“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”
— Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
“Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former.”
— Horace Mann, leading proponent of the “Common School” movement (1881)
During the 19th century, many large-scale changes in society were causing concern for wealthy elites in the United States. The growth of industrial capitalism had driven large numbers of people into urban areas, where poverty and abysmal living conditions were creating widespread unrest. Millions of people were immigrating to the United States from Europe, which stimulated xenophobic/nationalist fears about the destruction of American culture and the introduction of radical political ideas (e.g. socialism/anarchism) by foreigners.
It is not a coincidence that the modern penitentiary, public schooling, mental hospitals, and police were all developed during this time. A similar ideology underpins all of these developments — an elitist one which sees most people as troublesome and ignorant, and in need of centralized scientific management by state institutions. Prisons and public schools ostensibly serve very different purposes. Prisons are perceived as a brutal punishment for the most vile and unethical members of society. While few people nowadays see them as having anything to do with “rehabilitation”, they are nevertheless believed to be a “necessary evil” — cruel perhaps, but needed to protect society from the darker side of “human nature”. Schools, on the other hand, are seen as playing a crucial role in early childhood development, instilling children with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. Schools are seen as a fundamental right that all young citizens are not only entitled to, but should be forced to partake in for their own good (and for the good of society). In reality, however, these two seemingly distinct institutions are both outgrowths of the same set of social forms — i.e. industrialism, scientific management, and corporatism (the merging of the statist and capitalist bureaucracies — “regulated” capitalism). Both schools and prisons are centralized statist institutions which confine people against their will in a state-run facility, in order to “remake” them (on an industrial scale) into obedient citizens, zealous patriots, and hard workers for the benefit of a wealthy ruling class.
“Good republicans … are formed by a singular machinery in the body politic, which takes the child as soon as he can speak, checks his natural independence and passions, makes him subordinate to superior age, to the laws of the state, to town and parochial institutions.”
— Noah Webster
The public school system as we know it today is mainly a product of what was known as the “common school movement” in the 1830s and 1840s. The idea of a common school is something that is nowadays completely normalized, but at the time was revolutionary (and widely resisted): a nationwide network of state-run facilities that all children would be forced by law to attend, and which would teach a common body of knowledge (chosen by state bureaucrats in education departments). These schools were seen by their proponents as a means of indoctrinating the poor (especially immigrant populations) with values such as obedience, Christianity, nationalism, and industriousness; and of preventing the spread of radical ideas such as anarchism and socialism. Social scientists had determined that many of the problems with the poor lay in cultural and genetic defects that promoted laziness, disobedience, and ignorance. Schools were seen as a way of systematically destroying this “culture of poverty” by ripping poor children away from the negative influences of their families and communities, and teaching them sound moral values and prepare them to lead successful lives as industrial workers.
When the movement for compulsory state schooling was in its earlier stages, large sectors of the public were strongly opposed to having their children taken away and indoctrinated by the government. In order to ensure that parents would hand over their children to be raised by the state, laws were passed to make state schooling compulsory — the compulsion being that of the police, courts, and prisons, and of children being taken away from their parents who are accused of “neglecting” them for not sending them to school. Resistance was particularly strong amongst socialists and anarchists who saw these schools for what they were (instruments of ruling class control), and attempted to create radical alternatives such as the Ferrer Schools and Modern Schools. The founders of these schools not only took issue with the nationalist/capitalist propaganda that was taught in public schools, but also with the authoritarian structure of schools themselves. The radical alternative schools not only wished to teach critical histories, anti-racist science, communitarian values, and other things that were not taught in state schools, but they also wished to serve as prefigurative models for the revolutionary society that they hoped would replace the capitalist system.
“Our educational system is not a public service but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist.”
–Upton Sinclair, “The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education” (1923)
But the violent repression of radical social movements during and after World War I essentially neutralized organized popular resistance to the corporatist ideology pushed by the “progressives”, and the radical educational projects were largely destroyed along with the anarchist/socialist movement that created them. Public schooling in the United States experienced explosive growth during the corporatist “Progressive” era (around the same time that similar fascist movements were spreading across Europe). By 1920, 28% of all US children between ages 14 and 17 were enrolled in public high schools. By 1930 this number had increased to 47%, and by 1940 two thirds were enrolled. Over the years, this history has been erased, and nowadays most Americans see public schools as a basic human right, something that societies would disintegrate without, rather than an oppressive form of government intrusion into family life. A majority of Americans today, while feeling that public schools need to be reformed/improved, generally agree about their necessity and desirability, and willingly submit their children to be raised by the state.
Public schools are viewed as a means of economic advancement and social mobility within the capitalist system. The fantasy is that if everyone has access to a “good education”, then they will be provided with the necessary tools to “succeed” in the work force. The problem with this, of course, is that instead of teaching people how to dismantle the capitalist system and create a cooperative/egalitarian society, this strategy seeks success within it (based on the false assumption that the cause of poverty is lack of education or effort, rather than violent exploitation and oppression by capitalists). State-run schools will always be used to promote the interests of those who control the state (i.e. the wealthy ruling class). As Assata Shakur points out “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” The liberation of the working class from capitalist oppression/exploitation will not come from “better educational opportunities” offered to them by the state. It will come from revolution that dismantles the state and capital, including the state-run indoctrination facilities known as public schools.
Spending six hours a day for twelve years in a place where they have virtually no say in anything, where being governed is all they know, a profound passivity becomes normalized, the hopelessness of submission becomes fixed deep below the child’s skin. It is a perfect preparation for the consumerist future that awaits them.”
— Isabelle Fremeaux / John Jordan: “Anarchist Pedagogy in Action: Paideia, Escuela Libre” (2012)
This is not to say that education is not important, or that there should be no schools. The corporate media debate surrounding public schools generally presents two options: the “liberal” option, of increasing funding to state-run schools and reforming them to provide a better education for everyone (b) the “conservative” option of shutting down all of the state-run schools and replacing them with for-profit capitalist “educational services” firms. Anyone who criticizes state-run schools is automatically assumed to be in the “conservative” camp, promoting privatization, or worse, the complete lack of educational opportunities. But there is also a third option: cooperatively-run free schools, coupled with a wide range of learning activities that take place outside of the school/classroom environment. That is, it is possible to criticize statist compulsory schooling and yet still support universally available free education. The question is, will this education be compulsory and controlled by the state/capital, or will it be voluntary and controlled by the people and communities who use it?
“Let us suppose ourselves in a village. A few yards from the threshold of the school, the grass is springing, the flowers are blooming; insects hum against the classroom window-panes; but the pupils are studying natural history out of books!”
–Francisco Ferrer (1909)
What does free education look like if it is not administered by the state? Unlike centralized statist models of education, there is no single blueprint that can be used to describe all education in an anarchist society. Education takes place in many different settings — in homes, community organizations, kitchens, reading groups, free workshops, factory floors, forests, art studios and science labs. Thus it’s important not to conflate schooling with education. Education can also take place in schools, but modern compulsory schooling has monopolized the claim to education in such a way that other forms of learning are not valued as much as time spent in a classroom under the tutelage of “experts”. Much of the knowledge that keeps our society functioning was not learned in schools (cooking, bicycle repair, child raising, gardening, etc), and when we are seeking to create radical forms of education, we must value these forms of learning that take place outside of the classroom, because society literally could not function without them.
But what is perhaps most the important difference between statist schooling and anarchist free schools is the structure of the school and the perceived role of education in society. Education is a central component of any revolutionary movement. Revolution is not simply the destruction of the currently existing order, but also involves building a new society based on solidarity, mutual aid, liberty, equality, etc. The creation of this type of society requires the active cultivation of these values in our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, etc. Thus radical education is not only about learning skills, facts, and abstract theories. It is also about learning how to live cooperatively as autonomous beings in a free society of equals. This is why one of the central features of the anarchist school movement is that they not only allow children to determine the content of their own education, but also put them in charge of the administration, maintenance and operations of the schools themselves and allow them to make collective decisions and resolve conflicts through communal assemblies. Rather than the industrialized, top-down model of schooling that teaches children to be obedient and dependent upon authority figures for guidance, free schools teach children to be creative and independent and to work in solidarity with each other to come up with their own solutions. Unlike statist public schools where values are taught but not clearly identified (very rarely, if ever, will you hear a public school teacher say “We’re trying to inculcate you with nationalism and teach you to be submissive to authority figures.”), in anarchist schools the values above are made explicit and children are taught to critically analyze their own and each other’s behavior to ensure that they are living up to these values. Here you will hearing children not only openly discussing concepts such as solidarity, conflict resolution, and communal responsibility, but actually practicing them on a daily basis.
Instead of teaching children to blindly follow authority figures and work in a capitalist economy, our schools need to teach rebellion against illegitimate authorities and how to live in solidarity and cooperation with other members of society. Public schooling, since its beginnings, has always been opposed to this goal. Radical education means the abolition of state schooling, and its replacement by anti-authoritarian, free alternatives that are run by the community and the students themselves.
* Avrich, Paul (1980) The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States; Princeton University Press.
* Haworth, Robert H. (ed) Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education; PM Press
* Nasaw, David (1981) Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States; Oxford University Press and Spring, Joel H. (1994) The American School: 1642-1993; McGraw-Hill International
* Rothman, David J. (1971) The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic; Little, Brown, & Co.
* Spring, Joel H. (1972) Education and the Rise of the Corporate State; Beacon Press
* Spring, Joel H. (1994) The American School: 1642-1993; McGraw-Hill International; p. 34
* Suissa, Judith (2010) Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective; PM Press
Also, check out the documentary Free to Learn: An Experiment in Radical Education (69 min.)