Schools of the Revolution: Radical Education Around the World


Welcome to the 49th issue of The Funambulist. For the fourth time in the history of the magazine, the curation of this issue is shared between two people. This issue takes us through radical education initiatives in several geographies in the world, but also in several spaces as different as the mangrove, the prison, the street, the kitchen table, or reading groups. By these varied locations, we mean to question both the material conditions of education, as well as its contents, placing it as a key instrument of revolutionary movements both historically and in the present. 

In March 2022, a few months after she had moved to Philadelphia, Sónia found herself traveling back to Europe, more specifically to Paris for the premiere of the film she co-directed with Filipa César—Mangrove School—at the Festival Cinéma du Réel. This is when we met, on a morning for a coffee. We talked about life, the world, friends in common, and of course, The Funambulist and the next issue that Léopold was working on. Encouraged by the conversation, Sónia mentioned to Léopold, “You should do an issue on education at some point.” To which he answered, “Let’s do it together then!” This is how the issue that you have in your hands began!

The work of putting together this set of contributors and themes was challenging, as we would have wanted even more revolutionary education-based praxis around the world and throughout history, together in one issue. Our goal and ambition was to think about education, school, and revolution in an internationalist spirit. We wanted to challenge ourselves to go beyond isolated cases, and to consider how we could make visible an international network of praxis that would break down formal and institutionalized education.

We wanted to say that revolutions too, have their own vision of an internationalist education and program that is transmitted and redesigned from generation to generation.

To read schools and education as neutral places, insulated from political processes and ideological argumentation, is a dangerous route. To accept such a view would be to ignore our position in society, our own presence in schools and educational grounds. It would be to impose silences and accept political practices with unforeseen consequences in our present and future lives. It would require ignoring all political and social struggles that have made schools and education more accessible to all members of society. To do that, it would mean to accept a system that claims education’s unidirectional understanding, which organizes the access to education, and the keeping of schooling administrative obligations and requirements, without diving into the emotional and physical impact of these educational spaces on our lives. One would have to accept that education could only be validated by schools as official state institutions. This would mean in turn, accepting the “hidden curriculum” that only serves to reinforce the rules and values of colonial capitalist hegemony, without developing struggles and practices to dismantle it. 

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African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) militant combatants using their resting time to learn to read and write, putting into practice one of the Party’s watchwords to “demand from responsible workers of the Party that they devote themselves seriously to study [and] constantly improve their knowledge, their culture, their political training [and] constantly learn.” / Photo by Roel Coutinho (1974).

Educational theorist Michael Apple raises an important question in his book Ideology and Curriculum (1979): “Is it possible to do something different, that interrupts neoliberal and neo-conservative policies and ideologies, that has a very different politics of legitimate knowledge, and that is based on a very real commitment to creating schools that are closely connected to a larger project of social transformation?” The answer is yes, and we can see this throughout history, where revolutionary movements and their praxis of the past century have shown how they used schools and education for such purposes. This is what Leigh- Ann Naidoo shares with us, on the role of South African student groups in the anti-apartheid Black liberation movement in the 1960–70s, particularly amid the South African Student Organisation (SASO). 

In September 1956, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) officially started an armed liberation struggle in the Guinean forest, after several failed attempts to negotiate independence with the Portuguese colonial regime. The armed guerilla struggle lasted from January 23, 1963 until April 25, 1974, when the military coup d’état in Portugal put an end to the fascist regime.

Under the leadership of Amílcar Cabral, the PAIGC developed a liberation struggle that did not rely only on their military forces, but also on the development of a militant education process.

“Militant education” is defined here as an engaged and conscious education that is grounded on anti-colonial and decolonial principles, focused on an ample conception of the liberation struggle and its goals. It also comprises three aspects: political learning, technical training, and the shaping of individual and collective behaviors. Rooted in the community, militant education was applied to training three groups: namely, the militant teacher, the armed military militant, and the militant student. During the armed liberation struggle, the Party created several educational centers, such as village schools and boarding schools in the liberated zones of the territory, as well as in neighboring countries. This network of schools was combined with diverse political conscientization work with the population, for example through the Brigades for Political Action, or through adult training, such as the Center for Teachers’ Training and Improvement and the Political and Military Instruction Center in Madina do Boé. One of the most obvious outcomes of militant education was how they built capacity to challenge Portuguese rule. The PAIGC self-proclaimed the independence of Guinea Bissau on September 24, 1973, although it was only recognized by the Portuguese government on September 10, 1975. The PAIGC militant education had a strong impact on the carnation revolution in Portugal in 1974 that ended the authoritarian regime in the country. The access of the Portuguese military to the PAIGC Rádio Liberatação broadcast, and the distribution of pamphlets with messages that made aware the military of their own situation of oppression, were an important educational instrument of conscientization towards the 1974 coup d’etat. 

As part of an international revolutionary education project, Cuba and more specifically the island of Isla de la Juventud (former Isla de los Pinos), received people from about forty countries between 1977 and 1990. Students traveled from Latin America, the African Continent, and West Asia as part of an international cooperation program. The long tradition of Cuba receiving orphans and refugees from other countries dates from 1961, with the arrival of refugees from the Algerian Revolution. Other international forms of collaboration included sending medical personnel to support the armed conflict abroad—such was the case for educational programs within Angola and Isla de Juventud, where they received and trained foreign students in the most diverse study areas. Students would come from a peasant or worker background, while others were combatants and children of fighters fallen in armed conflicts. Scholarship on this area is still sparse, but Cuban academic Dayana Murguia Méndez, who is finishing her PhD thesis in Berlin on the topic, defends that this educational initiative was “embedded in broader projects related to the consolidation of an international entanglement, representing the then-called ‘Third World countries.’”

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At the Red School House in St. Paul, Minnesota, an instructor presents a lesson on “Myths of origin creation stories.” References to drumming, and community principles can be seen written on the extreme left side of the board. / Federation of Survivor Schools.

Not far from the principles of Cuban internationalist practice, is the intense circulation of students from these same areas and backgrounds in Europe within socialist countries. From the German Democratic Republic (DDR) with the School of Friendship in Stassfurt, to Czechoslovakia with the University of 17th November in Prague, to the Soviet Union with the Moscow-based People’s Friendship University, or the Workers’s Faculties (known in the country as rabochii fakul’tet or in short rabfak as introduced by Ingrid Miethe), these educational spaces widely trained and formed an international generation under socialist principles during the 1960–80s. 

Following the liberation struggle in Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front—a socialist political party that overthrew the dictator Anastacio Somoza in 1979 and ruled until 1990—broadened their education system by developing a campaign that drastically reduced illiteracy in the country. The Brigadistas, a group of volunteer high school and university students traveled during this campaign, not only teaching the skills of reading and writing, but also living in and learning about the rural world and rural families. Group discussions, collective solving of problems, and experiential learning were some of the pedagogies applied in this process, a practice very much alive and present in liberation movements today like the Zapatistas. Besides the literacy campaign, the Sandinistas developed their own school materials too. Examples like Los Carlitos, the school textbook developed for students from 1st to 4th grade as part of the education curriculum, was marked as a key resource for a generation of pupils. 

In the United States of America, activists and parents from the American Indian Movement (AIM) founded the Survival Schools in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in the 1970s. In response to a local crisis in Indigenous education and in resistance to child welfare and juvenile justice systems that removed children from families at a high rate, Indigenous educational centers were created, namely, the Red School House (closed in 1996), and the Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth (closed in 2008). According to public historian Julie L. Davis, their survival school education rejected eurocentric universalism and challenged the “strategies of differences” that either required Indigenous people in the U.S. to assimilate, or relegated them to a perpetual state of diminished humanity. The school, like the PAIGC militant education, was an anti-colonial project that furthered the “reconstruction” necessary for Indigenous decolonization. Their curriculum provided informal, supportive, culturally relevant learning environments for students who struggled in public schools. It included teaching in their native languages, such as Lakota and Ojibwe, as well as fostering a positive sense of identity and pride in their heritage through teaching ancestral cultural knowledge.

The survival school educators built an educational system that combined elements of the international open school movement, the community school reforms that originated in urban African American neighborhoods, and the experiments initiated by earlier Indigenous community schools. 

To understand the Black Power era and the African American struggle in the United States of America, one needs to look beyond individual figures and understand the crucial role that education had in the development of these struggles to this day—as a direct response to oppression and other structural deficiencies, such as with schooling in urban areas. Besides the construction of parallel institutions, such as cultural centers, publishing houses, and health clinics, the creation of freedom schools across the country was revealed to be a vital part of building revolution. Following Stockley Carmichael’s (later known as Kwame Ture) understanding of how creation is as much part of revolution as destruction, these freedom schools worked to educate and explain concepts around systems of oppression to the masses, with the aim to stimulate political consciousness. Ujju Aggarwal, shares with us in her text one of these examples of education and organizing. 

In February 1985 in Kanaky, Indigenous Kanak People’s Schools (écoles populaires kanak, EPK) were created in opposition to the French schooling system. Three months earlier, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) had started an insurrection against the French colonial regime, leading to four years of an intense anti-colonial struggle that almost brought the country’s independence. On February 28, 1985, on the first day of class after summer vacation, the FLNKS announced a boycott of the French education system, which was by then, the same as the curriculum taught in France, 17,000 kilometers away. White teachers’ colonial patronizing and an absurdly disconnected curriculum were not the only grievances addressed by the EPKs: they also intended to perpetuate the teaching of the twenty-eight Kanak languages in the country. A school in Yaté was thus giving classes in kaponé; another in Pwäräiriwa was taught in paicî, by none other than the illustrious poet activist Déwé Gorodé. Some other schools preferred keeping French as a language, in order to allow students from different linguistic areas to be in the same school. All these programs combined math, history, and geography, with matters that apply to practical situations Kanak students experience every day, in particular when it comes to laboring upon the earth. The boycott of French schools continued until June 1985. In the Accords that followed the colonial massacre of nineteen Kanak activists by the French army in May 1988, the curriculum taught in Kanaky was amended to be specific to the country, as well as the Kanak languages proposed to be taught at schools.

Map Kanaky Languages Leopold Lambert
Map of Indigenous Kanak Languages and Customary Areas. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2023) based on information from the Académie des Langues Kanak (ALK).

This anti-colonial education initiative finds echoes in past ones, organized a few years earlier by young Kanak temporarily living in the banlieues of Lyon (Vaulx-en-Velin, Vénissieux, and Villeurbanne), far from home, in France. In parallel with the publication of an activist journal, Kanak immigré (1981–1990), they took advantage of the mandatory military service in the French army to train young Kanak men on leave from their barracks to the teachings of Marx, Engels, and, remarkably, Cabral. As formed editor of Kanak immigré Joachim Tutugoro generously shared with us, the writings of the PAIGC leader, particularly resonated with young Kanak who found in his deep care for the earth, a common relationality to the (colonized) land. 

As we think about these historical and international education initiatives, it is impossible to also not think of places in our world where education is still limited today. Armed conflicts, political and economic agendas, religious beliefs, settler colonialism, among many other increasingly visible issues, continue to use school and education to adapt curriculums and learning towards their own benefits. In occupied Palestine, education continues to be crucial for the maintaining of Palestinian culture, sovereignty, and dignity over the past 75 years of colonial dispossession. Schools in Gaza continue to be an easy target of Israeli airstrikes, and school curricula in the West Bank continue to be screened by Israeli colonial authorities, according to Kefah Barham and Bassel Akar’s article “History Education for Justice and Empowerment in Palestine” (2022). But despite all this, formal schools can still be spaces of struggle, if we take as part of our learnings, the way PAIGC teachers in liberated zones used Portuguese textbooks to teach people how to read and write, while at the same time dismantling the hidden curriculum of colonial teachings. 

As the world goes through a moment of educational crisis, with school curriculum being explicitly changed to follow political party agendas together with their economic interest as we can currently witness in Florida (banning of books from curricula and libraries), it is important to broaden our understanding of political education and the diverse spaces where it can happen. By doing this, we expand the notion of school and schooling, and how in revolutionary moments, these spaces are appropriated, re-adapted, and transformed.

Following this introduction, we open with one of these various radical alternatives to the narrow understanding of a “school.” Ruth Wilson Gilmore generously shares with us the experience of a reading group in 1980s California, engaging particularly with the work of Stuart Hall. The space created by this reading group is one that does not require a complex architecture; it can be done in the back of a coffee shop, someone’s living room, or even in the street. Yet, for this reading to really constitute a revolutionary education, we need to go beyond the performative, beyond the orthodoxy, beyond the school (!) of thought. This may mean asking more questions than providing answers, and leaving the space of recitation, of intellectual laziness, and of the comfort provided by our own consensus. This means that not only do we learn with others, but we also only learn when we unlearn. Our past experiences of teaching initiatives in activist circles have shown how many of us are driven to teach rather than to learn, thus condemning us to repetition. On the contrary, reading groups built on the axiom that thinking and learning is a collective praxis, allows us to think and move together. 

In this regard, the interview with Flávio Zenun Almada in this issue is dedicated to the ongoing educational work of the Plataforma Gueto in Lisbon, from its origins to its ramifications today. He presents the importance and urgency of having such working spaces like Mbongi 67 to continue collective practices of reading, discussing, eating and of building spaces in parallel with daily struggles and survival. 

We end the issue with a beautiful text by former political prisoner from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Deaglán Ó Mocháin, who tells us that even in carceral duress, revolutionary groups organize and self-educate; thus trumping the crushing function of the prison. His writing reminds us of the self-education groups locally organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) during the anti-colonial Revolution (1954–1962). When many Algerian militants and non-militants were arrested arbitrarily, they took advantage of being forced to live together at French military detention camps (in Algeria, but also in France). They learned from one another, organized with each other, escaped together—whether literally, or through acting for their collective freedom. 

African American writer and educator Walidah Imarisha wrote that, “We can’t build what we can’t imagine.” Similarly, Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada wrote in 1996: “No change for the good ever happens without being imagined first.”

Gathering all these contributions for this issue and seeing the different approaches they give, helps us reimagine the scope of education and the places where it can happen, and how it can happen.

Nonetheless, one should not romanticize these educational initiatives. Every movement and praxis has their conflicts and contradictions, and circumstances one cannot ignore. Raúl Romero and Xavie Galvez’s text on the Zapatistas, as well as Célia Regina Vendramini on the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) in Brazil, show us some of these contradictions—namely, when revolutionary education still needs to follow some state parameters in education, so that their students can pursue a college degree and once there, can continue the process of challenging these educational structures.

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Open-air classroom from the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) at a refugee Victory camp near Lusaka, in Zambia. During Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga (1969–1979), schools located in “refugee camps in Zambia and Mozambique in the 1970s would help to build a nation of new citizens who were both well-trained and decolonised also mentally.” Excerpt from Fay Chung, Re-living the Second Chimurenga Memories from the Liberation Struggle in Zimbabwe (2006). / Archive photo provided by the artist Kudzanai Chiurai.

As co-editors, we are very aware of our limitations and choices for this issue. Educational approaches and revolutionary moments on gender and sexuality through time, for example the fight for women’s access to education, or the incorporation of comprehensive education on sexuality in school curricula, is an aspect that could have been more present in this issue. 

Nonetheless, it is our hope that these absent themes will inspire and incite readers to think and further develop the practices we present here. Education has been crucial throughout history as a solid foundation for social change and justice. Let us continue to use it according to the times through which we have lived, the times we are living through now, and the future we envision. ■