Apocalyptic and Revolutionary Education

Spread the love

Today’s youth face fearsome challenges in what our society calls “mental health,” some as a result of having suffered childhood traumas, but many others simply from the stress of trying to find their way in a society complicated by so many destabilizing factors. As individuals concerned with the education of our children, it is important to be mindful of and compassionate about the difficult issues young people may be coping with. Poets Lucinda and Miller Williams offer a poignant reminder of the need for understanding:


Have compassion for everyone you meet

Even if they don’t want it

What seems conceit is always a sign

Always a sign, always a sign

For those you encounter, have compassion

Even if they don’t want it

What seems bad manners is always a sign

Always a sign, always a sign

Always a sign of things no ears have heard

Always a sign of things no eyes have seen

You do not know what wars are going on

Down there, where the spirit meets the bone

Down there, where the spirit meets the bone

Down where the spirit meets the bone

For everyone you listen to, have compassion

Even if they don’t want it

I want to explore a broader conversation concerning the ways we think about “mental health” and the role of education. For many in our society, both adults and youth, facing each new day is difficult, given the psychological and social burdens engendered by multiple interlocking crises:  The looming climate catastrophe and other ecological debacles rooted in our violent alienation from nature; a renewed nuclear arms race; exploding global economic inequality and racial injustice; and a frightening movement toward authoritarianism— even neo-fascism— around the planet. We are warding off the prospect of a world in flames.  

Education can play a key role in helping our youth navigate this unstable world. But it has to be a particular kind of “freedom school” education, engaging the humanity of both the teacher-learner and the student-leader, and simultaneously framing the apocalypse of 21st century life as the context for unprecedented change, revelation and human renewal. The necessary educational experiences would include forms of revolutionary struggle against the apocalypse (a word from the Greek meaning “unveiling”).

The literal poster child for this kind of education is, of course, 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, Sweden’s gifted citizen-of-the-world, whose autism reportedly manifested in childhood as selective mutism, a severe and potentially life-threatening depression. However, she started to learn about the looming catastrophe of climate change, and then determined to do something about it, even if she had to act alone. Her one-person school strikes inspired tens of millions of climate activists, which led to significant breakthroughs for worldwide consciousness concerning the crisis.  

Greta herself became a globally recognized leader, teacher, and advocate, turning her “mental health” diagnosis into astonishingly articulate power. Profound lessons of her personal truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story are at the core of what I’m calling apocalyptic and revolutionary education. Simply writing those words, I can barely contain my enthusiasm about the mere prospect of trying it out with teenagers. 

Forever Young

By Bob Dylan

May God keep and bless you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous

May you grow up to be true

May you always know the truth

And see the light surrounding you

May you always be courageous

Stand upright and be strong

May you stay forever young


May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

May your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young

The key difference between the kind of education I’m proposing and our current boring, meaningless schooling is a relentless focus on cultivating students’ agency and power to shape their own lives and communities. Such learning would be project-based, hands-on and place-specific. A successful movement for apocalyptic and revolutionary education would also explore with young people the socio-political dynamics of class struggle, race, gender, and ability. Such a movement would teach youth that they’re not the problem. They’re the solution to the problems. What a breath of fresh air! Studying exemplary models like the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Me Too, Time’s Up, the March for Our Lives, Youth Climate Strikes, and the Dreamers would affirm students’ abilities and strengthen their confidence to become leaders themselves.

We would also include the wisdom of elders, tapping into groups like the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, and the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement, as well international groups like the Zapatista National Liberation Front, Via Campesina, the Transnational Institute, and the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. Students would learn that there is power in seeking the truth, learning democracy, participating in community, fighting for justice.  

We can choose revolutionary struggle against the apocalypse, or we can choose death after meaningless lives. Those are our choices, and that’s the basis of a curriculum for apocalyptic and revolutionary education. We can choose between liberal reforms to relieve suffering and radical revolution to pull it out at the roots. Hard stuff. The educational processes we need would help students discover their power to heal, grow, and transform the world.

Babylon System 

by Bob Marley and the Wailers

We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be
We are what we are
That’s the way it’s going to be, if you don’t know
You can’t educate us
For no equal opportunity
Talking about my freedom
People freedom and liberty

Yeah, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long
Rebel, rebel
Yes, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long
Rebel, rebel

Babylon system is the vampire, yeah
Sucking the children day by day, yeah
I say, the Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire
Sucking the blood of the sufferers, yeah
Building church and university
Deceiving the people continually
I say they are graduating thieves and murderers
Look out now, they are sucking the blood of the sufferers 

Tell the children the truth

Tell the children the truth

Tell the children the truth right now

Come on and tell the children the truth

Tell the children the truth

Tell the children the truth

Tell the children the truth

Come on and tell the children the truth

A decade ago the city squares all over the world echoed with the spontaneous cries of “Occupy! Connect! Create!” More recently our Indigenous brothers and sisters have risen up against genocidal fossil energy schemes, crying “Mini Wiconi!” (Water is Life). As the new decade dawns, people are once again in the streets all around the world battling neoliberal austerity and domination in all its toxic forms.  The ancient wisdom of our humanity and the young activists on the cutting edge of today’s movements offer examples of fabulous apocalyptic and revolutionary education. We can discover the ideas, formations, networks, fractals, and movement dynamics that will get us through today’s nightmares. Key is the right kind of education and acting on it with others.  Let it grow.    

The first curricular principle of the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM) is: “Education is not a commodity provided to students by teachers who fill them up with information. It is a dynamic transformative process based on human relationships and collaborative learning.  Learning is universal and inevitable. People learn something no matter what we do, where, with whom or how we do it.  It’s part of our humanity. Freedom Schools build the learning experience around this inherent aspect of our souls and spirits.

Longtime Detroiter Thomas Stephens currently does organizing and legal work for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. He has served as policy analyst for the Detroit City Council Research and Analysis Division. He previously worked as a trial lawyer, litigating cases related to environmental justice and civil rights.