The world has watched as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters in New York City set up an encampment on a single block in downtown Manhattan—Zuccotti Park—declaring that they represent the "other 99%" of Americans who have been impoverished and disenfranchised (www.occupywallst.org).
Join me for a visit. (This article was written before the crackdown in mid-November, 2011 in which police confiscated protestors' property and threw a library of more than 1,000 books into a dumpster.)
"This is what Democracy looks like!" declares one of the signs you see immediately on entering the Park. Others assert: "The beginning is near!" and "I don't need sex—I get f***ed every day by Wall Street."
It seems like everyone in the park has a sign—and that’s the point! The site is like a Venn diagram showing the intersection of hundreds of Americans (and regular visitors from protest movements around the world), each expressing their own need, issue, or dream. (I’ll describe my more modest sign below.)
Some people deplore the encampment as chaotic and counterproductive, while others support it as a stirring attempt to restore democracy and equity.
The encampment has been vilified by The New York Post tabloid with unsubstantiated smears about violence ("ZOOcotti animals go wild!") and a front-page editorial calling on Mayor Bloomberg to shut it down (which he eventually did, sparking charges of abridgement of our Free Speech rights).
But working journalists who actually spent time at the park, including the Jimmy Breslin of the Daily News and Michael Greenberg for The New York Review of Books, got it right. Breslin wrote, "Actually walking around Zuccotti Park, you find the scene pleasant and moderate. The large crowds coming here now are filled with children walking in front of their parents...." (11/6)
Let's look around for learning in the park.
For me, learning is everywhere, and it goes deep and rises high. OWS is one of this era's most important, effective, and exhilarating achievements in non-formal adult education.
You'll find learning here that’s relevant, self-directed, individualized, innovative, inter-generational, action-oriented, participatory, inclusive, loving, funny, and transformational:
1. Learning Is Individualized
First of all, your learning experience at here is individualized. You can choose how to experience Zuccotti Park based on your preference or your own learning style—you can circumnavigate the park for the big picture or plunge into the crowded center and become completely immersed in the details.
You can seek out the experiences, the people, and the resources that meet your needs. There's a library of books and a host of people using visual media. People express their points of view through all the arts, from music and poetry to costume and sculpture. One of the most beautiful expressions is a quilt created by a set designer for the Broadway show "Spiderman."
2. Learning Is Relevant
Learning is driven by the major issues facing public life today, not by academic disciplinary categories. Subjects like economics, political science, history, and sociology come alive in the presence of citizens struggling with the challenges of unemployment, disenfranchisement, and class discrimination.
3. Learning Is Self-Directed, Self-Designed, Self-Executed
Because of his experiences at Zuccotti, Henry Perkins, a student visitor from the University of Alabama, has decided on a learning plan to pursue coursework in the history of civil disobedience in America. (One prominent sign at the park says: "Gandhi would be here.")
"This is a life-changing experience," Perkins told reporters Henrick Karoliszn and Rich Shapiro. "I learned it's not about money. Life is more about sustainable living."
4. Learning Is Innovative
New modalities of learning are being devised every day at Zuccotti Park, such as the wall-sized crossword puzzle created by students from Pratt Institute, in which the answers are basic principles of a just society. It was inspired as a way of getting passers-by to realize the inter-related nature of the messages on signs throughout the site.
"As designers, we spent lots of time here, and realized that there are so many different messages, so we wanted to show that they are all parts of one big picture," one of the designers told me.
5. Learning Is Both Classical and Contemporary
Zuccotti Park echoes the agora of 5th-century Athens—a marketplace of ideas—in which Socrates plied his trade. The encampment re-invents public space in the city as the basis of a healthy polis. And it is also the hub of a worldwide digital network. You can watch live feeds and participate in social networking with people around the globe.
6. Learning Bridges the Generations
I talked with Carlos, a 20-year old student at John Jay College, who shared the way the world looks to people of his generation. He was very interested in the advice older adults had to offer based on their experiences with hard times. Carlos comes to Zuccotti as often as he can and brings fellow students because, he says, "we need to understand the forces that will shape the world we're about to enter."
7. Learning Grows Out of, and Results from, Action
"The conventional wisdom is that we must first know and then act," notes my colleague Bill Caspary, author of "Dewey on Education."
"But actually, we must sometimes begin to act—out of our intuitive sense that something is deeply wrong—and learn as we go along," he says.
The focus on learning through action informs everything at Zuccotti Park. Everyone is encouraged to contribute, not just stand around and gawk. So on one of my visits, I carried a day-glo yellow sign that said "Teachers: Free Lesson Plans on Democracy," and provided them on request for elementary or secondary classes (available free at www.teachablemoment.org).
On another visit, I walked past the food tent, hardly noticing that someone was announcing, "Volunteers needed at the food tent!" Only after continuing to thread my way through the aisle did I realize that the appeal had become much louder, "We really need volunteers at the food tent now!" So I backtracked and spent 45 minutes helping clean up and assemble orders.
(A week later, at the encampment in Boston, I noted that they had taken a more pro-active approach, displaying a sign at the press pent: "Student Journalists: Interviews Cost 1 hour of Dishwashing at the Food Tent. Thank you.")
On a third visit, I served as the "Mic Check" for a speaker for 20 minutes (see next item).
8. Learning Enlists World Experts
On one visit to Zuccotti, I came across Gar Alperovitz, the leading authority on the ways in which the American economy is evolving toward home-grown communitarian institutions such as credit banks, cooperative enterprises, and worker-run businesses. He was addressing a small group in a corner of the park, his presentation aided by "mic checking," a technique for making presentations audible, devised because the police prohibited the demonstrators from using public address equipment.
Someone standing close to the speaker repeats, loudly, each sentence spoken; in turn, others further back in the crowd repeat the sentence. I did a stint as one of the shouters, and it works wonderfully. I recalled Aristotle's dictum that the right size for a city is an area in which word can get around effectively through "the voices of heralds."
9. Learning Is Democratic
Every evening at OWS, everyone is welcome to convene in a nearby office-building atrium for a strategy session in which everything about the Zuccotti Park experience, and the OWS movement, is open for debate, discourse, deliberation, and the achievement of mutual understanding. The meeting lasts several hours.
These sessions are moderated by facilitators, chosen by the group, who lean over backward to assure that all viewpoints are heard and respected, no matter how long it takes. The result is that, as at Berkeley and Columbia in the 60s, when consensus is reached (that is, a resolution that most support and all can live with), it's rock solid. A unique system of expressing agreement or disagreement with what's being said, has been devised—hands held up with fingers wagging = affirmative; fingers dangling and wagging = negative.
10. Learning Is Inclusive
"Let me tell you what it feels like as a woman of color to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him," recalls Manissa McCleave Maharawal. "It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard."