Knowledge Ownership and Guerilla Education


Deep in the last century when I was a high school teacher in a private boys school, I would arrange guerrilla field trips for my biology class to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. No school or charter bus. Attendees must use public transportation or get a ride to the gathering point on the mall.  Each had to present his transportation plan in advance of the trip.

Outside the museum I briefed the students with something like this:

Gentlemen. this is a guerrilla field trip.  We did not register as a school group in accordance with Smithsonian rules.  They want us to be ushered around only looking at what somebody else wants us to look at and to hear what they want to say about it.  The hell with that. There are only three specific exhibits I require you to view [I listed them.] After that, only look at what interests you.  If it is not interesting, then walk on by.

Your assignment will be to find something that interests you and to write two concise, flawless, well-researched paragraphs that will persuade your peers that your selection is in fact interesting and worth knowing.

Pair up and do not acknowledge each other as you walk around the place.  Behave yourselves because this is an illicit trip and we don’t want any attention.  If for any reason you do get in trouble, have them page your uncle “Mr. Green” and I will be there to deal with the problem.

Remember, this is a guerilla field trip. On your terms, not theirs.  Steal the knowledge you want, leave the rest for another time.

We will meet back outside here at the Triceratops statue at noon, compare notes, make another pass and then head back.  Questions?

What I really wanted to avoid was bringing the classroom bubble with us. That little social entity filled with lots of whispering, poking, giggling, and not paying attention to what is currently being imposed on their cognition.  You two, knock it off.  Listen to the nice lady telling you about Eocene horse species. Forget that. I wanted them to feel like they owned what they learned and not that someone else crammed it into their heads.

This approach horrifies a lot of people. My younger self was not as adept at (or much cared about) certain risk-benefit considerations as would my elderly self.  My younger self worked hard to emulate his best teachers and knew that if he could not find reasons or ways to find the course content interesting and important to know, why should his students?  You only really own knowledge if it is an answer to your own questions, fills in a space in a cognitive structure of your own, or, best case, if it sparks a sense of wonder. How do you make your students ask the question the answer for which is what you are trying to teach? How do you help them own that knowledge in a way that matters? How do you do it so that learning becomes a vocation, a pleasure, an ongoing need?

In those days, I also did math tutoring and test prep in DC for groups of kids drawn from a couple of DC public high schools.  These were not kids from the projects but mostly from homes with involved parents.  The systemic mediocrity of late elementary and middle school education in DC public schools was (and is) appalling and even brought down these kids from good families.

My colleagues and I were obsessive number crunchers and did lots of before and after testing.  We found that it was as if some alien spacecraft scooped up these kids after the fourth or fifth grade, then returned them at age 13.  There were huge holes in basic math skills, reading, vocabulary, and grammar.  Worst of all, there was a kind of permanent grade school vision of learning in which it was just a game where one regurgitated the right answer in the moment for a gold star—no awareness or a model of learning that included fluency, mastery, nuance.  There was no maturing cognitive structure with spaces to be filled.  It was not just that these kids were a number of years or percentiles behind.  It was that they did not have an experience of education that shaped them in the ways kids need and deserve.  They were simply not properly prepared to learn.  On the math side, in each group, one out of every four or five kids would make an enormous improvement in a short time, an indication of very high innate abilities being wasted–criminally wasted.

Black leaders over the last century (e.g., W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X) have had radically different political visions but shared a fundamental understanding that there could be no material or social progress without ownership of knowledge, skills, habits, and the means to command an income and acquire property.  Education was not a gloss but a foundation and a necessary part of personal formation, growth, and empowerment.

Now, malignant fools are telling black kids that good study habits are “acting white”, that finding the correct answer is a symptom of “whiteness” and that merit is just a racist concept.  This package of lies reduces accountability for unionized teachers and for education bureaucrats and enhances future income prospects for race grievance hustlers but meanwhile, great lasting harm is being inflicted on those kids and on the country.

Woke ideology is a sick joke that claims to be about the redistribution of power while stripping away access to actual power from the people who can least afford to lose it.  Black kids are being told they cannot really expect to own knowledge and skills and should not even try.  Presumably, they should expect to be awarded job titles through grievance politics while some white-adjacent ambitious immigrants in a back room do the actual programming, calculations, or research and report-writing.

Maybe somebody should tell kids to steal Shakespeare, calculus, Mark Twain, and organic chemistry.  Steal it all and own what a lot of people seem to want to keep from you, kid.  Real education is increasingly becoming an illicit, defiant guerilla undertaking so why not approach it accordingly? Fight the power!

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  1. Ekosj Member

    If I may say so … it’s GENIUS!!!  

    • #1
  2. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat

    Any kid that can learn in today’s schools is indeed a rebel.  A hard-headed, highly motivated, difficult and stubborn rebel.

    There are very few of those in elementary school.  There are some, though.  And I wish them the best.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member

    Old Bathos: Maybe somebody should tell kids to steal Shakespeare, calculus, Mark Twain, and organic chemistry.  Steal it all and own what a lot of people seem to want to keep from you, kid.  Real education is increasingly becoming an illicit, defiant guerilla undertaking so why not approach it accordingly? Fight the power!

    Amen, brother!

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Excellent post! I would have loved to go on a guerilla field trip. How sneaky, scary and fun! What an exciting way to stimulate curiosity, a love of learning and growth. And you are right about today’s kids, especially black kids, who are essentially told that they are crippled and there’s nothing they can do about it. If racism is systemic, how will they ever escape their bonds?

    • #4
  5. cdor Member

    Guerrilla Field Trip—grrrrrreat! It takes guts, as a teacher, to be responsible for the wanderings of unsupervised teenagers. But what a magnificent learning experience your braveness (bravery)provided them.

    • #5
  6. Sisyphus Member

    A soon as they understand that knowledge is a weapon that many people would like to hide from them, they have a chance.

    • #6
  7. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos

    cdor (View Comment):

    Guerrilla Field Trip—grrrrrreat! It takes guts, as a teacher, to be responsible for the wanderings of unsupervised teenagers. But what a magnificent learning experience your braveness provided them.

    We also had “Senior Survival Day”.  A colleague who had grown up in one of DC’s worst neighborhoods and I (from one of DC’s more posh neighborhoods) created a set of scavenger hunt tasks that (because it was pre-internet) required direct inspection.  He mockingly called it survival day just because of how novel it would be for some privileged kids to have to take the bus–there were no seriously dangerous places on any lists.  We plotted the tasks on bus routes (also before the Metro) so that public transportation or walking were available options.  What is in the second floor last right window in the Russian embassy? What is Gen. Thomas holding in his right hand in the statue at Thomas Circle?  Ask for ___ at the ____ restaurant in Chinatown to give you a message (the waiter was a friend of a friend).  First two-man team to complete its list and return won.  These kinds of things faded as the school grew and risk-aversion became more of a real-world factor.

    • #7
  8. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill

    What an outstanding method for cultivating the curiosity and intelligence innate in young minds, if the school system doesn’t warp that out of them.

    When I was in fifth grade, I had a delightful teacher, Mrs Graver. She thought that by a certain date we needed to have covered so much American history. She found out one week prior to that date, that we should have covered an additional six chapters.

    She immediately converted half the school day for that entire week to my class reading aloud those chapters. She made it seem like a fun filled challenge, and left plenty of open time to discuss topics we found interesting  and also to ask questions.

    I still remember that lively week as one of the more exciting weeks in my first 12 years of education. To think dreary cursive hand writing could be shoved aside, and math and English. Just to revel in my favorite subject.

    Only after I was out in the world did I realize a lesser teacher would have never admitted her mistake. Mrs Graver could have simply  insisted we all read those six chapters on our own as homework each night during the school week and over the coming weekend. No one in the administration would have known the difference. Perhaps the main difference:  I think we all scored higher on the Catholic Archdiocese history test as we all had had so much fun.


    • #8

    “Gentlemen this is a guerilla field trip. Failure is not an option.  50% of you will not make it home”


    • #9