Memories of Dear Old Commie Martyrs

For a long time I have meant to write something about the alternative high school I attended in the long lost days of the Ford and Carter administrations.  It existed for only a brief time and was something of a last gasp of 1960s radicalism. Somehow, in a way I'll never understand, four or five young, idealistic teachers had convinced a fairly conservative suburban school district to transform its dropout prevention program into a true alternative high school. I doubt that the board members who approved the plan really understood what these teachers were up to.  Indeed, the proposed school had a fairly subversive lineage.

The ostensible model was the St. Paul Open School, a successful alternative education program in the Twin Cities.  The real antecedent was A.S. Niell's Summerhill, a radical experiment in democratic education founded in Germany in 1921 and later transplanted to England.  Niell gave students an equal role in running the school and shaping its curruculum.   Everyone--teachers, students, secretaries and janitors--had a vote in how the school was organized. Niell's philosophy held that coercion is poor soil for learning. 

Consequently learning was optional.  Students were free to learn or not as they saw fit.  So long as they didn't harm anyone, they could do as they pleased.  My school, which over the years I have affectionately come to call Communist Martyrs High School, was surprisingly similar in this aspect.  Rules--so much as they existed--were the product of all-school meetings in which everyone had an equal voice.  At  these meetings, students, staff and teachers made hiring decisions, determined who was expelled, voted for courses and even set the price of soda in the machine.

It took a while to get used to this amount of freedom.  On the first day the coordinator informed an assembly of students that there were no rules.  We would have to make them ourselves.  Immediately we students began to recreate the exact model of education we had fled: coercive rules and heavy-handed consequences.  The teachers just let us go on at this for a while, but occasionally they chimed in that what we were creating didn't seem very "alternative."  Eventually we got the point:  We were free, really free, to do as we pleased. 

As you might imagine, there followed an intoxicated, anarchic stage where little that could be called education took place.  Slowly that began to change and the students began to institute a few rules.  These weren't the heavy-handed, coercive rules we were familiar with; rather, they were simple maxims like "doing nothing is not an option" or "if you can't participate, at least don't interfere."  Eventually we worked our way toward something resembling contract learning or competency-based learning.  Classes, assignments and graduation requirements were negotiated with student selected committees. There were no grades, just self and committee assessment on agreed upon learning goals. We could just as easily have been called Kropotkin High, for there was something vaguely reminiscent of anarcho-syndacalism going on.

The curriculum, of course, was never stable and changed wildly from term to term.  While at Commie Martyrs I took such courses as organic gardening, creative writing, pottery, human sexuality and a political science course whose only text was Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals.   As I recall, on the first day of that political science class our teacher handed out bus tokens and told us we had better get down to the statehouse.  We couldn't learn much sitting around in a school.  By the end of the term we had become registered lobbyists and were buttonholing pols on such issues as juvenile justice reform, passage of the E.R.A., environmental regulations and anti-nuclear causes. We had members of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement as guest speakers.  For my sex ed. course I recall reading Our Bodies Ourselves and moderating a panel discussion on gay rights at a Young Woman's Resource Center.  For a social issues class we signed up for welfare and food stamps so we would know what the experience was like. 

Commie Martyrs was always fairly small: about 50-60 students at any given time.  And the students were a strange collection.  Imagine a bell curve with two ends and no middle.  There were brilliant, high-achieving kids who had been bored out of their skulls by conventional high school and a fair number of stoned, criminally-inclined near drop outs.  Although there is no official alumni association for CMHS, I do know we are as likely to be found in Silicon Valley as the state pen.  Our numbers include at least one computer scientist, a college professor, a murderer, a few convicted felons and a guy who was deported after a marijuana bust.

The teachers were an equally odd bunch.  The "coordinator" was a left-wing social science teacher whose brother was an unreconstructed and unapologetic Troskyite.  One science teacher left his wife and ran off with the school secretary; another drove a Citroen and had a long beard just like the guys on the cough drop box.  There was another teacher who hung around a lot but was never officially employed. Rumor had it that he had been fired from another school district for either selling pot or teaching a pornographic novel.  It was never clear which.  I think he ran the radio station for a while and he was always up for a game of Scrabble.

For me, a lost kid who never fit in at the larger high school, the place was heaven.  I was there at 7:00 am in the morning and loathe to leave at 5:30 pm.   That said, I have often wondered whether Commie Martyrs was very effective in its approach to education.  Education by its very nature is coercive.  We demand students read this, think about that, write this way.  The goal may be to liberate the mind from bondage to ignorace, but the means for getting there isn't often democratic.  In the end, mastering a discipline means disciplining the mind to think one way and not any old way.

Besides, as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written, "the mind is not designed for thinking."  In fact, a lot of its architecture is specifically designed to avoid thinking.  Certainly people will think when they need to, but no one puts forth the effort unless the conditions call for it.  Good teachers can create learning environments that stimulate thinking, but they can't do it all the time and they can't do it for every student.  Consequently, teachers sometimes have to force students to think using the old grade gun: do this or I pull the trigger and you fail.  A.S. Niell was right: this is poor soil for learning, but sometimes it's the only soil you've got.

Eventually, the federal seed grant ran out and the school board members started wondering why there were no students parking their rears in rows of desks.  Commie Martyrs, like the 70s themselves, passed into history.  The country veered right under Reagan.  I can't imagine anything like it could exist today. 

So the question arises: were there any lessons of lasting value?  Yes, though I struggle to say what they were. I read and discussed things I never would have encountered in a conventional high school: Albert Camus' The Rebel, Herman Hesse's Siddartha, Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book and many, many back issues of The Whole Earth Catalog (not to mention Che Guevara's little manual on guerilla warfare).  I suppose, too, that I've retained a healthy skepticism for puffed-up authority.  Educationally speaking, however, I'm probably a lot more conservative these days. I certainly enjoyed my time at Commie Martyrs, but I often find myself regretting that those years weren't spent having some mean little prick beating Latin, Greek and calculus into me.


suskyboy3 said…
Was the school actually called Commie Martyrs school.
Steve Snyder said…
No, that was the name of the high school in the Firesign Theater's brilliant absurdist album "Don't Crush that Dwarf. Hand Me the Pliers."

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