Art Pearl, Democracy and Education

Remembering a legend

Some people are legends. Most of us aren’t. Art Pearl, a founding member of CAPE, who died in July at the ripe age of 96, was a legend. Pearl inspired the name of this column, Democracy and Education. 

Pearl’s consistent message was about the primacy of democracy, the fragility of it, the assaults against it, how far we are from a nation that truly cherishes it and practices it — and the essential role of public education in any chance for a healthy democracy in the future.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, if you wanted to take Pearl’s class on War, Peace and Democracy at the University of Oregon, you had to go to Mac Court. That’s right. His classes were so popular that they were held in Mac Court. With up to 2,000 students signing up for his course, he had to have lots of teaching assistants to conduct small discussion groups. Among his TAs was Steve Prefontaine.

Pearl’s local radio show, “Art Pearl Against the World,” dared to take on controversial subjects such as interviewing African-American athletes at the UO and asking them what they were really experiencing on campus. Imagine that.

In addition to serving on the faculty of the College of Education, he was an active and vocal supporter for the small number of faculty of color at the UO at that time, including his good friend, Ed Coleman. Pearl also owned several restaurants in Eugene, where political discussions were always served up as a part of the menu.

Pearl ran for Oregon governor in 1970, following a deal hatched with Wayne Morse over beer at a campus bar. “Oregon lost,” Pearl liked to say, with a wink.

In 1972, he moved to Santa Cruz, where he taught education classes at University of California Santa Cruz and served on the school board for three terms — raising questions and raising hell, of course. He was a friend of political figures such as Huey Newton, Ron Dellums, Dolores Huerta and Jerry Brown. Pearl also taught classes in California prisons.

After “retiring,” Pearl moved to Vancouver, Wash., and taught at WSU in Vancouver before returning to Eugene in 2007.

Well into his 80s and continuing into his 90s, Pearl reconnected with the UO, teaching a variety of classes in the College of Education and mentoring Ph.D. candidates. He also worked with teachers and students at Edison Elementary School, Monroe Middle School, El Camino de Rio/River Road Elementary and Kelly Middle School. The subject was always related to democracy — teaching young students to understand their rights, to accept their responsibility to be educated, to be informed and to take action. The teachers from those Eugene classrooms brought Pearl to CAPE in its formative stage. 

Pearl clearly understood the danger to democracy when corporate interests gain increasing influence over our schools. Over the past two decades, he watched corporations, politicians, school boards and bureaucrats redefine education as being about data collection, metrics and competition — whether with students in New York, New Mexico or New Zealand.

Pearl knew that this corporate model has little to do with preparing students to take their place as informed and responsible citizens. It is, rather, about teachers and students being cogs in a wheel, it’s about following directions, it’s about bubbling in the “correct” answer. It’s also very dangerous to our fragile democracy.

Art Pearl was always ready to tell those of us in CAPE where we were falling short in our work. He’d spent a lifetime fighting the good fight against the odds. He didn’t give up and he didn’t give in. He believed in people, in democracy, and in education.

Roscoe Caron is a retired Eugene School District middle school teacher and member of the Community Alliance for Public Education, which works “to defend public education from the damaging practices of ‘reformers’ and corporate interests.” CAPE meets the first, third and fourth Wednesdays at Perugino. The website is