Bourdon & Varlin: Freedom of Education (1866)

The Geneva Congress 1866

The Geneva Congress 1866

This September marks the 150th anniversary of the first policy Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in Geneva, Switzerland (from September 3 to 8, 1866). It was at the Geneva Congress that the Statutes of the International were officially adopted (with the French version fatefully referring to every “political movement” being subordinate to the “economic emancipation of the working classes,” whereas the English version referred to every political movement only being subordinate to economic emancipation “as a means”; Marx later used the English version to argue that anarchism was contrary to the International’s Statutes, which he wrote, no doubt with this arcane distinction in mind). The French delegates were largely Proudhonist in orientation. They presented a report to the Congress that quoted extensively from Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution, one of his most anarchist works. However, the majority of the French delegation agreed with Proudhon’s view that fathers should be in control of their children’s education. Two of the French delegates presented a “minority” report on this issue, Antoine-Marie Bourdon, a Fourierist, and Eugène Varlin, a radical socialist federalist, in which they argued that education is a social responsibility. During the debates at the Congress on the position of women, Varlin also argued in favour of equal rights for women, because the reality is that women must be allowed to earn a living by working, otherwise they would be condemned to prostitution or reliance on charity. Here, I reproduce Shawn Wilbur’s translation of Bourdon and Varlin’s minority opinion on education. I discuss the Geneva Congress in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist movement.

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Opinion of the Minority of the French Delegation

Finding ourselves in agreement on the obligation to be educated in a society where we profit each day from the insights of other; recognizing the necessity of education being at once scientific and professional, we are radically divided on the means of spreading it: some maintain that this responsibility falls on the family; the others, that it must be borne by society.

The convictions being equally profound on both sides, we believe that we should indicate here the principles that we have taken for a guide in the study of this question. These principles can be summarized in two words: Justice, Liberty. Justice in social relations, equality of rights and duties, equality in the means of action put by society at the disposition of the individual, equality for the individuals in the burdens of society.

Individual liberty, the right for each and the power to employ their faculties, and to use them according to their will.

As long as the individuals could only arrange unequal means of action, the tasks that fall to them will be unequal, and justice will not exist. As long as one constraint prevents the use of the self, liberty will not exist. That said, let us enter into the facts.

The complete incapacity of the human being, at their birth, requires in its favor an advance of services of which it will have to take account, when the development of its faculties will have put it, so to speak, in possession of itself, when it becomes a being capable of action.

With man in the state of nature, a comparatively small amount of services suffices for the child of:

That the mother directs his first step; that the father teaches him to hunt and gather the fruits with which he must nourish himself, and his education is complete. He can live freely and in conditions of complete equality with his fellows. The number of his brothers, even the loss of his parents would not be for him causes of inequality; the bit of demand for such an education is the guarantee that he will receive it from a strong being, whatever it may be.

In the civilized state, it is something else: Man being created for enjoyments, that habit has transformed into needs, in order to satisfy them, he must produce, produce a great deal; muscular strength no longer suffices, he must put intelligence to work. From then on, education becomes complicated; to the physical development is added the intellectual and moral development.

The more the faculties of man will be developed, the more and better he will produce, the more he will be useful and the more he should be happy. The less educated he will be, the less useful he will be and the more miserable, for inferiority is misery.

Now, the advance sum necessitated by an education capable of developing all the faculties of the child and to put him level with science and industry, being considerable, it is no longer a matter of indifference to ask who will furnish it.

It is just that this should be by those who must profit from it; but what is especially important is that all the children are assured of receiving it complete, so that none begin life in conditions of inferiority.

Some say that the responsibility for education falls on the family! Can the family furnish equal means of education to all children? No.

Depending on whether the family has more or less children, it will have more or less resources; and while the father of one could, without depriving himself, give them not only primary education, but also secondary and even higher education, the father responsible for many children will barely give them elementary instruction. The son of the first will become the manager of enterprises for which the children of the second will be the laborer. Inequality for the children in the results, inequality of burdens for the families, and thus no justice.

To shield themselves from these shocking inequalities, the partisans of education by the family propose to found some cooperative insurance societies in order to provide, in equal parts, for the costs of education of their children, whatever their number. That idea is certainly very laudable, but is it capable of guaranteeing the education of all the children? No.

There will always be improvident fathers. Unconcerned for their dignity and the interests of their children, they will not insure it; and, if education becomes too heavy a burden for them, they will neglect it.

Some quantity of children will still find themselves at risk of lacking education, or of only having due to the public or private charity that our opponents energetically reject, as it applies to men who have consciousness of their dignity. But if it is good to guarantee oneself against all protection, all charity, wouldn’t it be better still to destroy them by leaving them no place any longer, no void to fill?

As for us, we do not accept that a single child should be deprived of instruction, that charity finds a single child to instruct. Let society take education under its charge, and the inequalities cease, charity would disappear. Education becomes an equal right for all, paid for by all the citizens, no longer according to the number of their children, but according to their ability to contribute.

Incidentally, who will profit from the education of the child? Isn’t it the entire society, rather than the family? Now, if it is society, let it be society that covers the costs.

But there is not only the question of tasks and expenses; there is also, and especially, a question of direction, and it is to this that the partisans of education by the family cling most.

The fear of the absorption of the individual by the state, the terror of official education, makes them forget all the costs of education, all the social inequalities that inequality of instruction brings about.

Certainly, we can only agree with their criticisms of university education, only applaud the blows struck by them against the monopoly of education, for it is not to us that all that is addressed. We even make this declaration, that if we only had to choose between the monopoly of education in the hands of a despotic, absolute power, of the government of one man or a few men, and the liberty of education as the responsibility of the family, we would opt for liberty.

But when we demand that education be the responsibility of society, we mean a truly democratic society in which the direction of the education would be the will of all.

It will doubtless be objected that everyone will never have the same will and that the minority must be subject to the majority. That will occur even with mutual insurance. But we are allowed to hope that the habits of liberty will lead the citizens to make some reciprocal concessions, and that the programs of study will be formulated according to generally accepted ideas, excluding above all affirmations without proof and accepting only the sciences and reasonable things.

In our mind, the central administration, having formulated a program of study including only the essential notions of universal utility, will leave to the communes the task of adding what seems good and useful to them in relation to the places, manners and industries of the country, and to choose their instructors, to open and direct their schools.

What is more, that education by society will find an excellent corrective in the liberty of education, in the natural right that the individual has to teach what they know, and learn what they don’t know. A right of which we are presently deprived, and that we are all resolved to demand with all our energy.

This right of education would not only allow some teachers to offer courses concurrently with the public schools, either for general studies or more often for specialized studies; but still, by leaving to each the ability to establish courses or conferences critical on the points found incomplete or on flaws in teaching, would permit the presentation of these objections to the students and the public who would [be the] judge. This would force the public educators to hold themselves to the level of science and to the improvements of teaching methods in order to leave the least possible foothold for criticism.

It seems to us that in this manner the parents would have as large a part as desirable in the direction of education; and the children would be assured of all receiving an education as complete as necessary.

But in order for all to be assured of receiving that instruction, there must be an obligation! Should it be real or simply moral? If the obligation is real, it is said, you strike at the liberty of the child and the authority of the father.

As for the liberty of the child, we respond: in order to be free, it must have the enjoyment of all its faculties to be able to suffice for its own existence; now, the child is not free, and to become free, has need precisely of education. In terms of paternal authority, a father does not have a right to refuse education to his child.

Now, society having the duty of safeguarding the interests of its members, in the name of the interest of the child when its father leaves it in ignorance, it should take it and instruct it. We conclude then for education by society, under the direction of the parents and compulsory for all children; but we also demand, whatever happens, the freedom of education.

Antoine-Marie Bourdon and Eugene Varlin

Geneva Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, September 1866

 

 

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