'The project of national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government.' - William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

A few weeks ago I saw a great message in what was, unfortunately, a rather poor movie. That movie was Accepted, a 2006 comedy portraying a unsuccessful student named Bartleby, who, after failing to be accepted in multiple colleges, forms a fake college that soon becomes the home of many a disenfranchised high-schooler. The college, named the South Harmon Institute of Technology (S.H.I.T), is hosted in an abandoned psychiatric hospital and enlists the help of a former professor with a disdain for modern education.

Bartleby's new school runs on one premise: learn what you want to learn. There are no proper teaching staff, no set curriculum, and the lessons are built, taught and attended by the students themselves. Being a comedy movie, this mostly results in a great deal of partying, pranks and staring at girls in bikinis, but lying low between the sub-par gags is an unfortunate truth; education fails the non-conformist.

Pretty much all of us can relate to hating school at one time or another, but not many of us come to believe that such a hate is actually rational. This is because we are taught not only to memorise every inch of the our curricula, but also to internalise the rationality of the curriculum itself. Our future success is pivoted upon our success in rigid activities, assessments and examinations, and deviation is to be treated in itself as a deviant act. Decide not to learn what you are told to learn, and you will have your liberty removed from you, much like prisoner, in the form of detention.

This structural, no questions allowed approach to education often kills our joy for learning. As Colin Ward says:

'The most devastating criticism we can make of the organised system is that its effects are profoundly anti-educational. In Britain, at five years old, most children cannot wait to get into school. At fifteen, most cannot wait to get out.'

The question is: if school is supposed to be so beneficial to our development, why do so many of us have to forced to attend?

The answer to that question can be found as early as around 375BC, in the philosopher Plato's The Republic. This foundational work outlines this Athenian's image for a proper society based upon an equally proper order, where each member of the state, or to Greeks at the time, polis, is born and raised to sit on one particular position of the hierarchical ladder. At the top of the ladder are the 'Guardians', the wise leaders, who will guide the state towards greatness. For Plato this raises the question: who is fit to be a guardian? To which he claims:

'The image of the dog suggests an answer. For dogs are gentle to friends and fierce to strangers. Your dog is a philosopher who judges by the rule of knowing or not knowing; and philosophy, whether in man or beast, is the parent of gentleness. The human watchdogs must be philosophers or lovers of learning which will make them gentle. And how are they to be learned without education?'

In Plato's ideal state, education serves a purely functionary purpose. His educational system listens little to the needs of the learner, but instead to the needs of the polis. The citizens, or dogs, by being moulded into whichever role the state has chosen for them, become the cogs of a strict, powerful and self-regulating system. Just as the domesticated dog is taught to submit to the will of its owner, so is the individual taught to submit to the will of the state.

To the scholar Matt Hern, these Platonic ideas were 'slowly reinvigorated' in the age of competition between empires. As fears grew of being overpowered by other states, so grew the need to further develop the strength of the population and adapt it to the modern world and modern warfare. Hern quotes the philosopher Joaan Fichte to illustrate his point, who in a speech lays out the rationale for a national education system:

‘The State which introduced universally the national education proposed by us, from the moment that a new generation of youths had passed through it, would need no special army at all, but would have in them an army such as no age has yet seen.’

A plethora of academics and educational experts have made similar comments on the imperialist purpose of the school. The educationalist Francisco Ferrer, who founded and inspired libertarian schools in the early 1900s, stated that governments ran schools 'not because they hope for the revolution of society through education', but because 'they need individuals, workmen, perfected instruments of labor to make their industrial enterprises and the capital employed in them profitable.' Similarly, the social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, when tracking the rise of nation states throughout history, describes the 'education apparatus' of the state as providing a 'new, standardized, and homogenized culture that industrial societies need.'

Schools have, therefore, not greatly changed as a concept since Plato's The Republic. They are functionary, facilitating state need as opposed to opportunities for learning.

Recalling your own experience of school is most likely enough to realise how schools regulate and therefore stifle the learning process. If you have ever felt that you are not really learning anything but how to pass examinations, then your feelings are justified, because that is exactly how school is designed and functions. Or, as the philosopher Ivan Illich puts it in his work Deschooling Society:

‘The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.’

At school, you are not being taught how to think, but instead being taught how to accept. The state's welfare bureaucracy claims 'a professional, political, and financial monopoly over the social imagination', so that the educational system, by extension, makes a 'total claim on the time and energies of its participants'. The teacher, whether they really know it or not, becomes the 'custodian, preacher, and therapist', who respectively controls, preaches and administers the word of the state. Foucault, also, views the school as congruent with the state's growing methods of surveillance and regulation. They become a 'judicial power' in which to instil discipline.

To those who are more moderate this might sound like the ravings of a conspiracy theorist, as though I am claiming that there sits a cabal of elites who seek to brainwash us with messages forced unto us by our teachers. This not the case. There are no conspiring cabal members, but only the natural outcomes produced by a state that, no matter its rulers, will seek to protect and replicate itself, as all hierarchies seek to do.

I would ask those more moderately minded to think back to their time in education, and to question, if my education was so useful, why have I forgotten most of it? I would also ask them to question, do I remember things the most when I have been forced to learn them, or when I make the effort to learn myself? You might find your answer mirrors this point by Noam Chomsky:

‘If you study because you have to pass a test you can do fine on the test but two weeks later you've forgotten everything. On the other hand if you do it because you want to find out, and you explore and you make mistakes and you look in the wrong place and so on, then ultimately you remember.’

We are often told that our futures depend on the grades that we get in school, without fully realising that it is specifically the grade itself that is useful to us, rather than the knowledge we gained from studying for it. For example, I have forgotten essentially everything I know about mathematics beyond regular arithmetic, and yet I have a handy passing grade in it from school, which is supposedly indefinite proof of my maths skills. Meanwhile, an adult who has an active interest in mathematics but no qualifications is, by technicality, less capable than me due to possessing the grade. The educational system's job is not to asses and facilitate real learning, but to categorise us for the benefit of the state's labour market.

So, considering all of this, what is the alternative?

If learning is now rigid, predictable and led by the state, then the solution is to make it free, spontaneous, and led by individual curiosity. It is integral that we tap into people's desire to learn, that is, before school beats it out of them.

There have been and are still many existing schools and other projects which have attempted to do just this. Chomsky himself went to one such school that was inspired by the educationalist John Dewey. He describes the experience in positive terms:

'It was an exciting experience, you wanted to be there, you wanted to go. There was no ranking, there were no grades. Things were guided so it wasn’t just do anything you feel like. There was a structure but you were basically encouraged to pursue your own interests and concerns and to work together with others.’

Unlike the formal curricula of regular state schools, these "democratic" schools (as they are often known) entrust learning to the learner themselves. Education is seen as a process of discovery rather than one of memorisation.

This attitude is key to the developmental psychologist Peter Gray, whose celebration of democratic schools focuses on their ability to harness the natural ways that children learn. He believes that children are perfectly able to educate themselves if just provided with the means to do so. In a democratic school, this means having adults that serve as 'resources and administrators for the learning community', supporting the learning of the students but not fully directing it. Gray demonstrates that such 'self-directed learning' will lead to a 'self-directed life', and therefore happier and more engaged children. A UK study that investigated the effects of schools that employed 'participatory schooling', also found that having students guide their own education resulted in happier teachers and students, less expulsions and higher attendance.

A similar attitude towards education has made its way into 'unschooling', a method of homeschooling in which children learn as they wish, their parents acting in a similar way to the teachers at democratic schools. The success of such a practise is obviously tied to the quality of the child's home life, but it still has the potential to raise happier and more creative children at no expense to their intellectual ability. One case study found that, in a group of seventy-five 'unschooled' children in the United States, they were 'overwhelmingly positive' about the experience, with only '11 percent' who 'felt behind in one or more academic areas'. In fact, of those who eventually went to college, adjusting to academia was a smooth process, with their 'high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction' being said to give them an advantage over students whose motivation had been battered out of them at school.

The important take away from these examples is that children are perfectly capable of learning without legal or academic requirements to do so. Schooling was necessary for our learning, but only for the benefits of our ruling classes, who needed an efficient way of mobilising a large, technically educated, obedient population.

The anarchist answer to education, then, is to provide the means to learn but not to enforce learning. In 1972, the professor Harry Ree made a very unfortunate, but inspiring prediction about the future of education:

'I think we are going to see in your lifetime the end of schools as we know them. Instead there will be a community centre with the doors open twelve hours a day, seven days a week, where anybody can wander in and out of the library, workshops, sports centre, self-service store and bar. In a hundred years’ time the compulsory attendance laws for children to go to school may have gone the same way as the compulsory laws for attendance at church.'

Harry Ree clearly believed too much in us, but this illustration of what education could look like perfectly encapsulates the anarchist vision. We may want to see the end of schools, but this want is 'not in a contempt for learning', as Colin Ward puts it, 'but in a respect for the learner'.

You may not agree with the anarchist premise that there should be an end to compulsory schooling, as had just been described, but is it not time we bring the anti-educational aspects of our school to an end? Is it not worth us reevaluating the purpose and benefits of schooling, and to perhaps reclaim them not as tools for our nations, but as tools for ourselves?

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

Special thanks for our patrons, Dominic Condello, John Walker, BoringAsian, Jake P Walker

If you want to help us reach the funds needed to keep this site up forever, please consider becoming a patron:

The Commoner is creating essays and articles from an anarchist perspective. | Patreon
Patreon is a membership platform that makes it easy for artists and creators to get paid. Join over 100,000 creators earning salaries from over 2 million monthly patrons.