Occupy Your Brain

On power, knowledge, and common sense.

by Carol Black


After brutally crushing Filipino resistance to American rule in 1900-1902, the United States began a great experiment, sending hundreds of American teachers to the Philippines to "educate" the conquered population.  President McKinley searched his soul deep into the night and finally received a message from God informing him that the Filipinos were childlike creatures incapable of self-rule, and that there was nothing to do but "to take them all and to educate [them], and uplift and civilize" them. McKinley's army of schoolteachers, called the "Thomasites" after the transport vessel the USAT Thomas that carried them across the Pacific, marked the beginning of the great 20th century policy of "development aid" and "education" as a substitute for overt military imperialism.

What McKinley recognized is that schooling –– unlike learning –– is at its root an exercise of power. As comparative educator Margaret Sutton has suggested, “the worldwide institutionalization of children in schools may rank among the most profound forces of global cultural change of the twentieth century.” And one of the most profound aspects of this change  is not the advent of literacy and numeracy but the radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority.  

While all cultures are different, in many small-scale non-industrialized societies children enjoy wide latitude to learn by free play, interaction with other children of multiple ages, immersion in nature, and direct participation in adult work and activities.  They may have meaningful responsibilities in the economic life of the family, but there is often little direct adult control over their individual moment-to-moment movements and choices, and they learn by experience, experimentation, trial and error, by independent observation of nature and human behavior, and through voluntary community sharing of information, story, song, and ceremony. Local elders and community traditions are autonomous and respected as sources of wisdom and practical knowledge, and children are integrated into local livelihoods, knowledge systems, and ethical and spiritual awareness through elegant Indigenous pedagogies that have been honed over generations to minimize conflict while effectively transmitting what each child needs to know to be a successfully functioning member of the community.

Communities in the "kastom" (custom) movement in Vanuatu are choosing not to send their children to school, but to educate them in their own languages, cultures and livelihoods.

Communities in the "kastom" (custom) movement in Vanuatu are choosing not to send their children to school, but to educate them in their own languages, cultures and livelihoods.


Once learning is institutionalized under a central authority, both freedom for the individual and self-determination for the community are radically curtailed.  The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, write, think her own thoughts, or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.  The teacher has control over the child,  the school district has control over the teacher, the state has control over the district, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding create national control over states.  In what should be considered a chilling development, there are murmurings of the idea of creating global standards for education – in other words, the creation of a single centralized authority dictating what every child on the planet must learn.

“The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, write, think her own thoughts, or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.”

The problem with this scenario should be obvious:  who gets to decide what the world’s children will learn?  Who decides how and when and where they will learn it?  Who controls what’s on the test, or when it will be given, or how its results will be used?  And just as important, who decides what children will not learn?  The hierarchies of educational authority are theoretically justified by the superior “expertise” of those at the top of the institutional pyramid, which qualifies them to dictate these things to the rest of us.  But who gets to choose the experts?  And crucially, who profits from it?

In “developed” societies, we are so accustomed to centralized control over learning that it has become functionally invisible to us, and most people accept it as natural, inevitable, and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.   We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – “education” – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect.  We allow remote “experts” to dictate what we must learn, when we must learn it, and how we must learn it.  We grant them the right to test us, to measure the contents of our brains and the value of our skills, and then to brand us in childhood with a set of numeric rankings that have enormous power over our future opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of our society.  We endorse strict legal codes that render this process compulsory, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.

“In a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.”

And yet the idea of centrally-controlled education is as problematic as the idea of centrally-controlled media – and for exactly the same reasons.   The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect all forms of communication, information-sharing, knowledge, opinion and belief – what the Supreme Court has termed “the sphere of intellect and spirit” – from government control.  Nothing could be more fundamental to the sphere of intellect and spirit than the education of our children, and yet freedom of education was not included in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech, press, and religion, because at the time of the American Revolution the idea of centralized state-controlled schooling was not yet clearly on the horizon. But by the 19th century, with Native nations still to conquer and waves of European immigrants to assimilate, the temptation to find a way to manage the minds of an increasingly diverse and independent-minded population became too great to resist, and the idea of the Common School was born.  We would keep our freedom of speech and press, but first we would all be well-schooled by those in power. A deeply democratic idea — the free and equal education of every child — was wedded to a deeply anti-democratic idea — that this education would be controlled from the top down by the state.

The crucial confusion here is between the idea of publicly supported education and the idea of centrally controlled state-administered education.  To really get your hands around this distinction simply replace the word “school” with the word “radio” in the following sentences and see what you get:

I am in favor of publicly supported community radio.

I am in favor of centrally-controlled state-administered radio.

Not the same thing, are they?


In 2014 political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page analyzed data about 1,779 U.S. policy issues to find out what sectors of the U.S. population were driving U.S. policy. Their findings were grim, although not surprising. The data revealed that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." 

When viewed through this lens, it becomes quite interesting not only to look at what your children are required to learn in school, but at what they are not required to learn.  While your kids are very busy toiling over algebra and chemistry, international trade agreements are being forged and currencies are being manipulated by entities that most Americans don’t even know the names of, much less the inner workings of.  Kids are compelled to solve quadratic equations and write essays on Shakespeare, and they graduate without understanding how to calculate the interest on credit card debt or decode a mortgage agreement.  They learn an old fable called “How a Bill Becomes Law,” while corporate lobbyists draft legislation that will pollute their air and water, raise their drug prices, and ship their jobs overseas.  And in the "developing" world, teenagers are struggling with — and more often than not, being defeated by — English Romantic poets and high school physics while the World Bank and IMF are negotiating incentives for foreign investment that will lead to their ancestral lands being sold out from under them to foreign timber and mining companies and Wall Street speculators in agricultural land.

While your kids are very busy toiling over algebra and chemistry, international trade agreements are being forged and currencies are being manipulated by entities that most Americans don’t even know the names of, much less the inner workings of.

Our kids are so drowned in disconnected information that it becomes quite random what they do and don’t remember (one study found that only a quarter of Americans surveyed could name the three branches of government), and they’re so overburdened with endless homework and tests that they have little time or energy to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around them.  They are taught to focus on competing with each other and gaming the system rather than on gaining a deep understanding of the way power flows through their world. The most academically “gifted” students excel at obedience, instinctively shaping their thinking to the prescribed curriculum and unconsciously framing out of their awareness ideas that won’t earn the praise of their superiors.  Those who resist sitting still for this process are marginalized, labeled as less intelligent or even as mildly brain-damaged, and, increasingly, drugged into compliance.

Next time you hear a teenager saying she’d like to go to a political protest but she can’t because she has to study for a chemistry test, or a parent saying he’d like to let his child run around outside a bit more instead of putting him on Adderall but he can’t because the school schedule doesn’t allow it, or a teacher saying she’d like to do more hands-on experiential learning or open-ended discussions or creative projects with her class but she can’t because she has to do standardized test prep, please ask yourself:  why can’t they do these things?   Who says they can’t?  Who’s in charge here?  Isn’t this is a free country?

Isn’t it?


When Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet that helped ignite a revolution, he didn’t title it, “Expert Assessment by a Certified Professional,” he titled it “Common Sense.”  In other words, the very root, the very essence, of any theory of democratic liberty is a basic trust in the fundamental intelligence of the ordinary person. Democracy rests on the premise that the ordinary person — the waitress, the carpenter, the cab driver — is entitled to a voice in matters of domestic policy, international affairs, taxes, justice, peace, and war, and that the government must abide by the wishes of ordinary people, not vice versa. Of course that’s not the way our system really works, and never has been. But most of us recall at some deep level of our beings that any vision of a just world relies on this fundamental respect for the common sense of the ordinary human being.

This is what we spend our childhood in school unlearning.  Not only can’t we as children be trusted to learn, our parents – and even our teachers – can’t be trusted to manage our education.  They must have supervision, evaluation, they must submit to the authority of higher experts. The usual argument for centralized hierarchical control of schooling is that ordinary people simply aren’t competent to make sound judgments about these matters. It has to be managed from above by trained professionals; we have to have some kind of quality control that will override the intellectual weakness of the hapless American public.  And yet it bears remembering that all these hapless Americans attended American schools.  We live in a country where a serious candidate for the Presidency is unaware that China has nuclear weapons, where half the population does not understand that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, where nobody pays attention as Congress dismantles the securities regulations that limit the power of the banks, where 45% of American high school students graduate without knowing that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press.  

At what point do we begin to ask ourselves if we are trying to control quality in the wrong way?


At what point do we begin to ask ourselves if we are trying to control quality in the wrong way?


What would our public schools look like if instead of trying to “reform” a centralized, authoritarian system we simply removed the elements of individual compulsion and institutional hierarchical control? How might they begin to change and diversify and evolve? What if we created an educational "Bill of Rights" to protect the needs of the marginalized rather than dictating every detail of curriculum and methodology and measurement from above? What if the "authority" of teachers rested not in crude power but in respect freely given? Again and again, across many spheres of human endeavor, non-hierarchical horizontal models of collaboration have been demonstrated to equal or outperform vertically-controlled models. Positive social change has occurred not through top-down, hierarchically controlled organizations, but through what the Berkana Institute calls “emergence,” where people at the grassroots level begin networking and forming voluntary communities of practice.  What if we trusted our children, our teachers, our parents, our neighbors, to re-create schools not as centrally administered standardized institutions but as publicly supported community learning centers that are open, alive, and responsive to individual needs and aspirations? What kind of public education system could we create if instead of “scaling up” every good idea into a monolithic centrally controlled bureaucracy, we tried "scaling down" and "scaling sideways" to allow local and individual autonomy, freedom, experimentation, and diversity?


And what could we create, what ecological problems could we solve, what despair might we alleviate, if instead of imposing our rigid curriculum and the destructive economy it serves on the entire world, we embraced as part of our vast collective intelligence the knowledge of the world’s thousands of Indigenous cultures? Every ecosystem in the world at one time had a people who knew it with the knowledge that only comes with thousands of years of living in place. A Bosavi person in Papua New Guinea can still identify 70 species of birds by their songs; a shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of species of plants and which preparations will enhance their chemical potency in the human body; a traditional Polynesian navigator can detect an island miles beyond the horizon by a pattern in the waves and the behavior of birds.  This kind of knowledge seems almost supernatural to a modern person stumbling noisily through the forest; but it’s not supernatural. It is human intelligence honed over millennia, through unimaginably vast numbers of empirical observations, experiments, reflections, intuitions, refinements of art and experience and communication. As Blackfoot educator Narcisse Blood has said, Indigenous knowledge systems are not a small bodies of ecological information and ‘folklore’ that can be treated as ancillary to Eurocentric knowledge; they are entire intellectual paradigms as deep and as extensive as the Euro-western tradition.


In the hills and forests of eastern India’s tribal regions, the Adivasis (“original dwellers”) have begun to defy the Indian government and to occupy the ancestral lands stolen from them to benefit foreign mining and timber companies.  The plight of the Dongria Kondh, a tribe whose lands are threatened by the toxic Vedanta bauxite mine, has been compared to that of the "N’avi" in the fantasy film Avatar.  But for the Kondh this is no fantasy.  They realize that they cannot trust their government, they cannot trust the companies, and they cannot always trust the foreign political activists and NGO’s that have come to “help” them. As historian William Greider has said of the populist movement among U.S. farmers in the late 19th century,

They knew this about their situation: nobody was on their side. Certainly not the moneyed classes and the economic system, and not the government, either. So if they were going to change anything, it had to come out of themselves.

So as the Adivasis occupy their land, they are also moving to create their own forms of education for action.  Just like the legendary Highlander Folk School and Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools during the Civil Rights movement, Adivasi people are coming together on a voluntary, cooperative basis to share experiences, analyses, strategies, and tactics:

We organize workshops and gatherings and have created a learning environment for all our people – I feel so happy and satisfied, I cannot tell you – we have been creating a political education around land, forest and water issues and debating courses of action. We are expanding in terms of participation and we need to keep generating more awareness on more issues that affect us… it is a political awareness, an adult education about society – a different kind of schooling perhaps.

~Adivasi-Dalit Ektha Abhijan movement organization representative/leader

To be effective, the Adivasis will need to understand their constitutional rights, the economic forces of globalization, the legacies of colonialism, the agendas of foreign investors, and the economic policies of the Indian government which enrich the upper castes at the expense of Dalits and tribal people. But crucially, they need to speak to each other about all of this in their own languages, to share information and ideas in the context of their own histories and cultural identities, to create new strategies that are shaped by their own values.  As a matter of fact, for the Kondh, they need to sing to each other of all these things:

People’s organization is the only help, the only way
It is the fountain of knowledge for the poor.
If we come together and get organized,
That will be the end of the exploiters and oppressors…
We will fight through non-violent means.
How many deaths will we die from running away in fear?
Our hearts are weeping, our hearts are bleeding
But the people’s organization is the only way…

~ Song at Kondh tribal gathering

The Kondh aren’t going to let the powers that are destroying their world be the ones to teach them about it.  They are choosing for themselves, talking to one another, learning from and teaching one another, building their movement.  As our climate heats up, as mountaintops are removed from Orissa to West Virginia, as the oceans fill with plastic and soils become too contaminated to grow food, as the economy crumbles and children go hungry and the 0.001% grows so concentrated, so powerful, so wealthy that democracy becomes impossible, it’s time to ask ourselves; who’s educating us?  To what end?  The Adivasis are occupying their forests and mountains as our children are occupying our cities and parks.  But they understand that the first thing they must take back is their common sense.  They must occupy their brains.

Isn’t it time for us to do the same?


There are 8,000 Dongria Kondh living in the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa, India. Mining firm Vedanta Resources has plans to mine Niyamgiri, and with it destroy the Dongria Kondh's way of life. Video courtesy of Survival International.