Anarchism & Education

“I am not a speaker, not a propagandist, not a fighter. I am a teacher; I love children above everything. I think I understand them. I want my contribution to the cause of liberty to be a young generation ready for a new era.”­Francisco Ferrer

I really can’t explain to you how many things I’ve been interested in.  It’s just that everything is interesting!  I find the idea of changing the education paradigm EXTRA interesting.  Here’s something I wrote a while back:


There’s nothing m odern or radical about modern or radical schools. Throughout American history there have been schools that espouse the freedom of the child and their value as individuals. There have been schools that emphasized that physical fitness was as important as cognitive growth; there have been schools that do not introduce, “basic,” educational concepts like literacy and numeracy until the student is deemed truly ready: even if they’re in the double digits. There have been schools without desks, without principals, without tests or without grades literally for h undreds of years in this country. Most of those schools have held the sanctity of childhood with the utmost regard. Perhaps before we bemoan the aberration of modern Free schools and their ilk, we would do well to explore the history of education in the United States through a lense that wasn’t shaped by the underlying societal narrative.

Anarchist Philosophy and Theology: Goodness, Love, Happiness, Unity of All
Anarchism is generally regarded as a political ideology: and it certainly is that. But anarchism is so much more than just a belief in a stateless society. To truly understand the political aspects of the ideology one needs to become acquainted with the philosophical­almost­(ironically)­religious aspects of anarchism. At the heart of anarchist thought, be it political or otherwise, is this: human nature is innately good. A soul can become hardened or damaged, corrupted or even degraded: so much so as to produce antisocial tendencies (greed, envy, violence, etc.). But the souls of all people are naturally good and kind, caring and ultimately socially. Further, while anarchism seeks to encourage personal growth and ultimately an individual’s happiness, the philosophy also tends to believe that while we are individuals we are all parts of one large world soul. Humans are, by nature, social beings because we are all part of the same social creature. This belief is what pumps through all anarchist ideas and philosophies. It is this belief that explains the viability of living in a leaderless society. And it is because of this belief that anarchists focus so much thought and energy into children and education.

Anarchism is generally described as a political ideology that first and foremost rejects the idea of a state. It is often times perceived as a violent ideology and most descriptions of anarchism aren’t particularly positive. The Old Oxford dictionary defines anarchy as thus: (1) absence of government or control, resulting in lawlessness (2) disorder, confusion; and that an anarchist is a ‘person who believes that government is undesirable and should be abolished.’ World War I was supposedly started by an anarchist’s gunshot; anarchists caused the bloody Haymarket riots; or rallied coups to overtake monarchs: it makes perfect sense why people could not consider Anarchism to be viable philosophy…much less a way that society is set up.
The word, ‘anarchy,’ is of Greek origin. ‘An,’ means, ‘without,’ and, “archia,” means a, ‘ruler:’ without a ruler. The Greeks had a much better conception of what anarchism is than what is currently commonly perceived. Anarchism does seek out a world without r ules: it seeks a world without r ulers. Anarchism is a vision of society that ensures the equality of all people with the abolition of h ierarchies: it fully understands the imperative value of communities and organizations. Yes, society needs leaders: no, society doesn’t need presidents, czars or CEOs. The current system that has been in control for many centuries is of a hierarchal nature: national governments have a social and political pyramid; economically there is most certainly an underclass that supports higher classes. Because of the established status quo, people are beholden to political and economic, ‘realities:’ for most this keeps a semblance of stability for individuals and society as a whole. But, ‘realities,’ don’t have to be, ‘Truth.’ Anarchism believes that individuals in society can be free and happy a nd have a stable peaceful society.
Perhaps the ideas of anarchism seem awful objective, if not utopian. A society where people are free to be who they are, to practice their talents and passions? A society where every person has access to the best that society has to give: education, opportunity, security? Certainly such a society is untenable if not wholly unrealistic, right? This anarchist vision assumes the best in people and yet history is rife with examples of people behaving malevolently. The anarchists’ understanding of history can acknowledge the violence and cruelty of many acts in history, but they would counter that they are caused by the established system of hierarchies that structure our modern human experience. Repression and warfare: acts perpetrated by the powerful to sustain and expand their power. Poverty and property theft: directly caused by the hierarchy. The system i s the problem, but unlike many who can see the problems but offer no solutions: anarchism does. It’s just the the solutions are counter to our current, ‘reality.’ It is because of this that anarchists theory funnels so much energy and passion into education: by helping people pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Given people’s misdirected misconceptions about what anarchism is, it is easy to see where people could question how in any way anarchism and education could work together. For many, anarchism is synonymous with chaos, rule lessness and unbridled disorganization and therefore utterly incongruous with what education is supposed to do. In reality, as Paul Goodman said in 1964, “no other movement whatsoever has assigned to education principles, concepts, experiments and practices a more significant place in writings and activities,” than anarchism. Education is of the utmost importance for anarchists who wish to truly see their visions of a peaceful society fulfilled.
Anarchism doesn’t want rulelessness: anarchism wants ruler­less­ness. Therefore the typical model of education that almost is considered timeless and eternal by most, with the compliant students who listen dutifully to a teacher who is their perceived master, who thus answers to higher level masters is definitely contradictory to anarchist ideals. The idea of a prescribed set of educational objectives written by a central authority far away from the classroom in question is absolutely dissonant; the ageless concept of ranking individuals based on performance tests is not only anti­anarchistic it is downright anti­child. The traditional, Prussian model, not only perpetuates the hierarchy within society but creates one even among children. Making everything a competition in learning and life creates an egocentric society that encourages lying, cheating and stealing and if children can be inculcated into thinking this normal, they can be controlled with vanity, greed and fear.
The reason anarchism puts education on a pedestal is because they see it as a prime mode for changing society as a whole. Progressive educators like John Dewey have noted the importance of experience for truly learning something and anarchist theorist would agree wholly. All people are naturally inborn with qualities, talents and gifts that can benefit not only themselves but their community and society as a whole: the traditional mode of education actually denigrates these qualities. William Godwin, in 1 793 stated: “Modern education not only corrupts the heart of our youths, by the rigid slavery to which it condemns them, it also undermines their reason, by the unintelligible jargon with which they are overwhelmed in the first instance, and the little attention that is given to accommodating their pursuits to their capacities in the second.

The Problem with Compulsory, State­Run Education

I n 1797, William Godwin wrote in T he Inquirer, t hat, “the true object of education, like in every other moral process, is the generation of happiness.” He also noted that typical authoritarian models of education do a poor job of fulfilling this objective. A few years earlier, he outlined his misgivings with a national education: firstly, any public establishment innately supports prejudice as a permanent feature. Government education inevitably will encourage reverence and respect to, ‘every man in a handsome coat.’ The second indictment against compulsory government education was that it doesn’t exactly fit with the nature of our minds: it didn’t encourage us to act rightly as a personal imperative but instead as a duty to the state. “Thirdly, the project of national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with the national government….Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambitious an agent, it behoves us to consider well what we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hand and perpetuate its institutions…”
Emma Goldman was much more adamant in her qualms about compulsory public schooling. Goldman felt that schools were places where, “everything is used to break the will of the child:” a place where children treated like mounds of clay to be pounded and shaped into a ‘functioning members of society.’ She’ll admit that this isn’t a consciously nefarious movement, its just that a system that bases itself on discipline and uniformity is self­perpetuating. Her observations about education led her to liken the current system to the force feeding of livestock with state determined standards being like, predetermined “ brain­nutrition.” Does every animal sustain itself at the apex of health on the same regimen? Further, we look at ourselves as being a superior civilization, “because we have evolved a compulsory brain tube…”
It’s not that anarchist thinkers eschew the idea of education: certainly not. Education is of the utmost importance in anarchist theory, its just that the prevailing model which ultimately requires compliance to be deemed successful: but not learning, is not acceptable. Consistently in anarchist education literature you will see the emphasis of children to drive their education. Teachers are guides to help the student to discover and learn independently: but there are no prescribed timetables for attainment of skills. Nor is it expected that every child will excel at the same things: to try to push a variety of people into the same elsewhere determined curriculum deprives many students the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. Engage students in critical conversation, encourage them to be curious and more importantly, stoke in them the passion to quench their curiosity independently. Children shouldn’t just think: brain’s aren’t merely repositories. A brain also can direct the body toward doing things. The typical model detaches the brain from the body: there is no reason that thinkers can’t be doers and doers, thinkers. Anarchism is a very idealistic philosophy so imagine a world where people are truly able to do what they enjoy and  are good at? Indeed, this vision of an ideal society doesn’t, ‘make sense,’ in the current paradigm, but is that not why anarchists emphasize education? To change the prevailing paradigm is to slowly bring about great revolution in society …..

Francisco Ferrer wasn’t a great anarchist thinker but he acted when others only spoke. By all accounts he wasn’t a particularly charismatic speaker and Paul Avrich described him as, “simple, direct, unpretentious, he never assumed an air of intellectual superiority and was utterly indifferent about his appearance.” Yet his passion for the rights of children and boundless hope for the future would make for a better poster boy for the anarchist movement than an Goldman, Bakunin or Proudhon. Ferrer embodied the foundational beliefs of anarchism: mainly that humans, by nature, are good and will behave benevolently towards others given the right formative experiences. Ferrer’s dreams were for a liberated, peaceful and happy community of people who work together towards the common good. Ferrer’s school, the Escuela Moderna (Modern School), opened in the anarchist bastion of the Catalan region of Spain in the early 1900s to help provide the youth with happy childhoods free from the degradations of an education system established to help maintain the status quo. “Governments used schools to produce loyal citizens; the church, faithful parishioners, the manufacturers, obedient workers,” stated Ferrer and that government and church schools were merely instruments, “of domination in the hands of the ruling class.”

Ferrer saw schools as a gateway to personal development: mentally, physically and morally. Like many in his time who shared his philosophical predilections, he felt that a revolution was direly needed in society: but it wasn’t with bombs, guns or vitriolic speeches that he saw the revolution happening. He felt that for revolutions to truly take hold and remain beholden to its ideals, that the revolution must firstly be from within the individuals. Children needed to be, “inculcated,” to develop intrinsic respect for humanity. For Ferrer, the anarchist revolution so desired was part of a plan with a very long game. Nonviolent, noncoercive, the highly vaunted dreams of an anarchist society required an education where children were safe, secure, free to explore and experience, well practiced in critical thinking skills and morally driven towards doing good. With each seed that flourished in the school, and schools like his, he had hoped, people would be able to better advocate for themselves under the onslaught of a capitalist system that needed them to remain essentially ignorant. “For my part, I consider that the most effective protest and the most promising form of revolutionary action consist in giving the oppressed, the disinherited, and all who are conscious of a demand for justice, as much truth as they can receive, trusting that it will direct their energies into the great work of regenerating society.”

In, “The Origin and Ideals of the Modern School,” Ferrer very clearly lays out his vision and pedagogical theories. The school was co­educational, not only in terms of sexes but also economically: all economic and social classes as well as males or females were all equals in the school. Teachers were trained experientially: there was a college established for teachers but it was the hands­on work potential teachers performed in the classrooms that, he felt, gave them the best education. Grades were not given at Escuela Moderna: neither were there rewards or punishments in general. “Scolding, impatience and anger ought to disappear with the ancient title of, “master.” In free schools all should be peace, gladness and fraternity. We trust that this will suffice to put an end to these practices, which are most improper in people whose sole ideal is the training of a generation fitted to establish a really fraternal, harmonious and just state of society.” Needless to say, Ferrer’s methods were not understood or accepted by many, but his ideas and ideals are practiced to some degree in many schools presently: so there must have been some validity to his pedagogical tract.

The School at New Harmony: The Harbinger

The first kindergarten, the first trade school, the first school offering equal education to both sexes and the first self­governing free school was established in Indiana in the 1820s. The New Harmony colony’s school offered students access to both academic and vocational knowledge and skills and utilized experiential learning as its first motive for teaching. The school’s headmaster, William Maclure, who was also known as the, “father of American geology,” had misgivings with traditional modes of education because he felt them deleterious to the child’s soul, as well as intellectually. He regarded schools as poisonous and maintained that the real purpose of schooling was to, “stupefy the poor.” Maclure felt that society had two sections: the productive majority and an exploiting minority: the rich and politically powerful. He felt that the exploiting minority, “controlled not only the instruments of wealth and of coercion, including the army and the police but also the educational system, with which they conditioned the minds of the workers to acquiesce in their subjugation.”

Because education was used as a weapon against the poor, Maclure felt that education could be given to the poor to allow them to enjoy true independence and freedom. “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER in political societies and it is perhaps, as impossible to keep a well informed people in slavery as it is to make an ignorant people enjoy the blessings of freedom…the division of property divides knowledge, and the division of property and knowledge divides power. The nearly equal division of knowledge with equalize both property and power.” Maclure and the New Harmony School sought not only to educate and grow the individual’s soul but more important: rise up the masses who struggle to survive under the thumb of an oppressive system.

A.Bronson Alcott opened the Temple school in Boston, Massachusetts in 1834. The Temple School followed the common libertarian/anarchist educational belief that a true and complete education cultivates and encourages growth of the whole person: not just the mind. Because of a common anarchists belief that all people are equal and deserving of equal opportunity, students were not only taught academic subjects but also vocational: simultaneously. Every student was on their own individualized education plan and the pace for which a child progressed was never pressured by instructors to increase. A child learned when it was their time to learn: coercion would only prove to not only ensure incomplete understanding of a concept but also help create animosity in the learner towards education­­to put it another way­­to force or coerce a child to learn is anathema to the purposes of education. The students didn’t learn and worse: now doesn’t want to learn.

The school’s curriculum emphasized physical fitness, with a special affinity for gymnastics. The students were encouraged to play whenever they wanted under the idea that to play is to develop a great number of skills and knowledge sets. The school was a noisy building as children were allowed to sing and dance and frolic freely. The children never feared corporal punishment as the school used gentleness, love and respect to help promote positive behaviors. The pedagogical strategies for learning involved conversation to draw out pupil’s ideas instead of pouring information into them or by following traditional methods such as rote memorization or drills.

The school’s curriculum emphasized physical fitness, with a special affinity for gymnastics. The students were encouraged to play whenever they wanted under the idea that to play is to develop a great number of skills and knowledge sets. The school was a noisy building as children were allowed to sing and dance and frolic freely. The children never feared corporal punishment as the school used gentleness, love and respect to help promote positive behaviors. The pedagogical strategies for learning involved conversation to draw out pupil’s ideas instead of pouring information into them or by following traditional methods such as rote memorization or drills.


Marietta Pierce Johnson’s School of Organic Education: Libertarian Education

In 1907, in Fairhope, Alabama, Marietta Pierce Johnson’s School of Organic Education opened its doors. For Johnson, the idea of, “organic,” education was an education designed to meet the “whole needs of children as individuals.” She saw children as “unit organisms,” who like all organisms are constantly growing and changing. She espoused the belief that, “education is life,” and focused the curriculum of the school on moral and physical development while encouraging intellectual growth This holistic viewpoint, which holds that in education that we must develop, grow and cultivate the e ntirety of the person: not just their brains, wasn’t a revolutionary concept by 1907.

The Fairhope school operated differently, in terms of its curriculum and all around ethos. There were no desks and whenever possible classes were held outdoors. Dancing, singing and storytelling were integral parts of the daily life in the school. Further, in stark contrast with Spencerian philosophies of education, Johnson wrote, “no examinations, no tests, no failures, no rewards, no self­consciousness: the development of sincerity, the freedom of children to live their lives straight out, no double motives, children never subjected to the temptation to cheat, even to appear to know when they do not know; the development of fundamental sincerity, which is the basis of all morality.” Johnson eagerly believed that were all students engaged in learning of this model that society would innately improve and that many of the challenges in society would be assuaged.

The school’s successes were well heralded and perhaps the most impactful and influential of progressive educators, John Dewey, not only visited the school but dedicated a chapter to it in one of his books, T he Schools of Tomorrow. The school has now been in constant operation for over one hundred years: today as then, still emphasizing movement, nature, community and forthrightness, though it should be noted that it is a fairly expensive private school. In terms of pure academic language, it would be considered a, “libertarian,” school. The individual is cultivated, and perhaps by extension one would hope that society would benefit due to the honest, healthy former students becoming part of the larger community, but its intentions were not the improvement of society as a whole: just the i ndividual s tudents.

Anarchist Education: Learner Centered and Social Reconstructionist

It is undoubtedly clear that anarchist education is learner centered. Michael Schiro’s curriculum theory text notes that student interest directs learning and the physical classroom and its teacher are there to give the student what they need to learn for themselves. The interests of the children is paramount to the objectives of the adults. The pedagogical philosophy aptly described by anarchist educator Sebastien Faure: N o one has yet fully realized the wealth of sympathy, kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of the child…The effort of every true educator should be to unlock that treasure­to stimulate the child’s impulses and call forth the best and noblest of tendencies. What greater reward can there be for one whose life work is to watch over the growth of the human plant, than to see its nature unfold its petals and observe it develop into a true individuality?

Key terms when explaining the learner centered ideology included the concept of, “integrated education:” something that many anarchist theorists strongly advocate. Francisco Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna was built upon science, rational thought and the development of manual skills: the body and the mind working together. The need for integrated education in anarchist education is to help break down the social barriers between the intellectual, the laborer and the manager by giving everybody access to all modes of employment. Perhaps this isn’t the objective in learner centered ideology, per se, but it is a logical outcome as students become doers.

As apparent as it is that anarchist education ideology is learner centered, its motivation to enact social change is imperative. In this way the ideology is clearly related with what Schiro outlines as, ‘social reconstructionist.’ In the social reconstructionist ideology. Judith Sousa, in A narchism and Education, a Philosophical Perspective, clearly explains the difference between libertarian education and anarchist education. Mainly the difference is motivation: with free/liberal/libertarian/progressive education, the prime motive is the development of the child. Radical educators may also see an imperative in their motives to help improve society through the development of happy, positive eventual adults. Where anarchist education differs is that while libertarian/radical schools may expose children to issues in the social justice arena (or may not…), the anarchist believes that nothing remotely politically coercive can happen in class. With well practiced and developed rational thinking skills, the eventual adult will behave benevolently without the need of indoctrination.


Avrich, P. (1980). T he modern school movement: Anarchism and education in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ferrer, F. (1913). T he Origins and Ideals of the Modern School. London: Watts & Company. retrieved from:, 11/14

Goldman, E. (1917). Anarchism and Other Essays, 3rd ed. New York. Mother Earth Press. retrieved from 11/14

Goldman, E. (1906, April 1). The Child and its Enemies. M other Earth. retrieved from: the, 11/14

Haworth, R. (2012). Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education, Oakland, CA., PM Press

Hern, M. (2003). The Emergence of Compulsory Schooling and Anarchist Resistance. retrieved from

Schiro, M. (2008). C urriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Los Angeles, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Suissa, J. (2010). A narchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective (2nd ed.). Oakland: PM Press.

W a r d , C . ( 2 0 0 4 ) . A n a r c h i s m : A V e r y S h o r t I n t r o d u c t i o n . O x f o r d : O x f o r d U n i v e r s i t y P r e s s .

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