In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to education. Although I begin this section with a discussion of the role of Francisco Ferrer in inspiring the “Modern School” movement, anarchists had been advocating libertarian alternatives to conventional education systems since the time of William Godwin. Proudhon, Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International had advocated an “integral education,” combining practical and theoretical knowledge. Bakunin’s associate, Paul Robin, and Louise Michel, helped set up the first anarchist “free schools” in France and England. In the mid-twentieth century into the 1970s, anarchists like Herbert Read and Paul Goodman, and fellow travellers like Ivan Illich, began developing an even more radical critique of education, calling for an end to “compulsory miseducation” and the “deschooling” of society.
Anarchists did not limit their involvement in popular struggles to the workers’ movement. Anarchists were also involved in various libertarian education movements that sought to bring to the masses the “integral education” of which Bakunin spoke, in order to ensure “that in the future no class can rule over the working masses, exploiting them, superior to them because it knows more” (Volume One, Selection 64).
In Europe, North America, Latin America, China and Japan, Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909) inspired the “Modern School” movement which sought to liberate children from the authoritarian strictures of religious and state controlled schools by creating schools outside of the existing education system in which children would be free to pursue their individual inclinations and interests. Ferrer argued that, in contrast, religious and state schools imprison “children physically, intellectually, and morally, in order to direct the development of their faculties in the paths desired” by the authorities, making children “accustomed to obey, to believe, to think according to the social dogmas which govern us,” and education “but a means of domination in the hands of the governing powers” (Volume One, Selection 65).
Ferrer had himself been influenced by earlier experiments in libertarian education in England and France by anarchists like Louise Michel and Paul Robin (1837-1912). His execution by Spanish authorities in 1909, rather than putting an end to the Modern School movement, gave it renewed inspiration.
In France, Sébastien Faure (1858-1942) founded the “la Ruche” (Beehive) free school in 1904. La Ruche was noteworthy for providing boys and girls with equal educational opportunities, sex education, and for its rejection of any form of punishment or constraint, all very radical approaches during an era when girls were either excluded or segregated, information regarding sex and contraception was censored, even for adults, and corporal punishment of students was routine. Faure, as with Godwin before him, rejected any system of punishments and rewards because “it makes no appeal” to the child’s reasoning or conscience, producing “a slavish, cowardly, sheepish breed… capable of cruelty and abjection” (Volume One, Selection 66)…
Herbert Read (1893-1968) later expanded on the role of modern education in creating a submissive populace, much as Ferrer and Faure had before him. Through the education system, “everything personal, everything which is the expression of individual perceptions and feelings, is either neglected, or subordinated to some conception of normality, of social convention, of correctness.” Read therefore advocated libertarian education, emphasizing the creative process and “education through art,” arguing that it “is only in so far as we liberate” children, “shoots not yet stunted or distorted by an environment of hatred and injustice, that we can expect to make any enduring change in society” (Volume Two, Selection 36).
Paul Goodman (1911-1972) described the school system as “compulsory mis-education,” which perpetuated a society in which youth are “growing up absurd.” His friend Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was later to advocate “deschooling society” as a way of combating the commodification of social life, where everything, and everybody, becomes a commodity to be consumed (Volume Two, Selection 73). By the 1960s and 1970s, people were again experimenting in libertarian education (Volume Two, Selection 46), something which anarchists had been advocating since the time of William Godwin.
Goodman, Paul. Compulsory Mis-Education. New York: Horizon Press, 1964; and Growing Up Absurd. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
Read, Herbert. Education Through Art. London: Faber & Faber, 1943.