If I had not been in Wisconsin during the 2011 protests, it might never have occurred to me how radically I had miscalculated the state of American common sense. Thankfully, a Wisconsin grandmother put me in my place with bloodcurdling screams that teachers are “freeloaders.” For decades, public school teachers, firefighters, and other state employees (not to mention their labor unions) were not compelled to make a clear case for what they deemed obvious—their own significance. Instead, they forfeited important ground to conservative think tanks and politicians, who took advantage by creating a narrative about lazy teachers and corrupt unions. By the time Governor Scott Walker made his move, many in Wisconsin had accepted that narrative not only as accurate, but as undeniable common sense.
I have seen a similar dynamic in college classrooms. Assuming that American inequality is self-evident, many teachers assume that their students are “on board” and ready to engage in policy debates. But, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, among others, has demonstrated, we are decades into well-crafted misinformation campaigns about the myth of American meritocracy. This is significant, because if a student thinks that the US boasts relative racial equality, ideas like affirmative action not only seem like bad public policy—they seem insane. Likewise, if a student believes that there is gender equality in the US, feminists seem very much like the man-hating lunatics of Rush Limbaugh’s tirades. The reactionary narrative is exceptionally powerful, and teachers must make an overwhelming case if they wish to counter it in their classrooms.
In my classes, I use the “pillar model,” a tool that is popular in social movement circles. I am not sure of its origins, but I first encountered it through Joshua Kahn Russell, a phenomenal organizer and the co-author of Organizing Cools the Planet. Essentially, I show the class a picture of the Parthenon and then we brainstorm all of the “pillars” that hold it up.
For example, introductory history students tend to understand Jim Crow racism in the limited terms of segregated schools and public drinking fountains. Indeed, those are a couple of the pillars that held up Jim Crow, but they alone do not capture its systematic nature. Among the many other pillars were disenfranchisement via poll taxes, literacy tests, “grandfather clauses,” white primaries, and voter intimidation; economic exploitation through sharecropping, debt peonage, and prison labor; and countless other injustices, from widespread violence and lynching to all-white juries.
Once we diagram this structure, the class can examine how generations of activists used lawsuits, civil disobedience, and other means to knock down various pillars—and eventually collapse the Jim Crow system. Of course, this exercise works best when it includes some discussion of who constructs the pillars as well as some mention of the subsequent system—pillars that include mass incarceration and the disenfranchisement of felons (see Michelle Alexander and Heather Ann Thompson), redistricting efforts (J. Morgan Kousser), color-blind narratives (Bonilla-Silva), and de facto segregation.
Once I have used the pillar model in a class, I can call on it again later in the course after giving students a brief refresher. For example, in the aftermath of Rush Limbaugh’s “slut shaming” comments about Sandra Fluke, I used the model to launch a discussion of patriarchy. I divided my class into several groups and gave each a different news article to read, summarize, and classify as a “pillar” that held up the American system of male supremacy. One group read about Limbaugh’s comments, another read a CDC report on American rape and domestic violence rates. Another group examined income disparity between men and women—and men and women of color. One group read about a Wisconsin State Senator’s attempts to equate single motherhood with child abuse. Another read dozens of headlines about celebrities’ domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Still another looked at a report on birth defects among female farm workers. And on and on—perhaps ten groups in total.
The students then reported on their “pillars,” allowing us to diagram a rough sketch of the system and brainstorm how the pillars could be knocked down. Rather than assume that students already understood patriarchy, I used the pillar model to make the overwhelming case that systematic discrimination in fact exists. Once I provided this context, my students had no problem identifying the misogyny in the statements made by Limbaugh (and Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock).
Smart, well-paid, powerful people are hard at work demonizing the poor, denying the existence of racial and sexual discrimination, and characterizing teachers as “freeloaders.” Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels’ recently exposed crusade against historian Howard Zinn is just one example of this project in action.
As one of the “freeloaders” (who, as it happens, was teaching for poverty-line wages while receiving the aforementioned tongue-lashing), I seek to teach toward social justice, without reservation or apology. The first step is making a clear case for the things that I think are obvious.
Dawson Barrett teaches U.S. history at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013 and is the author of “DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives,” which appears in American Studies 52:2 (Spring 2013).