If school has taught today’s students anything, it is that those who make decisions on their behalf do not always have their best interests at heart. In the world that they are entering—fraught with tremendous disparities, threatened by climate catastrophe, and wracked by civil conflict—the most important thing they could learn is how to act collectively to defend each other. That is the skill they are going to need, more than any prerequisites or job training.
In the old days, it was only military recruiters who asked young people to be ready to sacrifice their lives. Once upon a time, millions of young people refused to register for the draft or burned their draft cards. Nowadays, every young person is being asked to risk getting sick or infecting their parents just to go to class. The students walking out of class are today’s conscientious objectors.
All the signs indicate that as the 21st century proceeds, human life is going to be held increasingly cheap. Many different authorities are taking steps to inure us to the idea that we should accept mass casualties as a matter of course. The Republicans embraced this position at the beginning of the pandemic. Having waited to make sure not to place too much strain on hospital infrastructure at first, the centrists are now coming around to it themselves. If this is not the future we want, we have to show the way to another way of life.
The student walkouts are at the front of this fight.
Yes, Please, Disrupt the Economy
In the first weeks of the pandemic, workers endangered by the virus and angered by the indifference of their bosses staged wildcat strikes and walk-offs across the country. From auto plants and slaughterhouses to call centers and Amazon warehouses, employees sought to change their working conditions immediately or else rejected them outright. When right-wing critics accuse the federal government of disrupting the economy during the pandemic, this conceals the impact that millions of fed-up rank-and-file employees have had via direct action. Were it not for all that disruption, it is certain that there would have been countless thousands more deaths.
Likewise, as we have argued from the beginning, the solution for the economic privation that the pandemic has intensified is not less disruption, but more direct action—up to and including a total overhaul in the ways that resources are distributed in this society.
Today, students are taking the lead, as a wave of walk-outs and strikes looms around the United States. With the omicron variant pushing infection rates to unprecedented heights, young people are refusing to let adults decide what risks they should have to face.
Remember, young people’s access to vaccines can be limited by their parents; they may not be able to get the protection that policy makers are assuming they should have. This is just one of many examples showing how, across the board, students have even less control over their daily conditions than most workers do. Similarly, school-wide policies do not account for students who may have particularly vulnerable relatives at home or other good reasons to decide for themselves what level of risk they are willing to tolerate.
As anarchists, we will always stand with students when they walk out of their classrooms and with workers when they walk off of their jobs. We want everyone to have safer conditions with ample masks, tests, and space—but above all, we believe that students, like workers, should always be the ones to decide where, when, how, and whether to study or work. The pandemic has done a lot to sharpen public perceptions of how power works, undermining the usual excuses about why others should call the shots in our lives.
Students on the frontlines today have a lot more to win than remote learning or safer classrooms.
School in the Age of the “Great Resignation”
It’s not a coincidence that mass actions involving rebellious students arrive on the heels of a widespread loss of faith in work.
Years ago, addressing the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, we wrote:
Most of the things we make and do for money are patently irrelevant to our survival—and to what gives life meaning, besides.
Today’s global economic chaos has made that painfully clear. The flip side of the hypocritical cheerleading for “essential workers”1 is the implication that most of us are inessential. Most of us could just stop working altogether at the jobs we had in 2020 without any real negative effect on the world. This is one of many factors that made people somewhat less inclined to return to work at all.
Mutual aid programs, community gardens, rent strikes, eviction defense, and later—in an effort to head off more radical possibilities—government checks helped many of us to survive without going hungry or losing our homes, even when we were unemployed. Now, politicians and their corporate funders are trying to coerce people into going back to work by cutting off benefits or eliminating health measures. But it’s still not working. The massive wave of workers quitting their jobs—the so-called “Great Resignation”—shows that many people’s ideas about what is “essential” are very different from what the economy values.
The new wave of student walkouts in 2022 illustrates that something similar has been taking place in schools. For the majority of students, the chief purpose of schools is to confine them while their parents are at work and to hammer enough discipline into them that when they graduate or drop out, they’ll be likely to show up on time to their crappy service jobs.
Most of the things we need to know how to do in order to thrive in healthy communities are not even on the agenda at the majority of schools. Students rarely learn how to grow food or defend ecosystems, how to build houses or fix cars or resolve conflicts. Most of what students are taught—how to wake up early, how to move around when bells ring, how to go through metal detectors while being watched through security cameras—has more to do with keeping people under control than with helping them to thrive.
Despite all the rhetoric about how important education is, it turns out school isn’t “essential” at all, as the last year showed clearly enough. The main thing it’s essential for is channeling us into the economy, the same economy that adults are trying to desert in droves. No wonder students are walking out.
A New Phase of Student Struggles?
These student strikes and walkouts are just the latest chapter in an ongoing story of youth revolt. Young people were at the forefront of the George Floyd uprising in summer 2020. Two years before that, in 2018, students began a wave of walkouts and protests across the country in response to the school shooting at Parkland.
As we argued then, the important issue was never “gun control” or “school security.” The Parkland shooter was a MAGA-hat-wearing racist who embodied the sickness at the heart of the United States’ white supremacist history and culture. Centrists sought to use the tragedy to pass more gun laws, which would likely be used first and foremost against the same communities that the police always target most aggressively. But it is also possible to understand the shooting as a manifestation of the same structural violence that the police also employ, not an anomaly that could be suppressed by more “control” and “security.”
The wave of youth resistance in early 2018 marked the largest coordinated student actions since the height of the civil rights movement decades ago. One of the most inspiring aspects of the movement was the way that many participants bypassed the usual adult channels for making change, despite adult efforts to steer them back into those directions. Students across the country took action directly, without permission from teachers, principals, parents, politicians, the National Rifle Association, or anyone else.
It’s time to stop depending on adults who are invested in America’s system of power to solve the problems it produces. It’s time for young people to get together and set out on a different path.
We can see this happening in today’s student walkouts and strikes in response to COVID-19. As teachers’ unions, mayors, parents groups, and other adults vie for control of policies and narratives, young people are taking direct action without waiting for permission. While COVID-19 safety has been the main focus of the protests and walkouts, students in some districts are linking them to other concerns, from repressive anti-backpack policies to the need for laptops, mental health support, and mutual aid projects. This shows a spreading political intelligence—which will become a greater threat to top-down control as students learn to wield their power to address more and more of the issues they face.
By walking out in response to the school shooting, students took responsibility for asserting the importance of their own safety rather than relying on adult experts, school cops, or NRA advocates for protection. Today, once again, high school students are right not to permit any principal or mayor to decide for them what kinds of risks they should be prepared to take. In the process of organizing the walkouts, students are learning skills for taking back power over their lives that will serve them in the months and years to come.
Can movements like this really lead to massive social change? In Chile, in 2019, high school students began protesting a hike in subway fares by hopping turnstiles, opening gates, and eventually destroying subway stations. This catalyzed nationwide protests that paralyzed the government for months, winning a new constitution and inspiring similar movements all around the world.
Don’t sell yourselves short, students!
Zoom Is Not the Answer
To spell this out, the answer is not simply to return to Zoom classrooms—not even from the perspective of “harm reduction.” Remote learning and social isolation have had profound negative mental health consequences on students, just as the penetration of employment into the home has been catastrophic for workers.2
Remote learning has been particularly hard on poorer students, deepening the economic divide that cuts across the education system. In a dramatically unequal society, a student’s ability to participate in virtual learning is determined by connectivity issues, technological disparities, and the fact that for some young people, the home is not a safe place to be in the first place. Students with special needs are doubly impacted by all of these factors.
Yet this points to a much deeper crisis. The United States has been divesting from social infrastructure for several decades now—especially from the public education system, which was hardly set up according to altruistic intentions in the first place. The era when getting a good education guaranteed social advancement is long past, and even those who benefit most from the current educational system have an increasingly cynical attitude about it. In short, the same students who will not get the help they need at home are increasingly not getting it at school, either.
So rather than simply calling to send students home until this all blows over, we have to ask a bigger question. Now that the pandemic has upended everything, what would it take to actually meet the intellectual, social, emotional, and health needs of young people, regardless of class or ability?
Ideally, students should form their own mutual aid, self-defense, and self-education projects, via which to start learning about and building the things that they care about. The walkouts could be a step towards this. This proposal is not as outlandish as it might seem—the punk and hip hop subcultures of the past forty years have essentially been self-organized youth education movements that functioned with very little support from external institutions.
Simply withdrawing from the school system is not enough, especially not on an individual basis. It won’t undo the disparities that exist today and it won’t provide for the poorer students or the ones with the most needs. Rather, we might picture a collective mutiny, in which students, teachers, special needs care providers, and all the other people who make up today’s derelict public school system defect from it together, taking everything and everyone with them. We need to experiment with what education might mean if it were not simply a springboard for neoliberal competition and a holding pen for what Ebenezer Scrooge called the surplus population. Let’s dare to dream that one day, walkouts might become occupations.
The Next Steps
Backlash against the walkouts has come from across the political spectrum. Alongside predictable right-wing attacks on mask mandates and protest in general, Democrats have attempted to crush the growing movement to close classrooms in Chicago and beyond. Dutiful liberal media outlets are doing their best to acclimate us to a higher risk tolerance—a “new normal” that enables profits to keep rolling in and elites and experts to keep calling the shots. Parents obsessed with grades and competition are even forcing sick students to return to school, according to one post from a New York City high schooler.
We can link the struggles in schools across the country with those unfolding in workplaces. Imagine Starbucks baristas and pizza bakers walking off the job to build relationships of solidarity with students and teachers, igniting a wave of strikes and economic disruption that could finally offer ordinary people real leverage on the institutions of our age.
In the twenty-first century, with robots replacing jobs by the million, refugees trapped outside militarized borders, and politicians of all stripes telling us that profits matter more than the millions of deaths inflicted by pandemics and climate change, we’re being taught to believe that life is cheap. Provided that the projections predict the casualties will be distributed in the categories that people are already prepared to sacrifice—the elderly, the immunocompromised, the disabled, the undocumented, the stateless, the incarcerated—we’re expected to roll the dice and play along. The students and workers who are refusing their roles in this narrative are proposing a radically different way to define what constitutes safety in the first place.
Let’s delegitimize the institutions, from school boards to city governments to corporate headquarters, that are attempting to force students and workers back into harmful situations. Let’s go beyond protesting their irresponsible decisions to asking why it is that these people get to make those decisions in the first place.
The progressives who are always demanding “money for jobs and education” are missing the point. The last thing most workers want are jobs, at least of the sort that exist today—and the last thing most students want are schools, at least as they exist today. We want to live free lives among the people we love, to gain access to the resources we need, to create institutions that connect us in meaningful ways, to develop our potential on our own terms—those are the things that are essential to us. Jobs and schools are largely obstacles to those things.
As anarchists, we believe that no one is better qualified than we are to determine how we should live our lives. The student walk-outs and strikes point the way towards a profoundly different world, a world in which all of us get to choose the conditions in which we labor, play, learn, and live. It’s not just our deaths that are at stake here—it is our lives, as well, and how we will live them. The students walking out from their schools deserve all the solidarity we can give them.
- Deschooling: Unlearning to Learn—From Education to Liberation
- No Gods, No Masters Degrees—A Memoir of Struggle from Outside and Inside the Institutions of Learning
- UNControllables: The Story of an Anarchist Student Group—And How to Organize Your Own
- Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich
- The Teenage Liberation Handbook, Grace Llewellyn
- Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto
- Towards the Destruction of Schooling, Jan D. Matthews
- Instead of Education, John Holt
- Anarchism and Education, Judith Suissa
- “Anarchism Is a Living Force within our Life“—Anarchism, Education and Alternative Possibilities (A journal)
- Zapatista Education: An Examination of the Zapatista Education System—Resources from Schools for Chiapas
We also recommend the twitter account of the Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front.
The celebration of “essential workers” did not lead to any substantive changes in how workers are paid, treated, or protected. From the standpoint of the economy and those who identify with it, it is the work that is essential, not those who perform it. ↩
“If employers once feared that employees would smuggle resources from the workplace into their homes, now it is work itself that steals into our homes, narrowing the distance between the two meanings of ‘occupation’—employment and annexation—turning the bedroom into a factory churning out alienation in its pure form with hardly a physical product to show for it.” -What Work Steals from Us ↩