Teaching Movements as Fundamental Moral Dramas

By Dick Flacks

The questions posed for this essay dialogue are ones I’ve wrestled with over the 40 years I taught courses in social movements. I initiated an upper division social movements course in 1971, in the midst of intense campus and community antiwar protest. Students who took such a course then were overwhelmingly identifying with the student movement and many if not all had taken part in large-scale militancy (including street rebellions accompanied by bank burning and mass police roundups). As I recall, my efforts then were aimed at getting students to document and reflect on the ongoing protest that swirled around them.

Once the protest tide receded, I began to rework the course. My first concern at that time was to see how some of the emotional and human experience of mass movement might be made available. To achieve this, I decided to make films an integral part of the curriculum. UC Santa Barbara was, in the mid-70s, fostering the development of a film studies program; listing my social movements course in film studies provided me with a then necessary budget for programming a weekly film series. Several classic films (Salt of the Earth, Viva Zapata, The Organizer, Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000) brilliantly provided fictionalized illustrations of some central movement dynamics (e.g., the contradictory roles of leaders and organizers, the conditions for mass mobilization, gender and race in the maintenance of collective action). My embrace of the pedagogical value of film was greatly validated and enriched by the flood of new documentaries in the years that followed: Union Maids, Eyes on the Prize, Berkeley in the Sixties, The War at Home, Freedom on My Mind among many others. And then came a number of valuable fiction films (Matewan, Bread and Roses) that offered still more enrichment. My usual practice was to schedule a separate, required film session for the social movements class each week, where we aimed to get the entire class to experience the film together and then (for those able and willing) follow the film with an open ended freewheeling discussion. I used the films as source material for case studies and illustrations in lecture as well (employing clips and stills when needed). The availability of films on video and on line allows for much greater flexibility (and much lower budget) for making pedagogical use of film. That students can now view video on their own means less need for finding extra class time for collective showings and maybe more opportunity to make students aware of a wider number and range of films (with a consequent loss of the shared emotional experience of group viewing).

The use of film is this class is one element in a broader pedagogical perspective that has driven my teaching (and writing about social movements). I believe the content of this course is crucial to liberal education. I don’t think the study of social movements is served by foregrounding the technical theory and research now practiced in the sociology of social movements. Social movements are fundamental moral dramas. Major movements are first of all to be understood as historically evolving—movements each have their own history, and the major movements have made history. The study of movements helps us reflect on the conditions and potentials for courage and cruelty, for social solidarity and social indifference. Studying movements leads us to close examination of topics central to students’ own life concerns: the value and limitations of bureaucratic organizations, the benefits and costs of activist commitment, the sources of collective power, and so on.  So when I teach this course I am consciously trying to enable students to think about such matters.

I am also striving to get students to see the ways that history helps understandings of the present. I emphasize how movement history is largely absent from the standard school curriculum, how the actions of “ordinary people” in the past have shaped our current lives and liberties, and what we can learn from past failures and frustrations. Beginning in the mid-seventies, I began to bring the labor movement back into my social movements teaching, despite and because of its being overshadowed in the events of the sixties and seventies. I wanted to emphasize the labor movement in part because I knew that this was history most students didn’t know and were inclined to ignore. But I also decided fairly early on to take the Communist Manifesto as a key text for the course. I think that the Manifesto is the classic foundational work in the study of social movements. Marx’s theory about the evolution of proletarian struggle can be read as both a powerful framework for understanding contemporary history; at the same time, its evident failures of prediction provide excellent pedagogical tools for interpreting the rise of “non-class based” movements. In other words, understanding the civil rights and women’s movements is enhanced the more students can see the ways that the labor movement evolved, succeeded, and failed.

My teaching of social movements in a single ten-week course resulted in crucial biases of selection. I focused the course entirely on US history and society. I decided from the outset that movements were to be defined as collective efforts by the relatively powerless to gain voice and power; that definition greatly limits attention to conservative movements and counter movements.  At the start of each term, I would make clear to the class that in addition to these selective biases, I had an ideological bias—namely a commitment in my own life and work and identity to the idea that the fulfillment of democracy is necessary for human well-being, The study of social movements is an important way to understand whether such fulfillment is possible. I let students know about my own political engagement. I’ve always assumed that being able to claim some eye-witness, participant experience in some of what I was teaching was pretty valuable, provided of course that students know they can question and disagree with the interpretations I make of all that.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

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