One of the most important components of both education and activism is contextualization. As Paulo Freire argued, learning must be rooted in the context in which education takes place. For a sixth-grader in the US, that would be their local community; for a elderly person, that might be their family. For Derrick Jensen, that place was in classrooms at a university and a maximum security prison, where he taught creative writing to Washington state college students and prisoners convicted of robbery, rape, and murder. In this book Jensen shares stories from those places as a guise and guide for the larger lessons, both hinted at and carefully detailed throughout this book.
The lessons here are truly revolutionary. The author begins by writing,
As is true for most people I know, I’ve always loved learning. As is also true for most people I know, I always hated school. Why is that?
With this opening line, Jensen begins a more-than-casual assault on traditional schooling, railing on everything from classroom seating arrangements to grading; from teaching methods to attendance. The lessons here a resonant of the teachings of both John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, the latter of whom Jensen credits greatly, and they give anecdotal meaning to some of the wisdom of by Grace Llewellyn and William Upski Wimsatt.
Through his lessons, Jensen gives substance and validity to many peoples’ feelings of alienation and disconnectedness in school, and offers a brilliant guide to creative writing along the way. Jensen writes,
Throughout our adult lives, most of us are expected to get to work on time, to do our boss’s bidding…and not to leave till the final bell has rung. It is expected that we will watch the clock, counting seconds till five o’clock, till Friday, till payday, till retirement, when at last our time will again be our own, as it was before we began kindergarten, or preschool, or daycare. Where do we learn to do all of this waiting?
The answer, of course, is school. School, Jensen says, is the “day-prison” where we learn to be “a nation of slaves.”
He then follows this daring declaration with another story from his prison experience, where he created “an atmosphere in which students wish to learn…”, which included asking both prisoners and college students to be uncomfortable in their search for meaning through writing. Throughout this book Jensen includes several useful writing tips that offer a unique twist to this book: while a significant diatribe against historical approaches to education, it provides useful methods for self-education and learning through life.
Ultimately Jensen achieves Freire’s challenge of sharing with students the goal of “reading the word through the world,” and in that is Jensen’s greatest success. This book is vitally important to any person seeking inspiration for learning outside the lines, both for its practical advice, and for the fact that it is coming from a seasoned educator.
I believe that it can also be important to young people particularly, because through his intelligent, accessible thinking, Jensen acknowledges what many youth believe: school isn’t relevant to young people today because teachers can’t be relevant to learning today. They just don’t know how. However, more importantly, Jensen himself disproves that, and may actually inspire young readers to look into places of higher education for the vital allyship and mentorship that adult educators can potentially offer.
As Jensen ponders the weight of the world throughout the book, including wrestling with conservatism, hopelessness and apathy, war, and many other feelings, he leaves readers with a challenging thought that easily summarizes the motivation of this book, and lends this book its essentialness in the activist library:
There is much work to be done. What are you waiting for? It’s time to begin.
It is time to begin. Thank you, Derrick Jensen, for giving us a roadway to get started.
- Title: Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution
- Author: Derrick Jensen
- Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing Company (2004)
- ISBN: 1931498482