By Jarek Ervin and Melissa Naschek
Philadelphia DSA is piloting a political education series called the Socialist Night School. Despite the name, the program is not a “school” in the traditional sense: there are no fees, grades, or enrollments, and anyone can attend as many or as few sessions as they like.
The Night School is a comprehensive reading group based on the assumption that all people are intelligent, motivated, and deserve access to quality education. In an era of privatization and austerity, colleges and universities have largely defaulted on their promises to teach. Further, students are often presented with cartoonish misrepresentations of radical thinkers, intended to reinforce the notion that capitalism forms an inevitable and permanent horizon. In the spirit of democratic socialism, the Night School aims to make knowledge and education available to all.
The Night School is similar in design to a conventional reading group (see “How to Run a Socialist Reading Group,” Democratic Left, Spring 2016). However, we wanted a more comprehensive scope, so we crafted a “syllabus” that would be interesting to new and veteran activists alike.
The syllabus is based on three key areas of study: political theory, history, and practical issues. We believe that the only way to understand our current political situation is to bridge the artificial gap between theoretical representations of the world and the struggles that define our political system. Night School sessions cover topics from Marxist theory and the Russian Revolution to gender, environmental destruction, and Medicare For All.
The night school offers a space for members to engage in contentious but comradely debate about a range of issues. One of our recent sessions was titled “The Prison State.” We began with the introduction to Marie Gottschalk’s excellent book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics. This text allowed us to pose important theoretical questions: What are prisons? Why do they exist? How do they affect the working class? We then turned to two articles about prison abolition, both recently published in Jacobin. The question of how to respond to prisons isn’t just theoretical: it’s an actual debate within DSA. This session ultimately allowed us to engage a timely issue in a rigorous fashion and to allow our membership to decide for themselves about an issue that may shape the very priorities of DSA.
A Night School is easy to build. There are excellent leftist resources on the web if you don’t have access to a good library, including Marxists.org, Jacobin, and the Online University of the Left. Many libraries will also order multiple copies of a text for a reading group. Once you have a topic, you need facilitators, a venue, and a program such as Word or Pages to make handouts and flyers twice monthly.
Our sessions meet bimonthly from 7:00-9:00 p.m. We promote sessions via the Philadelphia DSA website, social media accounts (Twitter and Facebook), and our local listserv. We had to find a larger venue after our first session drew 30 people to a room that held half as many, and our more recent sessions have attracted crowds of up to 50. We’ve relied on free options and have found space in coffee shops, campus venues, and churches. Participants range from longtime members to people who are attending their first DSA event. Although the syllabus was designed to be cumulative, each session is self-contained enough that anyone can jump in or out at any time. New attendees come to each session.
Many of our facilitators are experienced teachers and organizers, but good planning is just as important as formal training. During our sessions, we try to vary activities. Lectures can be effective, but large-group discussion, small-group breakout sessions, presentations, and debates are important ways to make Night School meetings less like actual school and more like forums for serious learning.
Jarek Ervin is a writer, teacher, and the chair of Philadelphia DSA’s Political Education Committee. Melissa Naschek is the co-chair of Philly DSA and serves on its Political Education Committee. Copies of the syllabus are available from Philadelphia DSA at https://phillydsa.com/night-school/.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.