An Anarchist Education

Disciplinary Education

It is often said that Foucault compares everything to a prison. Schools are like prisons. Hospitals are like prisons. The factory or office are prisons. But this is simply not true. We could just as easily say that prisons are like schools. Insofar as both are outgrowths on what Foucault understood as a disciplinary episteme, they are alike. The prison does not give us a form upon which other institutions are modeled. Rather, disciplinary knowledge provides the blueprint for institutions that resemble each other because they are cut from the same cloth, so to speak. So, schools are like prisons and prisons are like schools are like hospitals and so on. This is nothing new. The anarchists of the Modern School Movement understood this just as well.

Jean Grave

Already in 1898, Jean Grave identified discipline as a pedagogical sin and called it the “mother of dissembling, deviousness and lies.” Discipline worked on the mind, punishment worked on the body. Thus, discipline begets dissembling, deviousness, and lies because one must work against the authentic expression of free thought in order to bring oneself under the aegis of a disciplinary practice. Punishment addresses itself to the body and while the continued practice of corporal punishment in some schools are vestiges of an older order, the primary and predominant mode of pedagogy targets the mind of its pupils to tutor them in the ways of productive citizenship under the capitalist State. Rather than pursuing one’s own freely chosen ends, which would allow the individual to coordinate the fact of their existence within a given situation with the experience of an existence realized only through their projects and commitments extending into the future and rooted in their past, an education focused on the discipline of the mind must bend the ends of the student to those determined by the curriculum. Thus, curriculum, as Grave noted, becomes the “leveler of originality, initiative and responsibility.” In short, the student is consigned to bad faith.

An Education in Bad Faith

The student subject to a curriculum must lie. But their lie is not a lie to another. If that were the case, the student would know full well the truth that their lie attempts to hide. They could use the lie and the other to whom they lie so that they could achieve their own ends. In such a case the student would be guilty of a moral failing, but it would be one for which the student would still claim responsibility and from which they might even act in accordance with their own freely chosen ends. No, it is not to the other that they lie, but to themselves first and foremost. They must try to convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that the ends established by the curriculum are their own ends. But this cannot be the case.

Because the curriculum is not established among the students as an expression of their own needs relative to the concrete ends they pursue, but is rather established by the State, the curriculum as it is currently implemented does not serve the students. It cannot. Who, then, does it serve?

The governing apparatus of the State is in the hands of a few who occupy its offices. It is the interests of these governing few that the curriculum is designed to serve. And who are these few? The representatives, not of the common people, but of businesses who have made another kind of business out of governing. Errico Malatesta expressed the principle when he wrote that:

The governors, accustomed to command, would never wish to mix with the common crowd. If they could not retain the power in their own hands, they would at least secure to themselves privileged positions for the time when they would be out of office. They would use all the means they have in their power to get their own friends elected as their successors, who would in their turn be supported and protected by their predecessors. And thus the government would pass and repass into the same hands, and the democracy, that is, the government presumably of the whole people, would end, as it always has done, in becoming an oligarchy, or the government of a few, the government of a class.

These words are as true today as they were when Malatesta wrote them in 1891. One need only consider the mere existence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) where business leaders and legislators conspire to draft the very laws intended for the regulation of business. The leadership of the Council is composed almost entirely of current or former business executives who rotate through the well-known revolving door between the private sector and government. Such a revolving door leads to regulatory capture, where governmental institutions meant to regulate industry in the interests of the public good come under the dominance of the very industries they are meant to regulate. Thus, the governmental institution begins to serve the interests of industry first and not those of the people. So it is with education.

The ends of public education, increasingly obsessed with vocational training, has been so captured by the interests of the bourgeoisie who hold the reins of government that the student must view themselves from the perspective of being potential labor. Alienated from their own ends, the student must, at some level, consider themselves as a resource for deployment within the labor market. But because they must, at the same time, commit themselves to education for the sake of their future career prospects, they are led to attribute a false objectivity to the ends of business which designate their education as “useful” only insofar as it contributes to their employability, in short, to their market value. It is therefore the employer who benefits and not the student.

Indeed, the education in bad faith provides a double benefit to capitalists. On the one hand, an education geared toward employability provides it with a surplus of skilled laborers whose abundance is leveraged to keep the cost of labor low. This is the objective effect of so-called “education” on the labor of the student: it is devalued. Further, the education in bad faith has convinced the student that the ends of capital are really their own. Thus, they enter into zealous competition with their peers instead of building solidarity among themselves to better actualize their free projects. Their freedom is turned against them. Rather than an authentic freedom with others, education under the bourgeois regime encourages a freedom resigned to competition under the logic of a zero-sum game. There must be winners and losers. What I have to gain must come at the expense of another. This view is the product of a false objectivity, to borrow a phrase from Simone de Beauvoir, where the value ascribed to the student as a potential laborer is mistaken for a brute fact of the world to which the student merely conforms themselves without recognizing the role that they play in the generation of this value through their commitment to it. They become serious, and in their seriousness, confuse the values prescribed by the State as transcendent and absolute, exterior to human affairs. Education becomes serious business.

The anarchist knows what is to be done.

Anarchist Education
Francisco Ferrer Y Guardia

On the 13th of October, 1909, Francisco Ferrer Y Guardia was executed by firing squad in a trench at the Montjuich fortress in Barcelona, Spain. He was executed, but not because he had actually organized the “Tragic Week” insurrection which broke out when the Spanish government declared martial law in Catalonia to quash a general strike and which was the pretense for Ferrer’s arrest and trial. No, he was executed because of the Escuela Moderna, the Modern School. That the founder of an anarchist school must be gotten rid of at all cost is evidence enough of the threat that a truly free education poses to the State and the interests it serves.

Ferrer was a freethinker influenced by Graves, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy, among others. A strident atheist, he opposed religious indoctrination in education and sought to establish a school that would be based on principles of egalitarianism and rationalism. Today’s dogma is that of capitalism. Education, if it is to be placed in the service of the student, must be taken from the hands of those who determine its ends only in relation to economic productivity. To achieve this separation, the student must be freed from a curriculum determined beforehand that establishes what their ends ought to be before they even get a chance to engage it. With their teacher as a guide and not as an authority, the student must be able to control their own curriculum together with that of their peers. The abstractions of a pedagogy that pretends to universalism while actually serving particular ends must be abolished in favor of a concretely engaged pedagogy that addresses the whole being and is not focused solely on the mind and its discipline.

Ferrer and his fellow anarchist pedagogues advocated for “integral education.” An integral education is one that aims at the body as well as the mind and encourages their coordination. This is the ground of an education in authenticity, one that positions students to coordinate the facticity of their existence with their commitment to a project that they are able to negotiate for themselves. Rather than learning through rote memorization and studying books which present topics largely in abstraction, the integral education emphasizes active, hands-on learning where students are engaged with their environment and learn largely by doing when at all possible. Materials are made available to students, who can study texts and read as much as they desire, but they are not coerced to do so. Education is focused on activities that engage the student fully in the process of learning and lead them to abstraction through a pragmatic approach. The field trip, nature walk, the out of doors, the laboratory, experimentation, observation, and reflection replace the traditional classroom.

Attendance, likewise, is encouraged but not mandatory. Students may come and go as they please and are not bound to the desk as in traditional institutions. To facilitate their learning in such an environment, the teacher must abandon their position as a magisterial authority. Educators must be the friends and playmates of their students, presenting them with demonstrations, information, and walking them through problems without imposing strict judgments on them or lording over them. Herbert Read describes the teacher as “primarily a person and not a pedagogue, a friend rather than a master or mistress, an infinitely patient collaborator,” while James Guillaume remarks:

No longer will there be schools, arbitrarily governed by a pedagogue, where the children wait impatiently for the moment of their deliverance when they can enjoy a little freedom outside…They will organize their own games, their talks, systematize their own work, arbitrate disputes, etc. They will easily become accustomed to public life, to responsibility, to mutual trust and aid. The teacher, whom they have themselves chosen to give them lessons will no longer be detested as a tyrant but a friend to whom they will listen with pleasure.

As Tolstoy had said, the ultimate aim of education is freedom, and their freedom can never be encouraged so long as they are subject to a teacher in the service of the ruling class who, as Ferrer put it, trains students “to obey, to believe, to think according to the social dogmas which govern us.” In such a capacity, the teacher functions more as a soldier or police officer than as an educator. The authentic education is less concerned with what to think than how to think.

Insofar as discipline in concerned, the authentic education considers only self-discipline to be legitimate. Only by encouraging a student’s self-direction as autonomous can an education hope to produce an individual that is responsible. In short, the education of an anarchist is an attempt, through schooling, to give the child back to themselves by ridding them of the alienation imposed by an education in bad faith. As Bakunin realized, “Children belong neither to their parents nor to society. They belong to themselves and their own future liberty.”

Anarchist Education as Care of the Self

The education of an anarchist aims at reconstituting the self beyond the institutional barracks of the school as it currently exists. Within the neoliberal order, the self serves one function: productivity understood as the generation of profits within a capitalist framework. Because of this, we come around again to Foucault and find ourselves watching the face of the liberal self being washed away at the edge of the sea. The student, educated according to the anarchist principles sketched out above, must first annihilate this liberal subject so that they can be reconstituted in their freedom. The anarchist school becomes the site of a radical transformation. As has been said, it is the formation of a new society within the shell of the old one.

The education of an anarchist teaches students to care for themselves, to ceaselessly examine and reform themselves as they participate in and help shape the community that sustains them. But they are not egoists. They need the others among whom they pursue their own ends. Indeed, to the extent that each of us must justify ourselves, it is only before the other that I can be justified. The others are my concern. And their freedom, likewise, is my concern. It is only through the free commitments of the others that I myself am liberated. That the teacher as well as the classmate must be my friend is central to any authentic educational experience because a friend is famously another self. In dialogue with them, they become a mirror that presents me to myself in an objective form that can be engaged by a critical gesture. Likewise, by addressing them I present myself as a mirror for their own self-apprehension.

In the current system, with its grades and rankings, this affective echo of each other cannot be accomplished so long as we remain fixed in competition. Freed from these disciplinary restraints, returned to themselves with dignity among equals, the student discovers the possibility of an authentic existence. Engaged totally by the integral education, the student learns a new form of self-reliance where each can work according to their own ends without excessive focus on coercive specialization. This sort of work outside of liberal productivity is a work for the self as well as the other, who finds themselves echoed and opened to their own freedom through the work.

The effects of education weigh heavily on a person throughout their life. It is formative and transformative. Realizing this, the education of an anarchist is an education for everyone. It is not an abstraction, but rather, the only concrete education to address students in their lived particularity as members of a community. It is radical and its time has come.



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