An Appeal to My Generation for Social Reconstruction

Capturing the Energy of a New Generation

In the early years of a new century, a vibrant new energy appears to be awakening. This emergent energy is composed of a fresh generation of young activists, thinkers, and public policy practitioners, holding the potential to propel social transformation and reconstruction around critical questions of peace, economic justice, environmental security, health and well-being, science and inquiry, gender equality, and cultural pluralism. It is a collection of diverse individuals, who have begun to actively reject the direction its government has taken them down in the first eight years of a century that we were told would hold great new hopes for our generation. I take pride in counting myself as but one of many in this growing crowd.

As the politics of elections marches forward, the sudden growth in youth participation has been a reoccurring headline, primary after primary, caucus after caucus. This has included not just the statistics of increased young voter turnout but also remarkable stories of recent college graduates piling into a friend’s car for voluntary weekend campaign road trips, crisscrossing their respective geographic region, from New Hampshire to South Carolina to Maryland, Ohio, and now on to Pennsylvania, all in hopes of getting their candidate elected. While still only vaguely defined, “change” has become the dominant theme of the nominating cycle, signifying a break, in one form or another, from an old politics attached to a failed presidency. A new generation has come to embody this word. Now it must become the imperative of that generation to give substantive definition from below to the rhetoric of “change” offered from above.

Outside of electoral participation, political expression of a different sort has also emerged, providing early answers to what radical change can really mean. Across the country, young ex-GI’s have begun to speak out, with incredible candor and force, against an illegal and immoral war entering its sixth year, a war that has now taken the lives of over 4,000 American young men and women and over 600,000 Iraqis. Last month’s testimonies from self-defined Winter Soldiers, evoking the American revolutionary spirit of Thomas Paine and, later, the defiance of anti-war veterans returning from Vietnam in the 1970s, mark a profound display of a moral sense. Courageous admissions to unthinkable acts of aggression by young men and women, conducting themselves according to the military’s rules of engagement, signify a public recognition of the Other in the face of the repressive institutions of war-making—institutions which too frequently mask routine human destruction in the language of duty and honor.

And, yet, remaining is the challenge of linking together various demonstrations of young people standing up and standing with to a long-term vision of an attainable new society. That is to say, the task before us is one of social translation—translating the language of both high aspirations and committed resistance into a sustainable political program and practical hope.

Education, Democracy, and a New Social Consciousness

In post-Enlightenment modernity, the educational system was supposed to provide the foundation for such a transformation. In classrooms, through shared dialogue and discussion between students and instructors, a form of universal rational thought was to both transcend and respect individual difference. At the same time, education was to provide the means for humane, practical action on behalf of the collective society. This was the promise of the 17th and 18th Century Age of Enlightenment, and perhaps no American philosopher put more faith into the institution of education than the great pragmatist, John Dewey. For Dewey, progressive education was to be the link between an anti-hierarchical, truly democratic politics and material progress and social justice. Finding one’s self in the midst of the transformational process, with the tools of human reason, was to quell those conflicts of an ideological or religious nature.

However, rather than alleviating suffering, the language and practice of scientific rationality too often mutated into new forms of dogmatic authoritarian control, alienation of the Self, and planned social destruction, packaged to the public as “inevitable.” An active democracy tied to scientific inquiry, as Dewey had advocated, had been split apart, with democracy sidelined in the face of supposed threats to national and economic security, running from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

Breaking Apart the “Channeling Colony”

The bases of knowledge, on which an educational system is built, are rarely probed in an attempt to extract the socio-cultural, political, and ideological tendencies through which forms of knowledge are partially produced. Nonetheless, it is upon this foundation, constantly evolving, where great possibility for a different future lies.

In a March 10, 2008 Washington Post article, one can see an illustrative example of the present deficit in the debate around knowledge and education, an unwillingness to probe foundational questions. In the point-counterpoint article, the Post’s Education columnist, Jay Mathews, defends the growth of Advanced Placement testing in the nation’s high schools in face of exam failure rates that appear to be on the rise. Mathews’ interlocutor, Patrick Mattimore, a journalist and teacher, argues that the AP program’s expansion should be halted until more can be invested in pre-AP educational resources.

Simply stated, the moral claim of Mathews is that only through struggle can one realize his/her full potential. He writes, “more young people are realizing they have the stuff that will get them through college” [through taking part in challenging AP courses]. Mattimore’s moral counter: such a situation is allowing the affluent a free pass to prestigious universities and high-paying jobs, exacerbating the social inequalities we should be fighting against. For one man, success is seen as the individual “getting through,” moving on to the next pre-determined social post that he/she is told, from an early age, defines success. For the other, society as a whole, particularly its level of inequality, becomes the subject of analysis and normative determinant. But the measure of success, the ability to “get by” to the next pre-established social location, defines both.

Is simply “getting through” or “getting by” the measure by which we ought to determine success? Or will we be able offer new definitions of social intelligence that dig deeper than simply answering the question, “does it work?” Both questioning our present knowledge system and offering alternatives to it ought to be part of our task if the change we desire is to be made permanent.

In 1973, in his still pertinent inquiry of the human social condition, Being & Doing, the Institute’s co-founder and director of the Paths for Reconstruction in the 21st Century project, Marcus Raskin, would have described the given debate as part of the “channeling colony.” In this system, judgments on what ought to be “known” in a society are not arrived at through democratic debate and dialogue but are rather definitively set by authorities, administering and colonizing the public from above. Such colonizers might be sitting on the boards of universities, seeking funding and social prestige, in executive offices of the nation’s great corporations, attempting to increase profit margins, or in the halls of government where they seek prolonged institutional power for their party and a political legacy for themselves. In these settings, specializations are designed through which young persons are to be routed. The individual’s capacity for choice, creativity, and compassion are sealed off, masked by a moral and political language that calls for objectivity and conformity.

This situation is as palpable today as it was 30 years ago. And now, more than ever, it is the task of a new generation to stand up, resist, and begin to restore those human capacities that have been sequestered. Our proposed project for doing so begins by rethinking and reconstructing how we know the world around us.

Reconstructive Knowledge: Some Themes

Full Participation

It is participation of the public, those from every religious sect, social class, race, and cultural background, which will serve as the basis from which social reconstruction will begin. Structurally, this means opening new spaces for the association of individuals, collective dialogue, and social experimentation—new arenas for alternative forms of social relations to be allowed to grow. In many cases, this will mean returning decision-making powers to the most local levels, those spaces closest and most accessible to the citizenry. Where the individuals involved and affected by such social experimentations decide that their experiments and inventions have failed or soured, institutional impediments ought to be removed so that an alternative program can be replanted by the subjects themselves, permitting reconstruction to begin anew.

We ought not be utopian in our thought about reconstruction, preventing ourselves from falling into a path of revolutionary destruction. Ends do not justify means but rather the two are intertwined, as Dewey best articulated; each step, each act undertaken being an end in itself and a means to unlocking a new idea, a new invention, or a new spirit. Ensuring full participation is not a prerequisite for creating social change nor will it guarantee positive material results. As participants, we should prepare ourselves for this. Mistakes will be made, but as has been written in the introduction to this project, mistakes can be afforded if we are in the right frame of reference. I echo this belief.

Social Change

It is critical that after being given the opportunity to participate we do so with our gaze set in a particular direction. I have already referred to this as a movement between standing up and standing with. But beyond standing with, we must make ourselves cognizant of those critical social problems that we, as humanity, must confront and resolve. We must not only stand with those marginalized in our society, the most vulnerable among us, but we should participate in the process of first defining those ills that need resolving, and, second, we ought to center our work and education around their full resolution.

I return to the notion of the “channeling colony,” as discussed by Raskin, to make a point of contrast. In the “channeling colony,” there is no open social dialogue about what is being studied or researched. Questions of inquiry come pre-determined by the hierarchical relation of research funders to researchers, be they part of the private sector or the state. Disciplinary studies drown the moral implications of each inquiry; that is, the human effect that each study might have is buried by labels such as “economics,” “physics,” or “psychology.” However, when we embrace a new knowledge, a reconstructive knowledge, social change becomes our imperative, morality seeps back into our discourse about how we choose our questions of investigation, and the neutral disciplinary demarcations begin to be offset.
The social problems we face are not static, however. Upon one problem’s resolution or with the emergence of new points of social division, a change in foci will and ought to occur, but we must never lose sight of each problem’s moral content.

Existential Subjectivity

While participation becomes our method and social change our motivation, subjectivity becomes our location of being, thinking, and acting. By this, I mean that our work attaches to ourselves; that which we create, invent, and produce, the knowledges we promote, are all things we, as inventors, are prepared to live within. This is an existential attachment to our own work which again holds a deep, but yet very simple, moral understanding. Only when we are able and willing to experience the consequences of that which we are a creator of do we respect the freedom of the Other while, at the same time, engaging with our own freedom. Through full commitment we, as creators, define our social community rather than having some form of authority do this for us.

To return to Raskin’s Being & Doing one last time, I illuminate his useful conception of the project. The project, Raskin writes on page 209, “is man’s way of feeling and acting as being to being which asserts that he is not thrown into the world or programmed through a series of steps which define the being of some in the world at the expense of others.” It is a sense of sharing the burdens and the joys of that which one has participated in building. Moreover, making the self a subject to his/her own acts of creation functions as a moral limit—holding back any temptation one may have for committing an act whose outcome it is believed would do harm to the Other, and, therefore, to one’s own Self.

In an age of technological advancement that surpasses the human understanding of most, it is this critical form of respect that reconstructive knowledge embraces as a moral brake on those creations, social, scientific, or technological, which might aid in the production of devices to be used for the purpose of unthinkable devastation.

New Public Policy

Lastly, the power of reconstructive knowledge lies in its short-term objective. Reconstructive knowledge is a form of knowing that is fully social and wholly political, meaning it is intended for public consumption and as a basis for political action. Therefore, it cannot be esoteric or mysterious but rather must be accessible as new public policy is crafted at all levels of government. The means for bridging new knowledge with the political process begins by bringing together individuals currently residing within their quartered-off social corners, be they in academia, politics, journalism, the exact sciences, medicine, or civil service. Further, it means bringing together those from all backgrounds, and, as we hope happens here, gathering the young and the old. Reconstruction requires the engagement of all these individuals with one another around the possibility of moving ideas from locations of external power, that is, within (civil) society, into the different layers of the state through the creation of just laws, community resolutions, and protective regulations.

And when this interaction creates new policies and laws, such “ends” do not remain outside the realm of adjustment or amendment. Rather, they become a means to further change, the impetus for increased deliberation and new social projects. Participation, dialogue, association, and new experimentation continue as new knowledge adapts to new events, unforeseeable variables, and an ever-evolving social consciousness.

This is one vision of reconstruction and reconstructive knowledge in the new century, which our generation should come to define further. Like all else in this project, it should not be seen as “fixed” nor pre-determined but rather as one access point through which new discussions on social knowledge, politics, and a more decent society can begin.

Transforming Energy into New Knowledges

To restate, it is necessary for the individuals of a particular generation to first stand up, choosing to not hide from the challenges present in the world surrounding them. This, I fully believe, is happening in our present moment, perhaps most widely-publicized in the arena electoral politics but reaching far beyond the current election cycle into the creation of new student groups and youth movements, be they organized around issues of economic justice, environmental protection, climate security, or demilitarization, among others.

Beyond resistance, we must work to shake up and, indeed, reconstruct the underlying knowledges that perpetuate suffering, at times obvious but often masked in the language of scientific rationality and a false belief in unavoidability. Again, ours is not a utopian vision but a pragmatic one; thinking revolutionarily but acting within the boundaries of human decency and the politically possible. Reconstruction is not a temporary, but rather, permanent process of humane trial and error. No single change we might make in our institutions or social relations will fully solve the inequalities and injustices in a world of innumerable variables and actors working beyond our individual control.

If we struggle for the rights of full participation; if we are motivated in our studies, research, and life’s work by a vision of a different society; if we take ourselves as subjects of that work; and if we bridge gaps between various blocs of power in our society and beyond, both institutional and external, our endeavor will have great promise and infinite possibility. However, all of this will require new ideas and new commitments from a new generation willing to feel, think, and act. This is our appeal.

Joshua Frens-String is a Washington, DC-based writer and a recent US Fulbright scholar to Latin America. He was formerly an IPS intern.