“Schools of the 21st century must challenge the conventional, uncritical loyalty to corporatism, the market system, and global capitalism. We must resist the globalization of everything, because missing from the elite-driven plans is the globalization of peace over power and violence, justice over exploitation and victimization, and ecological sanity over treating nature as a commodity.”
Bill Griffen’s political transformation began in 1961 when he was teaching Philosophy of Education in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. After class one day, graduate student Bill Moore asked his professor what he did outside of class to make his political ideas real.
Bill Moore: What do you do about these issues?
Bill Griffen: I teach.
Bill Moore: Well, yes, but what do you do?
Two years later, in 1963, Bill Moore was murdered while walking on a country road in Alabama in a one-person crusade to end racial segregation in the South. Moore’s moral conviction and death had a profound effect on Bill Griffen. He realized it was not enough to theorize about justice, racism and compassion. One had to act.
Griffen became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, working in Fayette County, Tennessee (then the fourth poorest county in the country) with his wife Judy to organize voter registration and freedom schools for literacy. This was the beginning of his lifelong commitment to peace, protecting the environment, and social justice, a commitment which included some 40 arrests for non-violent civil disobedience.
Though he became a committed activist, Bill Griffen never stopped teaching because he realized the key to social change was an educational system with the vision to train students to not assume roles in an unjust status quo, and to educate them to think imaginatively and critically about how to make our living systems more just and sustainable. It was clear to him that the capitalist economic system was destroying the environment by exploitation and pollution, was creating vast disparities of wealth, and was, in fact, undermining democracy. He said, “Educators have to stop using the term democracy to refer to our system as long as our economic system continues to abort the democratic society. Teachers should be honest in explaining that while we have the mechanics for establishing a political democracy, the economic realities override and cancel out the possibility of empowerment of the majority.” Bill thought that schools had a duty to confront the reality of this economic system and to give young people the knowledge and abilities they need to create a humane world: “If schools fail to help coming generations understand the humanistic and environmental dead end of this current cultural path, we have failed completely.”
Griffen earned a bachelor’s degree from Cortland in 1950. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to campus for a teaching certification and taught junior high school for two years before beginning his professional career at the College in 1955. He received his doctorate degree from Cornell University in 1967. Over 51 years, he taught 11,200 Cortland students, spanning the administrations of ten American presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush – a tenure unequaled by any faculty member in New York´s State University System (SUNY) history.
In 2008, SUNY’s Board of Trustees honored Griffen (posthumously) with its Distinguished Citizen Award, given to those who “exemplify the highest standards of public service.” Carl Hayden, Chairman of the Board, praised his former seventh-grade teacher: “Bill Griffen’s life’s work and legacy make him most deserving of this prestigious award…He was an extraordinary human being. He stood for what is good and right and always acted upon it.”
Like many people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Bill Griffen came to understand that issues around racism were intimately connected with other forms of exploitation inherent in war, materialism, and environmental degradation. He said, “The powers that created and now sustain…a world wide economic system at war with the environment and the human race…may talk of fighting for freedom, but it is freedom to protect a system and the powerful individuals who rule it.” During his years of protest against the Vietnam War, Griffen co-founded the Cortland Citizens for Peace, worked with the Syracuse Peace Council, and in the 1970s organized Cortland County Ecology Action. His 1979 book, Teaching the Vietnam War, co-written with John Marciano, is considered one of the best true histories of US involvement in Vietnam and it critically examines how the major school textbooks in this country fail to teach that history and its implications.
Believing that people with his views needed to be part of the political process, Griffen ran for Congress, and lost, in 1968 and 1990 on an anti-war and social justice platform. His positions were attacked at the time as “radical” but subsequently became the prevailing view in the country, e.g., condemnation of the Vietnam War and support for universal health care.
The time and energy he devoted to teaching, writing and political activism would not have been possible without the support of his wife Judy. Said Griffen of this partnership, “We have really been a team throughout this…. It just gives you incredible peace of mind knowing that the one closest to you supports what you’re doing.”
Bill had many passions besides activism and teaching — his family, baseball, jazz (he was an accomplished drummer), and photography, to name a few.
In 1996, Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer and spent the next eleven years dealing with the disease. He continued his full schedule of teaching and activism, and also volunteered with the American Cancer Society’s Man-to-Man prostate cancer support group. He was on their speaker’s bureau, took phone calls from newly diagnosed men, and led discussion groups. Bill passed away in February of 2007 and at his request, his body was donated to science at a teaching university hospital.
Bill Griffen was one of the great educators of our time. He devoted his life to opening students’ minds to envision ways of thinking and living that are more just and in harmony with nature: “We have been lulled over many generations to confuse ‘what is’ with ‘what ought to be’ or what might be — an alternative vision of existence. Our systemic reality played out through generations of ‘since it is, it must be natural’ must be broken.”
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