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You Can't Padlock an Idea
Rhetorical Education at the Highlander Folk School, 1932–1961

Stephen A. Schneider

An examination of the rhetorical practices used at the Highlander Folk School to advance democratic social change

You Can't Padlock an Idea examines the educational programs undertaken at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and looks specifically at how these programs functioned rhetorically to promote democratic social change. Founded in 1932 by educator Myles Horton, the Highlander Folk School sought to address the economic and political problems facing communities in Appalachian Tennessee and other southern states. To this end Horton and the school's staff involved themselves in the labor and civil rights disputes that emerged across the south over the next three decades.

Drawing on the Highlander archives housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Avery Research Center in South Carolina, and the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, Stephen A. Schneider reconstructs the pedagogical theories and rhetorical practices developed and employed at Highlander. He shows how the school focused on developing forms of collective rhetorical action, helped students frame social problems as spurs to direct action, and situated education as an agency for organizing and mobilizing communities.

Schneider studies how Highlander's educational programs contributed to this broader goal of encouraging social action. Specifically he focuses on four of the school's more established programs: labor drama, labor journalism, citizenship education, and music. These programs not only taught social movement participants how to create plays, newspapers, citizenship schools, and songs, they also helped the participants frame the problems they faced as having solutions based in collective democratic action. Highlander's programs thereby functioned rhetorically, insofar as they provided students with the means to define and transform oppressive social and economic conditions. By providing students with the means to comprehend social problems and with the cultural agencies (theater, journalism, literacy, and music) to address these problems directly, Highlander provided an important model for understanding the relationships connecting education, rhetoric, and social change.

Stephen A. Schneider is an assistant professor of English at the University of Louisville and the author of articles in College English and College Composition and Communication.

"Students of 20th century social change in the U.S. know of the Highlander Folk School. But this book deepens our knowledge of its role as a rhetorical incubator, where the persuasive strategies for achieving social change were taught. Schneider skillfully illuminates this most unusual venue for rhetorical education. His account is a pleasure to read."—David Zarefsky, Northwestern University

"Far too often, advocates of community literacy and civically engaged education have neglected Highlander Folk School. Yet the seemingly modest programs at Highlander proved instrumental in triggering the largest mass movement for human rights in American history. The magic of Highlander transmuted an old song into the great civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." Highlander also spurred bugwood cutters to strike in Tennessee, Rosa Parks to court arrest on a bus in Alabama, and a huge number of African American literacy classes to blossom in defiance of segregation. Years of painstaking archival work inform Stephen Schneider's rich and thoughtful analysis of the 'Highlander Idea' of using theater, journalism, music, and literacy to, in his words, 'make education an agency for social change.' This book will inform and inspire anyone interested in the relation between education and social transformation."—Keith D. Miller, Arizona State University



book jacket for You Can’t Padlock 
an Idea


6 x 9
208 pages
10 b&w illustrations
ISBN 978-1-61117-381-9
hardcover, $39.95s

ISBN 978-1-61117-382-6
ebook, $38.99t
Studies in Rhetoric/ Communication

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