Every stone is a permanent part of something beautiful. Rock wall by Andy Goldsworthy; photo cc barryleiba

Reforms that aren’t reformist

I learned this concept from a fellow student at Harvard Grad School of Education yesterday:

“Reforms that aren’t reformist”.

Apparently, this concept comes from the prison abolition movement (and, I’m guessing, many radical movements before them). These activists have a passionate vision of fundamental transformation — a truly, radically different system of justice.

Which reforms could be a part of the system that we wish to build in the long term?

This vision demands change in the long run. But as with any radical vision, it runs the risk of serving as an obstacle to change in the short run.

They don’t want their long-term radical vision to stand in the way of changes that are steps in the right direction. But they do want their long-term radical vision to stand in the way of wasting time on changes that do nothing to move towards that vision.

So the standard for whether to push for a possible reform is: could that reform be a part of the system that we wish to build in the long term?

Ankle monitors are a reform that is reformist. Marijuana decriminalization is not

So, for example, marijuana decriminalization is a “reform that isn’t reformist” because the freedom to possess and consume marijuana would be a feature of the prison-free future they want to build. Decriminalization is far from a comprehensively just narcotics policy, but it is a piece of the world they want to build, so it’s worth fighting for.

What’s something not worth fighting for? Ankle bracelet monitors, according to my friend. These mechanisms of virtual imprisonment would not qualify, because they would not be a feature of the prison-free future they want to build. That doesn’t mean that ankle bracelets are bad or useless, but they don’t move us towards a future where people are not physically corralled by the state.

I can imagine several areas of pushback. Maybe ankle bracelets are a part of the future that you envision building, if you think crime is inevitable, and imprisonment deters crime, but that physical incarceration is inhumane. Or maybe you’re a proud reformist, which in this (somewhat pejorative) context means someone who isn’t concerned with radical change, but just wants to shave off the rough edges of society’s policies and procedures.

Now I’m imagining what reforms I’d like to see in education, that aren’t reformist

But whether or not I agree fully with the critique of reformist in this prison abolitionist case, I’m struck by the clarity that this standard brings. And now I’m imagining what reforms I’d like to see in education, that aren’t reformist.

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