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Anarchism and Education: the Rebel City Teaching Project
The popular misconception that anarchy means ‘chaos’ not only opens the door to the idea that anarchy is a kind of aggressive anti-politics, but also that it has little to contribute to discussions of social policy.
In a way, anarchists only have themselves to blame for this misunderstanding. When P-J Proudhon adopted the label ‘anarchist’ to describe his political philosophy in 1840, he was aware of its negative connotations. Just fifty years earlier, Jacobins had used the label to discredit their opponents on the left and send stalwart defenders of the first Paris Commune to the guillotine. But Proudhon’s adoption of the label was not a mere provocation. His message was that anarchy was an alternative order and that anarchism transcended conventional ideological divides. In other words, anarchists were not interested in steering the government of the state to the left or the right. They were interested in replacing it with self-government and establishing a social order that dispensed with the need for permanent, central authority.
The anarchists who followed Proudhon appreciated that education was essential for the realisation of this change. Believing that self-government came naturally, anarchists observed that people were also wont to adopt the repressive and dominating habits they imbibed from prevailing religious and political hierarchies. Authority was a pervasive habit which wormed its way into peoples’ places of work, homes and private associations. In contrast, the anarchist aspiration for self-government assumed a qualitative change in behaviours: self-government underpinned by values of liberty, equality and fraternity. It went hand in hand with a commitment to non-domination.
Education, then, was an instrument of socialisation, a way of nurturing habits of co-operation, promoting interdependence and mutual aid. This anarchist view of the function of education was not novel. A central theme of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is the need for education. The nub of her argument is that women will continue to suffer in subjection for as long as girls are educated to please men, dangle meekly on the arms of their spouses and labour as domestic slaves.
Wollstonecraft linked education to the exercise of virtuous citizenship. Anarchist women like Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre warmly endorsed her critique of male domination and, more generally, the idea that education imparted social habits capable of sustaining egalitarian social relationships and institutions. But problematising concepts of citizenship, they gave education a distinctive content. For anarchists, it was a route to antiauthoritarianism, not the perfection of the republic.
Since the late nineteenth century anarchists have argued that state education is badly equipped to fulfil this elevated social function. Most anarchists greeted the emergence of state schooling as a regressive development, characterising schools as indoctrination centres. Teachers delivered basic training in literacy and numeracy (usually through rote learning and free use of corporal punishment) to inculcate values of compliance and duty. Belligerent nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, militarism and devotion to religious authorities and ruling elites were part of this unappetising curriculum. The Prussian system epitomised modern education. Yet less rigid, more liberal systems adopted the same basic template. Thereafter, regulatory bodies adapted the curriculum to keep up with the changing demands of the competitive market.
Anarchists have responded to state education by setting up alternative institutions and promoting the adoption of anarchist pedagogies. Francisco Ferrer, executed in 1909 for championing anti-state, anti-Catholic teaching, is usually remembered as the pioneer of the anarchist free school movement. But similar initiatives were taken by Louise Michel, a poet, veteran of the Paris Commune and early advocate of anticolonialism. Leo Tolstoy, the novelist and Christian anarchist, was another practical experimenter. Leading anarchists – from Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin in the nineteenth century and Herbert Read Colin Ward and Paul Goodman in the twentieth – have proposed the redevelopment of education to integrate mental and manual skills, teach science as if it was an art, build international networks to share innovation and learning, take learners out of classrooms, subordinate knowledge acquisition to creativity, encourage pupil-centred methods of teaching, build confidence in independent judgment and develop intelligence, sociability and grace.
Education is still a core aspect of anarchist practice. Anarchists run free skools and free universities and play with curricula and teaching practices in mainstream institutions. Anarchists also participate in mainstream education by working with professionals to find spaces within the tightly regulated curriculum to improve understanding of anarchism.
Rebel City is a new initiative in this mould. The project aims to support all levels of learners. For younger pupils, the collective offers sessions to develop practical skills of co-operation and anti-hierarchical strategies to combat bullying and other aggressive behaviour. Rebel City can also run sessions for GCSE students interested in knowing more about the anarchism module on the A-level politics curriculum and provide specialist teaching to A-level students studying anarchism as an option.
Rebel City would like to hear from anyone in the Greater London area interested in finding out more about teaching anarchism in schools. The website is https://rebelcitylondon.wordpress.com/ and the email is firstname.lastname@example.org
PSA Member Ruth Kinna is a political theorist and member of the Anarchism Research Group at Loughborough University. She is the author of Great Anarchists (Dog Section Press, 2020) and The Government of No One (Pelican 2019). She is the co-author, with Uri Gordon, of the PSA Teacher’s Topic Guide to Anarchism.
PSA School Topic Guide
- Anarchism and Ideology (please note you have to be a PSA member to access this resource)
- Michael Bakunin, ‘Integral Education’, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/1869/education.htm
- Francisco Ferrer, The Modern School https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/francisco-ferrer-the-origin-and-ideals-of-the-modern-school
- Paul Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation, https://archive.org/stream/CompulsoryMiseducation-PaulGoodman/compulsory-goodman_djvu.txt
- Peter Kropotkin, ‘What Geography Ought to Be’ https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-what-geography-ought-to-be
- Herbert Read, Education of Free Men (London: Freedom Press, 1944)
- Colin Ward, Talking Schools https://libcom.org/library/talking-schools-colin-ward
Commentary and Analysis
- Constance Bantman, ‘Louise Michel’s London Years: A Political Reassessment (1890-1905)’ https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09612025.2017.1294393
- Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (Edinburgh & Oakland: AK Press)
- Nathan Fretwell, ‘Anarchist Education and the Paradox of Pedagogical Authority’, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332325800_Anarchist_education_and_the_paradox_of_pedagogical_authority
- Robert Haworth, Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories and Critical Reflections on Education https://we.riseup.net/assets/219988/anarchistpedagogies.pdf
- Daniel Murphy, Tolstoy and Education (Dublin: Irish Academic Press)
- Judith Suissa, Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective https://libcom.org/library/anarchism-education-philosophical-perspective-judith-suissa
- Free University Brighton https://freeuniversitybrighton.org/
- Wilderness Woods http://wildernesswood.org/about/