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Why Libertarian Education?
by Iain McKay
29 Aug 2005
"Anyone involved in libertarian politics, constantly and consistently challenges the role of the state's institutions and their representatives within our lives. The role of bosses, the police, social workers, the secret service, middle managers, doctors and priests are all seen as part of a hierarchy which exists to keep us, the working class, subdued. It is relatively rare though for the left wing to call into question the role of teachers. Most-left wing activists and a large number of libertarians believe that education is good, all education is good, and education is always good. As Henry Barnard, the first US commissioner of education, appointed in 1867, exhorted, 'education always leads to freedom'."
Anyone involved in libertarian politics, constantly and consistently challenges the role of the state's institutions and their representatives within our lives. The role of bosses, the police, social workers, the secret service, middle managers, doctors and priests are all seen as part of a hierarchy which exists to keep us, the working class, subdued. It is relatively rare though for the left wing to call into question the role of teachers. Most-left wing activists and a large number of libertarians believe that education is good, all education is good, and education is always good. As Henry Barnard, the first US commissioner of education, appointed in 1867, exhorted, 'education always leads to freedom'.
Those involved in libertarian education believe the contrary, We believe that national education systems exist only to produce citizens who'll be blindly obedient to the dictates of the state, citizens who will uphold the authority of government even when it runs counter to personal interest and reason.
The myth of all education as sacred has led to acceptance of educational qualifications as the figure of acceptable social worth and as a basis for social rewards, even when these credentials are clearly distributed according to existing social class divisions.
Libertarian or radical education very broadly, seeks to produce children who will demand greater personal control and choice,
As long as national educational systems have existed, so has opposition to such education, The earliest critic being William Godwin, who in 1793 wrote 'An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice' considered to be the first modern anarchist attack on the concept of the state.
As someone who experienced both the French (1789-99) and American (end 1776) revolutions, to Godwin, form of government meant very little. He thought there were two main oppressing forces in society - education and government. He thought education a worse oppressor because ³government must always depend on the opinion of the governed.² That statement obviously fits better with the time in which it was written, than it does now, but is no less valid for that. Godwin maintained that, the full development of human reason is denied within the walls of the schoolhouse.
Godwin was convinced that a just society could only be the result of all people freely exercising their reason, and this is a basic tenet of anarchism today. As people constantly improve their reasoning powers and their understanding, their concept of natural laws of conduct constantly changes. He therefore thought that making law permanent (via constitutions and other political institutions) would only block free thought and the unfolding of ideas as to how life should be regulated.
He thought the majority of people naturally distinguished between good and bad, and therefore thought that laws (or rules or modes of behaviour), which gave advantages to some particular group in society had to be taught, as such laws were outside reason. At that time, exporting of English wool was a crime and he used this as an example.
His criticism was unique at a time when a national education system was considered one of the most progressive social causes. Even Godwin's wife Mary Wollstonecraft espoused an education system as a means of aiding women's equality (well, she was proved wrong, wasn't she?)
Godwin's foresight was remarkable and indeed, by the end of the 19th century, schools beginning to function as appendages to the new industrial economies - churning out obedient servants of state and corporation.
It's at this time we also begin to encounter the first alternatives to state education. The Modern School in Barcelona was founded in 1901 by Francisco Ferrer. In 1909, falsely accused by the Spanish government of leading an insurrection, he was executed. His execution gained him international recognition in Europe and the US. Although his own Modern School existed for only five years, he inspired a Modern School progressive education movement in the US which existed until the 1960¹s.
Echoing Godwin, Ferrer wrote of government support for national education, ³they know, better than anyone else that their power is based almost entirely on the school.² With the growth of industrialism in the 19th century schools triumphed, not through a desire to reform but as an economic necessity. Industry didn't want free thinking individuals, it wanted workers, instruments of labour, and it wanted them punctual, obedient, passive and willing to accept their disadvantaged position.
To Ferrer, it was inconceivable that government would create a system of education which would lead to radical change in society, it was therefore unrealistic to believe that state sanctioned schools could function as a means of betterment for the lower classes. Rather, education taught the poor to accept existing social structure and taught that general improvement depended on individual effort within that social structure.
This is borne out in the most extreme example, Nazi Germany, when schools were used to spread ideology, nationalism and glorification of the Reich. Compulsory training in racial biology began at age six and there was a heavy emphasis on German history and literature. Five hours per day of physical education was preparation for military training and the physical perfection of the Aryan race. As I've said this is an extreme, but is a perfect example of the evils of state sanctioned education as foreseen by Godwin. Similar things have happened in the US, notably since the Second World War and throughout the Cold War.
It was obvious by the middle of the 20th century that school had become the institution for political control, creating a consensus of political and social values and at the same time reducing political and social unrest.
The most famous English exponent of Free Schools, A. S. Neill, in 1939 wrote in The Problem Teacher, ³state schools must produce a slave mentality because only a slave mentality can keep the system from being scrapped.² He defined schools as products of direct class interest which ³discipline the workers in such a way that they are symbolically castrated for life, the aim being to continue the privileges of the rich, who will be safe with an underclass that has been unmanned and therefore has not the guts to rebel.² He also thought that English schools robbed the working class of effective leadership: ³The master stroke in... education policy was the secondary school ... that took children of the working class to white collar jobs in... the professions. Thus it robbed the workers of its best men and women.² Anarchists don't quite agree with this but recognise that even today education attempts to adjust the class of any of the poor who manage to achieve.
More recently our sophisticated consumer-oriented society has brought new requirements for education. In the 1970s the libertarian educator, Ivan Illich (who, for all his name, is South American) maintained that school prepares an expert consumer by taking responsibility for the whole child. It offers sexual education, dressing, adjustment to personality problems, and related topics. Children are also taught that freedom is conferred by authorities and must be earned, then used properly or withdrawn. Such a system destroys people's ability to act for themselves.
In the 1960¹s, the American liberal philosopher Paul Goodman, observed that the purpose of schooling was to grade and market skills. ³Means in effect, a few great corporations are getting the benefit of an enormous weeding out and selective process - all children are fed into the mill and everybody pays for it.²
Paulo Freire referred to the ³banking method² of education where the student is the object into which knowledge is placed, rather than a subject in the learning process. This reflects the assumption that the fundamental problem is with the individual rather than with society, State education assumes poverty exists because the poor don't know how to function properly within society and the goal of education is to change the behaviour of the poor so they conform to the needs of the society which created poverty in the first place. The poor are encouraged to follow a model based on the life and actions of the rich and as such are forced to act in contradiction to their own needs and liberation.
School reformers in the United States made some attempt at addressing this when they criticised Europe for having separate schools for different classes. They thought that by bringing rich and poor children together in school, class divisions could be eradicated. The problem with this was that the children didn't enter school with same cultural background and intellectual tools, nor did they want to use their education for the same purposes. This led to the introduction of methods with which we are familiar today. The needs of the individual are met through streaming, vocational training and special education. In the U.S., a two-tier system exists, actually within schools with so-called high achievers taking the college track and other students taking the vocational track.
In fact, in a 1940's study, US sociologists found firstly, that there is a distinct correlation between social class and achievement -- upper class children dominated the college system and lower classes filled the vocational track. And secondly that when children were separated by ability via standardised tests, the groups accorded to existing social class and to race.
Ivan Illich found those who got best return from school went through whole process from very young to completing university - as we have seen, typically the upper classes.
This exaltation of the upper class through achievement in education is further strengthened by introducing to the poor the idea that school brings opportunity for social advancement. The poor are willing to support this idea because of the faith they're indoctrinated with by going through the school system (and six hours a day, five days a week, for at least nine years is some indoctrination). The poor are told they're poor because they didn't do well at school or get to university -- they are poor because they are underachievers.
So, radicals criticise school on the basis that it reinforces and strengthens the social class structure of society.
It's clear that achievement at school is crucial for self-esteem and a concept of self worth. Education teaches people to think of themselves as stupid or bright, as a success or a failure. If we assume that adequate self-esteem depends on acceptance and on ability to function in a social context, the psychological power of the school is obvious.
As Illich notes, school also reinforces hierarchy, as the poor are taught that they should submit to the achievers, to the leadership of those with more schooling and as we've seen - that's the upper class.
The underachieving poor are led to believe that they have been given all the opportunities and they have failed. Rejection by school can lead to submission, apathy and helplessness and social stagnation. Producing such a population is obviously good for business and for consuming.
A number of 19th and 20th century political philosophers discussed the question of the difference between education and learning and the relationship of state education to liberty and social revolution. Running through this is the tenet that political liberty has little meaning if an individual's actions are guided by an internalised authority (instilled in school), from which there is no escape.
In his 19th century novel Emile, Rousseau claimed that if moral instruction is given at an early age it dominates action, rather than being available to be utilised by the individual.
Rousseau felt books one of greatest plagues of childhood. Children shouldn't be taught to read, but learn to read through experience and necessity (with this goes the notion of choice). Learning and knowledge were tools for the individual to use, not tools to use the individual (for example, maths).
The sacred question that such philosophers asked of the educational experience was -- 'what's the good of this?' They thought people should make choices, not on basis of belief but after consideration of necessity and usefulness of the particular thing they wanted to learn.
The 19th century anarchist philosopher Max Stirner had similar thoughts. His book The Ego and Its Own has been called the most revolutionary book ever. In it, he called for ³an education for freedom, not for subservience.² He said there were differences between the educated person and the free person. For the free person, knowledge is the source of greater choice; for the educated, it's the determiner of choice.
He maintained that thoughts inculcated by a state or church education system would own the individual and would be impossible to get rid of. Stirner was essentially an early commentator on socialisation. He gave examples of learning a religious catechism at an early age and making a choice later in life to join a church.
If one owned the thought, one could get rid of it, it didn't own the individual.
Marx had similar ideas when he recognised that the dominant ideology of a society is the ideology of the dominant elite. The power of the modern state lies in its recognition of the importance of domination of the mind: ³Here at last the domination of the law is for the first time complete, ŒNot I live, but the law lives in me.¹²
For Stirner exercising free will meant the Ownership of Self. Without free will students were dependant upon learning how to act rather than determining for themselves how to act.
Tolstoy put this slightly differently when he said learning should be a process of culture and not of education. Society should ³grant the person the full freedom to avail themselves of the teaching which answers their need.² He thought a school should not be interested in how its, teaching was used or what the effect would be on the students.
For these philosophers the goal of pedagogy was self development, that is, enabling the individual to gain self-awareness and the ability to act on her or his own behalf.
For Stirner Ownership of Self meant freedom from dogma and moral imperatives and having a will that did not depend on authoritarian sources. Ownership of Self meant freedom from schools themselves. Stirner would have questioned the aims of Ferrer for the simple reason that Ferrer worked within the structure of schools.
Ivan Illich's view a century later was that 'school's have alienated man from his learning'. For both he and Stirner, there was only one solution and that was the creation of a society in which schools as institutions of domination and ideological inculcation simply didn't exist.
Paulo Freire's perspective was similar when he combined educational methods with Marxian concepts of consciousness. He recognised that we live in dehumanised world -- one without self awareness, and without a consciousness of the historical forces which determine our existence. For Freire, '.. a revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, i.e. with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.²
Freire was concerned then with both the expansion of consciousness and ejection of the false consciousness. The oppressed must treat their own lives as authentic and not reject their own realities on the basis of the values of the dominant class.
The person who is aware of social forces and conscious of their nature is able to break with the trajectory of history and participate in the radical change of self and society. Without this break, social change would mean only that one oppressive faction takes the place of another -- a change of the palace guard without any change in the palace. Without it it doesn't meet the basic criteria of humanistic revolution, which can only be accomplished through individual liberation of consciousness, and through the participation of all people in social change.
The big question now then - is it possible to use education now to create a body of libertarian thinkers. We live in a highly organised and rationalised technological society in which it is rare that the individual finds room to grow and develop through free will. Urban industrial society is so highly organised that children have little opportunity to explore and construct their own world.
The Modern School movement (also known as the Free School movement) over the past century has been an attempt to represent part of this concern. An attempt to establish an environment for self-development in an overly structured and rationalised world. An oasis from authoritarian control and as a means of passing on the knowledge to be free.
A. S. Neill, who founded Summerhill in 1937 in England and became one of symbols of free school movement, said 'no man is good enough to give another his own ideals'. He maintained the only cure for problem children was freedom and envisaged a democracy where self-regulated individuals would reject the irrationalism of politics and form social organisations out of need and desire.
His ideas and ideals were laudable but the practice proved more difficult. The New School movement was often bogged down in circular arguments about a non-dogmatic education itself establishing its own dogma. It needs to be remembered that the preaching of radical social philosophy could end in totalitarianism. The prominent anarchist Emma Goldman who was involved in Stelton - a radical free school in the US, said 'boy or girl, overfed on Thomas Paine, will land in the arms of the church or they will vote for imperialism'.
Francisco Ferrer's Modern School in Barcelona opened with an empty library because he could not find non-dogmatic texts. One of the main problems with Free Schools is that individuals might actually learn that they need an institution to give them freedom.
Free Schools were an invaluable exercise but they failed to explicitly effect change in the overall structure of society and it can be argued, they may actually create children who are unable to understand the world outside of their particular educational oasis.
I hope I've shown here then, how meaningful learning and libertarian education must come about as part of a social revolution. However, it is imperative that those of us in education realise the mistakes of the past and begin to explore new ways of learning which will be of use after the social revolution. There are almost, as many suggestions of systems as there are commentators, but they are all broadly similar. They are generally based on the assumption that education is life long, that the educator is not concerned about the outcome of the learning process and there will be no element of compulsion.
Illich gives practical suggestions for the support of learning. A community might have the following structures:
1. Info centre - kind of expanded library of books and other media, as well as info on visiting industrial centres, observing varieties of community activity.
2. Skill centre/register - register skills (typing, bricklaying, knowledge of history) - those who wished to learn a skill could find someone to teach it. It might be a curriculum within a skill like typing, but curricula wouldn't extend beyond a particular skill. Curriculum planning would be turned over to the individual.
3. A communication system with computer matching of people with similar interests, journals of specific interests (his ideas on this are happening more now with the advent of the internet).
In the late 20th century, we are seeing a reverse of the need for children as factory fodder which has been demanded by industrial development over the past century. The increased use of technology, concern by unions that child labour depresses wages and an available trance of unemployed, tell increasing numbers of young people that their future is not as a worker. An increase in the school leaving age and the numbers of students attending further education and a new prevalence of vocational qualifications is capitalism's attempt at papering over the cracks. But a large number of young people are beginning to learn that after the age of 15 or 16, today's advanced economy has no need for them and they are failing to find the place in society that work would have provided 20 or 30 years ago.
For those who do work, Freire said -- highly technological societies are moving toward a future where specialisation in work becomes so narrow that people are generally incapable of thinking. What is being created is a dehumanised mass society. In this almost all consciousness of self is lost. There is no element of risk or of planning on an individual level. 'They do riot have to think about even -the smallest things, there is always some manual which says what to do in situation 'a' or 'b''. People will have given up free-thinking for mere learning based on expert advice.
The idea of libertarian education is that knowledge and learning should be linked to real life processes and personal usefulness and should not be the preserve of a special institution.
A society without schools would be one without institutions of mysticism and authority. It would be a society of self-regulation where institutions would be products of personal need and usefulness and not sources of power. It would be an anarchic society.
Iain McKay, 1997
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