Highlander Folk School, Education for Social Change

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and volunteers should take note of the quiet history of
education for social change in the United States. The Highlander
Research and Education Center, originally known as
the Highlander Folk School, was started in Monteagle, Tennessee
in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West. Highlander
is an adult education school located in the mountains of
eastern Tennessee. The school institutes programs and
classes that focus on democratic social change.
Since its founding, the Highlander staff has focused on
enacting social change by working with social activists,
meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed, and aligning
itself with social movements with the same goals. Myles
Horton would become synonymous with Highlander after
Don West left in 1933 to pursue a different political agenda.
Horton said that education
was always political,
people had their own solutions
to their own problems,
and it would just take the
right conditions, discussion
and respect to arrive at the
solutions. Since 1932, Highlander
has been such a place
for thousands of social
activists to gather.
Highlander gained notoriety
when the staff worked
closely with the labor rights
movement during the
1930s-1940s. Highlander’s
first educational programs
focused on training union
leaders organized under the American Federation of Labor
and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Union leaders
travelled to Highlander, learned effective strategies
from other union members and returned to their homes to
implement and teach others the lessons they learned.
During the mid-1950s, the Highlander staff began to
turn its attention toward issues of race. It started a network
of schools known as the Citizenship Schools that
created educational programs among southern blacks
about the strategies needed to bypass laws which prevented
them from voting. Within ten years, Martin Luther
King, Jr. had taken over the schools and over 50,000
African Americans had registered to vote. In 1955 Rosa
Parks had attended classes at Highlander just weeks
before she defiantly refused to give up her seat, which
instigated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Various civil
rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee had used Highlander as a safe
place to discuss their experiences, develop new strategies
and teach others interested in participating in the Civil
Rights Movement.
Since its role in the Civil Rights Movement, Highlander
has renewed its interest in local Appalachian issues such as
environmental protection,
cleanup projects, land ownership,
and labor education.
It has also worked on international
issues targeting the
illiteracy among the poor
and unfair immigration practices.
The radical Brazilian
educator, Paulo Freire,
worked and taught at Highlander
during the 1980s.
Perhaps its greatest honor
was bestowed in 1982 when
Highlander was nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The history of Highlander
is also defined by the resistance
the school encountered.
Highlander is a school for radical progressive education,
known to be ahead of its own time. Conservative
locals and politicians have historically frowned upon Highlander’s
public commitment to racial, political and social
equality. One provocative fact of Highlander retreats during
the labor and civil rights movement was that the school
was racially integrated, where black and white students
would live, eat and commune together in a region that was
otherwise committed to strict Jim Crow racial segregation.
The school was subject to the harassment of the state government
and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the McCarthy era, Highlander was branded as a
“Communist Training School.” The Internal Revenue Service
revoked its educational tax exempt status in 1957.
The Tennessee legislature confiscated Highlander property
in 1962 and auctioned off its property. The school buildings
at Highlander were mysteriously burned thereafter.
As Myles Horton was quick to note, however, Highlander
was first and foremost an idea. Highlander relocated to
Knoxville until 1971 when it moved to its current location
in New Market, Tennessee. Highlander has proven to be
resilient in the face of such resistance.
Highlander continues its historical mission of studying,
revising and teaching solutions to endemic social,
political and economic issues. It currently practices
methods of participatory action research, where local
activists come to Highlander for resources and guidance
in identifying, researching and solving the problems
directly facing their communities. The school currently
holds its own workshops and offer many resources that
focus on civil and human rights, humane immigration
policy, criminal justice reform, economic justice and
workers’ rights, international peace and solidarity, environmental
justice, youth leadership, and racial, gender
and sexual discrimination. In keeping with its original
educational method of meeting the needs and interests
of the students, educators and activists interested and
concerned with social change can use Highlander’s
buildings and land, which are located in the peaceful
mountains of eastern Tennessee. For more information,
visit: http://www.highlandercenter.org.

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