If we want change, we will have to speak up for it

20th March 2009 at 00:00

Grant Park, Chicago. November 4, 2008. Early evening. I've been in a lot of large crowds, even huge demonstrations in this park, but they were always edged with anger or grief, protest and demand. This was special: a palpable sense of relief filled the air - relief and joy, solidarity and, yes, even love.

We all were here to witness history. What had been unimaginable an eye-blink before had suddenly become inevitable, on this special night and in this place, unforgettable.

The public mood in the US is still marked with a certain jubilant disbelief. It's the moment of "Yes, we can!" - the winning mantra of the Barack Obama campaign - colliding with "Can we even survive?"

This is a time for a potential breaking with the destructive models and controlling political metaphors - including in education - that have dragged us toward the abyss.

Since the Obama victory, many people seem to be suffering a kind of post-partum depression. We read the tea leaves and try to penetrate the President's mind. What do his moves portend? What magic or disaster awaits us? This is a matter of looking entirely in the wrong direction.

President Obama is not a monarch. Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education, is not education tsar, and we are not their subjects. If we want change, we must speak up.

During Mr Duncan's previous tenure as chief executive for Chicago schools, a group of hunger-striking mothers organised citywide support and won the construction of a new high school in a community that had been under-served and denied for years.

Another group of parents, teachers and students mobilised to push military recruiters out of their high school. Mr Duncan didn't support them and he certainly didn't lead the charge, but they won anyway.

Teachers at another school refused to give a standardised test, arguing that this was one test too many, and they organised deep and wide support for their protest. Mr Duncan didn't support them either, but they won anyway.

If they had waited for him to act, they would be waiting still. That is a lesson for us all.

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