JR'S Free Thought Pages
Anarchism in Education
by Johnny Reb
I never let my schooling interfere with my education – Mark twain
Anarchism is rarely given serious consideration by political philosophers. Likewise, although there is a substantial anarchist tradition of educational ideas and practice, this is rarely mentioned in texts on philosophy or history of education. Anarchism is often dismissed as “utopian”, or naively optimistic about human nature.
The editors of a well-known anthology of anarchist writings remark that, from the school prospectus issued by William Godwin in 1783 to Paul Goodman’s books of 1956 and 1964 Growing Up Absurd and on Compulsory Miseducation respectively, ‘no other movement whatever has assigned to educational principles, concepts, experiments and practices a more significant place in its writings and activities’. Godwin’s tract was published as An Account of the Seminary that will be Opened on Monday the Fourth Day of August, at Epsom in Surrey, for the Instruction of Twelve Pupils. It failed to convince enough parents, and the school never opened. In this pamphlet he declared that
Modern education not only corrupts the heart of our youth, by the rigid slavery to which it condemns them, it also undermines their reason, by the unintelligible jargon with which they are overwhelmed in the first instance, and the little attention that is given to accommodating their pursuits to their capacities in the second.
And he added that
…there is not in the world a truer object of pity than a child terrified at every glance, and watching with anxious uncertainty the caprices of a pedagogue.
A later book of Godwin’s, The Enquirer (1797), contains, as his biographer rightly says, ‘some of the most remarkable and advanced ideas on education ever written’. Its opening words are the splendid affirmation that ‘The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness’. And it goes on to assert the rights of the child against the automatic assumptions of authority by the adult world. For example, he observed that
Children, it is said, are free from the cares of the world. Are they without their cares? Of all cares, those that bring with them the greatest consolation are the cares of independence. There is no more certain source of exultation than the consciousness that I am of some importance in the world. A child usually feels that he is a nobody. Parents, in the abundance of their providence, take good care to administer to them this bitter recollection. How suddenly does a child rise to an enviable degree of happiness, who feels that he has the honour to be trusted and consulted by his superiors?
Between these two resounding manifestos came Godwin’s best-known book, his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). In the course of this book he diverged sharply from progressive opinion in Britain and from the Enlightenment philosophers Rousseau, Helvetius, Diderot, and Condorcet, all of whom put forward schemes for national systems of schooling, postulating an ideal state, which in Godwin’s view was a contradiction in terms. He outlined his three major objections thus:
The injuries that result from a system of national education are, in the first place, that all public establishments include in them the idea of permanence . . . public education has always expended its energies in the support of prejudice . . . This feature runs through every species of public establishment; and even in the petty institution of Sunday schools, the chief lessons to be taught are a superstitious veneration for the Church of England, and to bow to every man in a handsome coat . . .
Secondly, the idea of national education is founded in an inattention to the nature of mind. Whatever each man does for himself is done well; whatever his neighbours or his country undertake to do for him is done ill. It is our wisdom to incite men to act for themselves, not to retain them in a state of perpetual pupillage . . .
Thirdly, the project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambitious an agent, it behooves us to consider well what we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hand and perpetuate its institutions . . . Their views as instigators of a system of education will not fail to be analogous to their views in their political capacity . . . [Even] in the countries where liberty chiefly prevails, it is reasonably to be assumed that there are important errors, and a national system has the most direct tendency to perpetuate those errors and to form all minds on one model.
Some admirers of Godwin’s thought have been embarrassed by this rejection of ‘progressive’ opinion. They recall the hard struggle to achieve free, universal, compulsory education for all in both Britain and the United States after 1870. (There is a confusing similarity of educational language in Britain and the United States. In the United States ‘public’ schools are the primary and secondary schools provided at the public expense. In Britain ‘private’ and ‘public’ are the words used to describe the junior and senior schools funded by affluent parents for their privileged children; the schools described as ‘state’ schools are actually administered by local government authorities.) In Britain, a centenary publication from the National Union of Teachers in 1970 explained that ‘apart from religious and charitable schools, ‘‘dame’’ or common schools were operated by the private enterprise of people who were often barely literate’, and it dismissed the widespread working-class hostility to the School Boards of the 19th century with the remark that ‘parents were not always quick to appreciate the advantages of full-time schooling against the loss of extra wages’.
But more recently historians have seen this resistance to state schooling in a quite different light. Stephen Humphries found that, by the 1860s, working-class private schools (as opposed to what is meant today by private schools) were providing an alternative education to that of the charitable or religious ‘National’ or ‘British’ schools for about one-third of all working-class children, and he suggests that
This enormous demand for private as opposed to public education is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that working-class parents in a number of major cities responded to the introduction of compulsory attendance regulations not by sending their children to provided state schools, as government inspectors had predicted, but by extending the length of their children’s education in private schools. Parents favoured these schools for a number of reasons: they were small and close to home and were consequently more personal and more convenient than most publicly provided schools; they were informal and tolerant of irregular attendance and unpunctuality; no attendance registers were kept; they were not segregated according to age and sex; they used individual as opposed to authoritarian teaching methods; and, most important, they belonged to and were controlled by the local community rather than being imposed on the neighborhood by an alien authority.
Humphries’ remarkable observation was reinforced by a mass of contemporary evidence exhumed by Philip Gardner in his book on The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England. This researcher concluded that these working-class schools:
…achieved just what the customer wanted: quick results in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, wasted no time on religious studies and moral uplift, and represented a genuinely alternative approach to childhood learning to that prescribed by the education experts.
In the view of the historian Paul Thompson, the price of eliminating these schools through the imposition of the national education system was:
…the suppression in countless working-class children of the appetite for education and ability to learn independently which contemporary progressive education seeks to rekindle.
Radically different as it is from the history of education as taught to student teachers, this approach helps us to locate the anarchist thinkers in the spectrum of educational ideas. These include, for example, the speculations of Leo Tolstoy on the school he started at Yasnaya Polyana, and those of Francesco Ferrer (1859–1909), the founder of the ‘Modern School’ movement. Ferrer opened his first school in Barcelona in 1901, aiming at a secular, rationalist education. He inspired emulators in several countries and aroused the enmity of the church. When the Spanish government called for conscription in Catalonia for its war in Morocco in 1909, Ferrer was held responsible for street battles in Barcelona in which 200 demonstrators were killed, even though he was not present. He was executed, but his campaign for secular education did not die. After the revolution of 19 July 1936, at least 60,000 children in Catalonia attended Ferrer schools. Emma Goldman wrote a short essay on Ferrer and can be read here. Voltairine de Cleyre’s essay and can be viewed here.
It is interesting to see how their approach led a variety of anarchists to offer educational opinions in anticipation of the progressive propagandists of a century later. For example, Bakunin, in a mere footnote to a polemic on a different topic, envisaged the school as a lifelong resource for us all:
They will be schools no longer; they will be popular academies, in which neither pupils nor masters will be known, where the people will come freely to get, if they need it, free instruction, and in which, rich in their own experience, they will teach in turn many things to the professors who shall bring them knowledge which they lack. This then will be a mutual instruction, an act of intellectual fraternity.
He was writing in 1870, and if his argument is familiar this is precisely because identical aspirations were expressed a century later by people like Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman in America, or in Britain by Bertrand and Dora Russell, Michael Young, and by Professor Harry Rée. In 1972 Rée told an audience of young teachers that:
I think we are going to see in your lifetime the end of schools as we know them. Instead there will be a community centre with the doors open twelve hours a day, seven days a week, where anybody can wander in and out of the library, workshops, sports centre, self service store and bar. In a hundred years time the compulsory attendance laws for children to go to school may have gone the same way as the compulsory laws for attendance at church.
His prophecy is unlikely to be fulfilled, for within ten years of his address, an incoming government was blaming the collapse of the British manufacturing industry on, of all unlikely scapegoats, the schools. There followed a new regime of unprecedented intervention by central government in the management and curriculum of primary and secondary schools, which in Britain are provided by local authorities. These included the imposition, for the first time, of a National Curriculum by the central government, a continuous program of testing children at particular ages, and an avalanche of form-filling for teachers. (This endless assessment proved beyond doubt that schools in affluent districts achieve higher marks than schools in poor areas with a majority of children whose native language is not English. These are social facts that most people already knew.)
By 1995, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools was declaring that the real impediment to the development of a better educational system in Britain was ‘a commitment to particular beliefs about the purposes and conduct of education’, and that what was needed was ‘less learning by doing and more teaching by telling’. He was repudiating a hundred years of progressive influence on the official, compulsory education system, fitfully moving up the age-range from the nursery to the secondary school. One irony about the rejection of ‘progressive’ education by politicians of the political Right is that the educational aims of many anarchists would be completely acceptable to them. Michael Smith, the historian of The Libertarians and Education, remarks that Proudhon
…was always conscious of the fact that the children he was talking about were the children of workers. Work was going to be their life when they grew up. Proudhon saw nothing wrong with this. The work a man did was something to be proud of; it was what gave interest, value and dignity to his life. It was right, therefore, that school should prepare the young for a life of work. An education that was divorced from the world of work, that is, an education that was entirely bookish or grammar-schoolish in conception, was valueless from the point of view of ordinary working-class children. Of course, an education that went too far in the other direction, which brought up children merely to be fodder for factories, was equally unacceptable. What was required was an education which would equip a child for the workplace but would also give him a degree of independence in the labour market. This could be achieved by giving him not just the basis of a trade but, as well, a whole range of marketable skills which would ensure that he was not totally at the mercy of an industrial system which required specialisation of its workers and then discarded them when the specialisation was no longer of interest to the firm. Thus Proudhon was led to the idea of an education that was ‘polytechnical’.
Readers will have guessed, correctly, that Proudhon was concerning himself solely with the education of boys, but this was not true of such successors as Kropotkin, with his hopes for the integration of brain work and manual work, not only in education but in life; nor of such heroes as Francesco Ferrer in Spain, whose approach was similarly that of an education for emancipation, as opposed to what he saw as education for subservience. Michael Smith’s most interesting pages for the English reader describe ‘Integral Education’ in practice, through the experience of the French anarchist Paul Robin and the school he ran from 1880 to 1894 at Cempius. It was based upon workshop training and the abandonment of the classroom in favour of what we would now call the resource centre. Cooking, needlecraft, carpentry, and metalwork were undertaken by both sexes, while ‘the Cempius children, both girls and boys, were among the first children in France to go in for cycling’.
Co-education, sexual equality, and atheism brought down Robin’s school, but another celebrated French anarchist, Sébastien Faure, ran a famous school called La Ruche (‘The Beehive’). Michael Smith comments that ‘Faure had learned one very significant lesson from Robin’s downfall: stay completely out of the state system and thus be assured of complete independence.’ But in Britain there has been a continual effort to introduce the approaches of libertarian education into the school system funded by all citizens. Another historian, John Shotton, has traced the history of these attempts, and of similar efforts to help all those children who have been excluded by the official system.
A century of progressive experiments have had a profound effect on every school, most evidently the primary schools. The role of the teacher has changed from that of fearsome martinet to that of friendly guide, while corporal punishment, once the mainstay of the school system, has been legally outlawed. There is, however, a distinction to be made between ‘progressive’ education and ‘libertarian’ education, which in practice revolves around the issue of compulsory or voluntary attendance at lessons. Foremost among the libertarians was A. S. Neill, who for many decades ran Summerhill School in Suffolk, which survives to this day, led by his daughter Zoë Readhead.
Neill could not stand the high-minded and manipulative progressives. By the 1930s he was writing to Dora Russell (wife of founder Bertrand Russell) of Beacon Hill School that she and he were ‘the only educators’. As one of his mentors, Homer Lane, put it:
‘Give the child freedom’ is the insistent cry of the New Educators, but then its exponents usually devise a ‘system’ which, although based on the soundest of principles, limits that freedom and contradicts the principle.
Lane was echoing the opinion of William Godwin in The Enquirer, when he found that Rousseau, even though the world was indebted to him ‘for the irresistible energy of his writings and the magnitude of his speculations’, had fallen into the common error of manipulating the child:
His whole system of education is a series of tricks, a puppet-show exhibition, of which the master holds the wires, and the scholar is never to suspect in what manner they are moved.
The anarchist approach has been more influential in education than in most other fields of life. It may be contested and deplored by authoritarians, with their own nostalgia for an idealized past, but it is difficult to conceive that young people will tolerate in the future the educational regime to which the grandparents of their rulers were subjected.
In some parts of the world, the battle for the freedom of the young is in the past. In others, it has still to be won.