censorship on those corporate platforms, their shared business model based on commodifying user-generated content and privacy-disrespecting tendencies represent enough reason to pursue alternatives. These initiatives can range from “radical media” like the Independent Media Center network birthed during the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999, to sites like Kolektiva, a new open-source news and video sharing platform built on the PeerTube framework as an alternative to corporate apps that sell our data to other corporations who turn around and target us with adds.

New autonomous media and communication technologies, as well as many commodified cyberspaces and a lot of hegemonic digital programming, represent a plurality of potentials, and with the rapid transition to remote academic instruction propelled by the pandemic, critical public pedagogy represents an imperative process for converting those latent possibilities into actuality.

We can examine news story frames, explore unexamined assumptions baked into texts, unpack the commonsense worldviews presented in media, attend to the value judgments implicit in the language used to describe the technologies touted as innovate and essential, and then theorize how it all functions pedagogically. Abolition democracy today arguably demands a curriculum of critical media literacy along those lines.

Drawing on the apropos work of the late Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, Maximillian Alvarez posed digital pedagogy as a rhetorical problem:

As an extension of the actuated environment in which the technical mediation of life itself takes place, what might it mean to learn to become human in a digitally connected reality that is, itself, ‘alive’? What might it mean, and what practical forms might it take, if we approach the process of learning with digital technologies as a matter of aiding – of midwifing – students’ development of their own critical capacities to not only read the world as a concept or text, but to intervene in it as the vibrant contexts of their being – not just as an objective ‘outside’ environment in which they live, but as the porous, moveable circuitry mediating life itself, shaping who they are at any given time as they struggle to shape it?

A movement for an expansive public pedagogy of abolition democracy might also enable fuller humanization as part of our electronically mediated world. We might also consider integrating what John Vervaeke calls “participatory knowing” into the project so students can start consciously reshaping the world that shaped them.

Finally, keeping a critical public pedagogy for abolition democracy accountable to social movements and struggles on campuses across the country should preclude the formation of bureaucratic, democracy-deficient organizations like the kind Piven and Cloward claimed represent obstacles to successful uprisings. In addition, as Dylan Rodriguez affirmed during a recent NAB podcast installment, “the forms of knowledge you produce, the epistemologies that you put forward in your curriculum, the theoretical traditions that you’re drawing from, the ways that we kind of craft our coursework, the ways we interact with each other – these things have to be accountable to a longer, multigenerational historical tradition that extends even beyond the material and interpersonal accountabilities that come from being connected to, you know, grassroots movements and organizations.”

In the present critical juncture, that accountability to collective traditions performs a powerful pedagogical function itself. It provides some indication of how to fortify a public pedagogy of abolition democracy enough to engender the co-emergence of a new understanding along with, and affixed to, a new reality.

In effect, it calls forth commitment to an ineluctably educational abolition democracy project.


James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois  but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes in the Communication Studies Department at Riverside City College and in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. He also taught a class at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has worked as a freelance writer for several outlets.