From Enclosure to Abolition: An Introduction

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.


From Enclosure to Abolition

Education has long been touted as an equalizing force, the path to opportunity in a sometimes unfair, but fundamentally just USAmerican meritocracy. Education is the key, the idea goes, for one to rise above their circumstances. But this a myth, as demonstrated by centuries of inequitable life trajectories for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, with respect to social and economic mobility, physical and psychic safety, rights to healthy food, land, air and water, and the denial of self-determination. 

Schooling in the United States has always been an engine of state domination and control, from its origins in the assimilation of Native Americans and the indoctrination of Black people into the institution of slavery, through industrial and boarding schools, and into the present reality of resource deprivation, cultural annihilation, social engineering, surveillance, and carceral control.

With the incursion of neoliberalism, schools moved from factories churning out generations of compliant workers and eager consumers, toward the ideal of gleaming tech start-ups — marshaling the powers of data-tracking, testing, accountability, and surveillance in the name of “efficiency” and “progress”, and further atomizing students into discrete units of capital and intelligence.

All education is reproduction, the “imparting and reinforcement of ideas and values that support the current economic and social order” [1]Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. United Kingdom: Teachers College Press.. While this is essentially value-neutral, schools in the U.S. are inherently oppressive due to prevailing social and political context, and therefore function as ”enclosure[s] of time, energy, and learning”[2]Slater, G. B. (2014). Constituting common subjects: Toward an education against enclosure. Educational Studies, 50(6), 537-553.

Enclosure in the original sense refers to breaking up common land into private segments and forms the underlying logic of capitalist exploitation. Indeed, “political economy starts with the fact of private property”[3]Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Prometheus Books.. Here I consider wider interpretations of enclosure, starting with land, but moving to time and space, the community, the body, knowledge, labor, and life.

Thematically I am concerned with those ideological and physical barriers which mediate people’s access to fundamental needs and our ability to thrive, setting up relations of domination. I will explore how “enclosures manifest in the organization and procedures of formal education”[4]Slater, G. B. (2014). Constituting common subjects: Toward an education against enclosure. Educational Studies, 50(6), 537-553., and how schools in particular reproduce the enclosures and alienation[5]Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Prometheus Books. — found in the greater society. I start by defining different forms of enclosure, moving from the “exterior” with land, space, and time, steadily “inward” to the community, the individual body, to the mind, to labor, learning, and the very experience of living.

First, a few notes about structure. Because my project is one of “exploding boundaries” — even in expanding the concept of enclosure — I will make a habit of upending more “traditional” definitions of words taken for granted in educational discourse. This is not merely an exercise in subversion. Rather it is a radical reconceptualization, to dig down past common “understandings”, which “take for granted what they are supposed to explain”[6]Marx, K. (1988). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (M. Milligan, Trans.). Prometheus Books., that we might emerge on the other side of the ideological enclosure.

Enclosure (n.) — a physical or ideological partition that divides a larger whole, for purposes of commodification and/or control, obstructing the continuity of being or experience between the constituent parts.  From Old French enclos, to “surround; confine; contain.”

This is in line with Slater, who says that enclosures “are not merely economic phenomena; they are cultural and ecological practices with clear psychological and subjective dimension”.[7]Slater, G. B. (2014). Constituting common subjects: Toward an education against enclosure. Educational Studies, 50(6), 537-553. In the colonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy of the United States, education necessarily reproduces relations of domination through a sociopolitical inertia, in perpetual motion unless and until acted upon by an external, i.e. counter-hegemonic, force. 

Education (n.) —The primary process by which the relations of production are reproduced from one generation to the next, through the physical and symbolic  impositions of those relations onto their subjects. From the Latin educationem, “a rearing, training [of children or animals]”.

Peim states that “Schooling is not confined to or necessarily directly attached to the institution of the school. Schooling may occur within various institutions for various purposes”[8]Peim, N. (2013). Education, schooling, Derrida’s Marx and democracy: Some fundamental questions. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 32(2), 171-187. — a point that Illich extrapolates at length.[9]Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Calder & Boyars. In that “schooling” is a process that takes place throughout society, it is nearly synonymous with “mode of reproduction”. 

School (n.) — An engine of social control, or in the words of Althusser, an “ideological state apparatus”, that reproduces relations of domination through the interpellation of its subjects into a worldview that upholds and reinforces hegemony. From the Latin schola ,”intermission of work, leisure for learning”.

Schooling as Enclosure

Schools in the United States, and all settler colonial nations, are designed “to provide an ample supply of people who are loyal to the nation-state and who have learned the skills needed to perform the work that is necessary to maintain the dominance of the European-American elite in its social order”[10]Shujaa, M. J. (1994). Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life in White Societies. United States: Africa World Press.. Schooling is the way those in power advanced their economic and cultural agenda, “which is often inimical to the vast majority who remain propertyless. Public education becomes a useful ideological tool in creating social consensus” [11]Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. United Kingdom: Teachers College Press.

Schooling and education are closely related in that both are “modes of reproduction”, but the difference mediated by power. Schooling is the reproduction of the relations of domination inherent to capitalism. It is one-directional — top-down — always something that the one with more power “does” to the one with less. It is the primary expression of power, exerted through both physical and symbolic violence.

Even “reproduction” seems inadequate to describe schooling, because in the traditional sense, reproduction means that the subject derives the object from itself, as with organisms and offspring. In the case of sexual reproduction, the object is the emergence of two subjects. Schooling, however, is Power’s attempt to unmake its object, and to remake itself in the object’s place. It is not merely “reproduction”, but an overwriting of the object’s very being, an ontological displacement. There is no amount of physical violence, even, that can effect such a transformation.

In a later section, I discuss how schools reproduce the broader imperial-colonial project, manifest in multiple forms of enclosure: dispossession, forced relocation, enslavement and incarceration, antagonisms across race, gender, class, and generations, false dualities between mind and body, separation of humans from nature, and spatiotemporal alienation: our interpellation into individualist subjectivities, isolated in both time and space.

My argument extends from three basic premises:

  • That the very purpose of education, regardless of context, is to reproduce and reinforce the social, political, and material conditions of the society in which it takes place.
  • That the United States, as a nation-state, and a society, was founded upon and operates along a continuity of settler colonial violence, extraction, exploitation, dispossession — relations of domination — all toward the accumulation of capital: in the form of land, human bodies, or other natural resources.
  • Therefore schooling in the United States, as the primary educational apparatus, is inherently complicit in creating, reproducing, and maintaining these relations of domination.

The Logic of Schooling

Schools alienate young people’s learning and labor, for the benefit of others’ capital accumulation. The logic of schooling is such that it prioritizes content — indeed “content is king” — to such an extent that students’ and teachers’ humanity, their physical, social and emotional needs, are of secondary importance. Indeed they are each and all fungible and disposable, their persons the excesses of the “productive activity” of schools.

Schools divide content into standards — whether the federal common core or state standards — and from there into specific learning objectives, and finally into individual tasks. Teachers are expected, during classroom observations, to be able to show alignment between tasks, objectives, and standards. This extreme micromagement positions teachers not as people, but as the delivery mechanisms for content. 

School curriculum becomes a mere ”contract a teacher makes to organize the content and to teach in a certain way” [12]Cajete, G. (2000a). Indigenous knowledge: The Pueblo metaphor of Indigenous education. Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, 181-191.. Where students are “low-context learners […] who learn best by following directions” — usually white and/or middle-class — the content can be “separated from social and other context.[13]Newberry, T., & Trujillo, O. V. (2018). Decolonizing education through transdisciplinary approaches to climate change education. In Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education (pp. 204-214). … Continue reading This reflects an extreme cynicism of those in positions of power toward the rest of us, dating as far back as the first public schools. 

Former U.S. commissioner of education William Torey Harris (1889 – 1906) once wrote that “ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education” [14]Gatto, J. T. (2003). The Underground History of American Education. Oxford Village Press.. Ideologues such as Harris, saw schools as “centers for the inculcation of obedience to authority, rather than places for the development of critical thought” [15]Hughey, M. W. (2007). The pedagogy of Huey P. Newton: Critical reflections on education in his writings and speeches. Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 209-231..

For “high context learners”, those for whom culture is an important foundation and reference point for all learning — as are most Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth — schools spare no effort in devising (or purchasing from tech companies) various adaptions of content to get it into student brains. Content is filtered through student culture, as conceived or simulated by the school, translated into students’ first language where it is not English, or “divided into smaller groups according to individual ability and subject interest”.[16]Davis, J. L. (2013). Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities. University of Minnesota Press.

One example is the “hip-hop-ification” of science or math curriculum — consisting of ham-fisted rhyme schemes or the name dropping of famous performers into word problems — under the assumption that such a strategy will somehow make the content more palatable to Black and Brown students. This pretense of “inclusion” or “cultural relevance” conceals the same assimilationist agenda that has been at work for the entire history of education in the US: “to absorb cultural difference by ‘including’ marginalized groups in the universality of the nation state”.[17]Grande, S. (2015). Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Another filter, which mostly functions independently from the other two, is “differentiation”, the reconfiguration of content into different mediums or scaled in complexity to tailor it to the “special needs” of kids with certain disabilities. The quality of teaching and the value of student outputs is determined by a standardized metric, usually a written test, which ignores individual or community context. 

This raises the question of who benefits, who derives “value” from the  “productive activity” of schools? Certainly not the students, for whom their intellectual and emotional labor is alienated from their material concerns. The teachers certainly do not benefit, but are at best able to maintain their livelihoods where they can defend the efficacy of their practice in getting content into student brains. The primary beneficiary of this logic of schooling seems to be schools themselves, which are “completely controlled by the power structure”, with the “memorization of distorted reality and unrelated facts, all designed to fit the individual into the present oppressive system”.[18]Newton, H. P. (1971, March 27). Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Youth Institute. Black Panther, D, E. (PDF) 

From the Schoolhouse to the Field

In his famous “Message to the Grassroots” , Malcolm X makes a distinction between what he calls the “house negro” and the “field negro”. 

[The house Negroes] lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master, and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. […] But that field Negro, remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try and put it out. That field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he’d die.[19]X, M. (1964, March 26). Message to the Grassroots [Speech audio recording]. Rev.com. https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/message-to-the-grassroots-speech-transcript-malcolm-x

I invoke this speech to distinguish between the work of schools versus the work of education for liberation. Schooling is designed to uphold the “master’s house”, which will never be dismantled with the master’s own tools[20]Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press.. Schools reproduce the relations of domination — subordination to capital, surveillance, social and carceral control — attendant to slavery and its afterlife. 

The “house” also represents enclosure, which in Malcolm’s framing separated house and field negroes, placing them in opposition to each other to deny power and agency to both. The “field”, meanwhile, was the place where resistance gathered, where fugitive learning spaces were created toward the greater project of freedom and self-determination. 

By invoking “the field”, I also mean to signal my understanding that liberation, and any education in service thereof, must be grounded in right relationship to land. Land, after all, is the source of material (real) wealth, the foundation of identity, and the context in which all lived experience is situated. To be cut off from the land — physically or culturally — is to not truly know oneself, and to be severed from any lasting possibility of liberation. To return to “grounded normativity”[21]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press., means decolonization, in solidarity and synchronicity with indigenous people here in North America, and around the world.

Building on a History of Resistance

At every historical juncture, people and communities have resisted enclosure and domination. In later essays, I examine the radical Black and Indigenous pedagogies of resistance, refusal, and resilience against the incursions of a colonial, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy: marronage, fugitive spaces, and the long continuum of indigenous resistance. The juxtaposition of these imaginaries reveals the need for deep (re)consideration of our relationship to land — and to the Earth as a whole — and lays the ground for a Red, Black, and Green Ecology

Ecology, not pedagogy, to emphasize deep relationality between people and place. 

This ecology finds expression through the Earthseed Framework for Community Education and Organizing. The framework aims to resist the physical and ideological enclosures which dilute the power of collective struggle and mediate people’s access to fundamental needs such as healthy food, clean environment, and thriving communities. Inspired by the work of legendary science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler, the Earthseed framework encourages a praxis of world-making, utilizing participatory action research (PAR) as the backbone structure, supplemented by critical skill-building and political education to foster community self-determination.

Divergent Paths

In the looming shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we scrambled to piece together the old model of schooling — and mostly failed — it became clear that we needed a radical reimagining of education. To shift away from mere knowledge acquisition and workforce development, and toward practices of sustainability and regeneration. Our national response to the pandemic has revealed a critical inflection point, the approach of a “choose your own adventure” scenario as the burgeoning climate crisis presents a mandate for building resilience. 

On the one hand, USAmerican individualism has reached an extreme, where “personal liberty” takes precedence over community health, as with people’s refusal to be vaccinated, or even to wear masks, while still attempting to live their pre-pandemic lives. Yet on the other, we’ve witnessed nationwide transformation of social norms, countless examples of personal sacrifice, the organic emergence of mutual aid, and an unprecedented mass mobilization for racial justice. One path, carving a massive divide between “self” and “other”, will lead to more widespread suffering and death, disproportionately borne by Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Another path, where we recognize the value — the necessity — of building community and collaborating toward the future, could see us emerge on the other side of these crises into an even better world.

Moving Beyond the Pale

The idiom “beyond the pale” means socially or morally repugnant. A look at the etymology reveals that “pale” once referred to a stake or a fence, signifying the boundaries of an enclosure. Throughout these essays, I argue that the path toward liberation explodes these boundaries. In that schools are the primary apparatus by which enclosures are reproduced, nothing short of a radical reimagining, if not a complete abolition, is required to move us “beyond the pale”.

Just as the original concept of abolition referred to breaking down the enclosures of slavery — body, mind, time and space — so does the contemporary prison abolition movement. School abolition, then, is about dissolving the enclosures of the school, a challenge more difficult for the fact that except for the physical walls, the boundaries are invisible, and because the broad consensus that schools need “reform” obscures the argument for the institution to be dismantled entirely. 

There is some debate and confusion over the roots of the word abolition. On the one hand it seems to derive from the Latin abolere, which means to destroy, and on the other adolere, which means to grow. This contradiction, I think, is fundamental to the conception of abolition as a liberatory praxis, because it recognizes that destruction and creation are parallel aspects of change, and that the very act of dissolving enclosures creates pathways for living. 

Abolition (n.) — the dissolution of enclosures so as to liberate the movement of bodies, cultures, knowledges, resources, and/or energy, across space and time, along collectively self-determined pathways. 

Ultimately, the case for school abolition is an argument for the empowerment of young people and their communities. One cannot reform school toward liberatory ends, because even reform school is merely prison by another name. And yet, the case for school abolition cannot advance without an alternative. So it is the ultimate goal of my thesis to chart a path from the schoolhouse to the field, to elevate and develop radical educational frameworks and processes — rooted in identity, history, and community —  which means a reimagining of the many ways adults and young people engage with each other in the co-construction of knowledge, shared struggle, mutual support, and building community, toward a vision — and praxis — of collective liberation.




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