- Every Person Is a Philosopher:Lessons in Educational Emancipation from the Radical Teaching Life of Hal Adams
I met Hal Adams face-to-face only once. We went together to a Chicago public school where professional actors performed an ensemble of more than a hundred texts published over seven years in his Journal of Ordinary Thought (JOT). I felt shy with Hal at first, but his warm manner quickly put me at ease; he seemed to accept me as a friend in our common work. Steve Parks and I had started New City Writing in 1997, and when I told my old friend Bill Lamme in Chicago about our plan to publish work written in neighborhood writing groups we organized, Bill said I had to read Hal's magazine. Bill arranged for Hal to send us 5-6 issues of the journal, and JOT was a revelation to us. The idea was simple yet stunningly direct: organize writing groups within small neighborhood formations and publish the work the participants wanted others to read, without academic editorializing or prearranged agendas. We immediately adopted JOT as a model for our early publications at New City Writing Community Press, and Hal was quite supportive of our project. When I visited Chicago (possibly for Conference on College Composition and Communication in 1998), Hal invited me to see a preview performance of the play and hang out with him for an evening. I remember it as a powerful Spoon River Anthology-type show, rooted in African American neighborhoods of Chicago, and I remember too feeling that we'd found an ally who really understood what community-based writing and publishing could do.
Hal's work is little known in community literacy circles and hardly at all among composition/rhetoric scholars trained in English Departments (except some who studied at University of Illinois-Chicago in the nineties). He had been a tenured professor at the University of Iowa but gave up regular academic rank in order to teach primarily in neighborhood settings, first briefly in Seattle and then for seventeen years in Chicago, working in association with UIC but not as a full-time faculty member. He does have a following among education scholars and [End Page 97] independent activists interested in grassroots organizing. He published only a few academic articles on his neighborhood writing work, in places that English-trained students are unlikely to encounter. But his effect on the people he taught in his writing groups, as well as the students and colleagues who knew him in Iowa, Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis during his lifetime, was long lasting and transformative. The field of popular education lost a precious contributor when he died in 2011 at 72.
In 2016, Peter Lang published a valuable collection of work by and about Hal entitled Every Person Is a Philosopher. I urge readers to buy the book, read it through, and share it with others. You will savor the rich combination of commitment and compassion that characterizes his prose and appreciate the stories his former colleagues and students tell in their essays. His opening essay, "A Grassroots Think Tank," is worth the price of the book alone. It provides a straightforward description of his practice, with a brief indication of his theoretical indebtedness to Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, and CLR James. It gives greater attention to the women and men who participated in his workshops. This essay should be adopted immediately into the canon of invaluable texts among community literacy scholars and activists. The statement printed at the beginning of every issue of JOT comes from Gramsci: "Every person is a philosopher." That could be the watchword of our profession.
The other pieces included in the collection will be worth reading as well. Caroline Heller, one of the editors, supplies a detailed look at the workings of a men's group that Hal mentions himself in the "Grassroots Think Tank" essay, self-described "villains" who put together an issue of JOT. Entitled "Through the Eyes of a Villain," their profane and painful observations stand out in my mind as one of the...