28 June 2010

Anarchism and Education

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:19 am

“He that learns because he desires to learn will listen to the instructions he receives and apprehend their meaning. He that teaches because he desires to teach will discharge his occupation with enthusiasm and energy. But the moment political institution undertakes to assign to every man his place, the functions of all will be discharged with supiness [i.e., supineness, lethargy] and indifference.” – William Godwin, Discourse on Political Economy, 1758

“[On] the (pretended) will of the people, the Church will no longer call itself Church; it will call itself School. What matters it? On the benches of this School will be seated not children only; there will be found the eternal minor, the pupil confessedly forever incompetent to pass his examinations, rise to the knowledge of his teachers, and dispense with their discipline – the people. The State will no longer call itself Monarchy; it will call itself Republic: but it will be none the less the State – that is, a tutelage officially and regularly established by a minority of competent men, men of virtuous genius or talent, who will watch and guide the conduct of this great, incorrigible, and terrible child, the people. The professors of the School and the functionaries of the State will call themselves republicans; but they will be none the less tutors, shepherds, and the people will remain what they have been hitherto from all eternity, a flock. Beware of shearers, for where there is a flock there necessarily must be shepherds also to shear and devour it. The people, in this system, will be the perpetual scholar and pupil. In spite of its sovereignty, wholly fictitious, it will continue to serve as the instrument of thoughts, wills, and consequently interests not its own.” – Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, 1871

“The goal of elementary pedagogy is a very modest one: it is for a small child, under his own steam, to poke interestingly into whatever goes on and be able, by observation, questions, and practical imitation, to get something out of it in his own terms. In our society this happens pretty well at home up to age four, but after that it becomes forbiddingly difficult.” – Paul Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation, 1964

“In Britain, at five years old, most children cannot wait to get into school. At fifteen, most cannot wait to get out.” – Colin Ward, Anarchism In Action, 1973



  1. “Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.” — Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook)


    Comment by Carl — 28 June 2010 @ 11:01 am

  2. “It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others.” — Michael J. Lewis, art professor at Williams College


    Comment by Carl — 28 June 2010 @ 11:05 am

  3. “If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a school-master is a productive worker when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to that relation.” — Marx, Capital vol. 1, 644.


    Comment by Carl — 28 June 2010 @ 11:06 am

    • Thanks for these, Carl. I like Marx’s sausage factory comparison. There aren’t many stern taskmasters left in our culture, which makes me wonder what would happen if Lewis’ order were reversed. Would the precious and unique snowflakes recognize mastery when at last they encountered it, knuckling under the disciplinarian’s tutelage in order finally to transform their quirky creativity into something great? Or would they just tell the taskmaster to go fuck himself?


      Comment by ktismatics — 28 June 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  4. It took me a while to embrace my anarchism in education– I was cowed by the usual counterarguments, until I realized that all these counterarguments boiled down to begging the question– variations on “well, you gotta have rules, doncha?!” Now I tell everybody that what I do with the 4th & 5th-graders I hang out with is stay out of their way. The rules will arise and pass away–it’s never a question of gotta have ’em, but of what kind you have. I have found over and over that students will tell you what they want to learn, and will damn well learn it if you just engage with them and learn too. In some ways, this really is just “modeling the life of the mind,” as Carl said in comment to the previous post. (Point being that this insight is applicable in higher ed as well as elementary). But neither our universities nor our k-12 education are intended for students who want to learn this way; they have social and political functions that include freeing up the parental workforce, instilling a good sense of Who is Boss, keeping tabs on the “most likely to succeed,” and channeling folk into “career paths.” I blog a little about this, since philosophy is at bottom pedagogy (and auto-pedagogy), but I always wonder when some parent will read it and expose me.


    Comment by skholiast — 28 June 2010 @ 11:12 am

    • You mentioned on an earlier thread that you were a teacher, skholiast. I’m not one, so I’m encouraged that my outsider’s musings jibe with your own experience. In the sort of learning ecology you describe, anarchism works for the teacher as well as the students: all are teachers, all are learners. If the nervous-Nellie parents and the number-obsessed educational managers and the politicians could all get with this same ethos, everyone might actually might make educational progress together.


      Comment by ktismatics — 28 June 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  5. If we are going to go the way of anarchistic education, then perhaps “unschooling” is the way to go. Is this a phenomenon that you have come across, John? I do not recall you mentioning it in any of the recent posts.

    Here is the first paragraph from wikipedia:

    “Unschooling is a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child directed play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities led by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.”

    Some friends of Tamie’s approach education, as well as parenting, with an “unschooling” mindset, essentially allowing the child/student to plot their own course and then acting as a facilitator and guide.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 28 June 2010 @ 11:47 am

  6. The comments made at “The Students Make the Teacher” seem to also lead us into the suggestion that although the teacher does not “make” the student (due to many other factors that are more influential to making a good student), the teacher is not disposable. We need teachers. Why? Perhaps to guide the initiative that students themselves must take. (And as I said before, perhaps this is true of parenting as well.)

    Somehow teachers have assumed the burden of motivating students or even of guiding their studies. Is this a misplaced priority? Should students only study what interests them? What is relevant to them? I’d tentatively say “yes.”


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 28 June 2010 @ 11:52 am

  7. ‘Let the students decide’ ranges toward a romantic, Rousseauian view that children are wise by nature and corrupted by society, and a philosophical rationalism according to which we already know everything we need to and it must just awaken as our lives unfold. Both views are countered by the Dunning-Kruger Effect now being widely discussed, according to which not only don’t we know lots of important things but we self-defeatingly don’t know we don’t know. Not a promising basis for self-directed learning. Experience is not a reliable teacher.

    I’ve always thought good teaching was first and foremost a social relationship in which there’s a continuous exchange of curiosity, expertise and encouragement.


    Comment by Carl — 28 June 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  8. See here for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I’ve read a book about how to do unschooling and, while I’m all for proactive curiosity and initiative on the part of students, I agree with Carl that students benefit from being taught things they might not otherwise have chosen on their own, things that the already-educated recognize as important. Sure, some of this content can feel like indoctrination into the social hierarchy — like the Spartan children being taught how to manage the slaves. But it can be helpful for someone to point out to us what we don’t know, because… we don’t know that we don’t know it.

    Awhile back I wrote a post about Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which he argued that the teacher-as-master inhibited the student’s sense of self-efficacy, thereby reinforcing from earliest childhood the passive dependency of the citizenry that perpetuates class disparity. However, Ranciere didn’t deny scholarly mastery: he wanted both the student and the teacher to approach mastery on equal standing as learners. Whether Ranciere is right about this or not, I do believe that mastery can and should be abstracted from those who acquire it. To borrow from Pete at Deontologistics, student and teacher should jointly honor the a priori norms or standards of education: rationality, critical thinking, knowledge, truth. Teachers have greater mastery of the material than their students, and if the students honor the educational standards they would also honor what the teacher knows and would want to benefit from that mastery.

    Most of what we know we’ve learned not by discovering it ourselves but from someone else telling or showing it to us. The question is whether it’s forced down our throats or made available to us. Here’s some stuff you should know; here are some skills you should master; here are some mistakes you’ve made and some suggestions on how to correct them; here’s how to restore your enthusiasm for learning even after you’ve suffered temporary failure. If the kid values mastery, then s/he would presumably want to learn how to take advantage of the master when one is made available.

    This is partly why I believe that, even in anarchistic education, there should be some set of agreed-upon and well-defined body of knowledge and skills toward which the students and teachers direct their efforts. In part this would help those who really do want to achieve mastery on their own: even if you can’t afford to go to college, you can achieve the same level of mastery as those who do, if what constitutes mastery is made available to everyone without regard to financial resources or social class background.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 June 2010 @ 4:23 pm

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