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Teaching freedom: Thoughts on an anarchist education

Nearly everyone from across the political spectrum can agree that our current public education system in america is not ideal. Those on the statist left tend to fear that public education is under attack by private corporations and is completely underfunded. More progressive leftists go so far as to not only advocate for more funding for public grade school education but also higher education such as college, university, or graduate school. Those on the statist right however tend to believe in various corporatist versions of the school choice argument, most notably advocating the failed corporate charter school scheme usually partnered with a voucher system.

Social anarchists tend to parrot similar talking points as the progressive left in terms of education – tax-funded public schools and tax-funded college tuition but with a strong emphasis on using the union movement to eventually syndicalize the school system – although some advocate ideas such as anarchist free schools, Sudbury schools, skillshares, homeschooling, and unschooling as an alternative to state indoctrination. On the libertarian right, many advocate less statist forms of school choice such as fully private free-market education, including options of free schooling and unschooling.

So as anarchists, parents, educators, or even just a concerned citizens, what are our options in the here and now for educating ourselves and our children and how do we build a new education system within the shell of this old outdated state institution?

Public and Private: A Dual Pronged Approach

The choice between public education and private education is essentially the choice between whether you want your kids educated by the state or capitalism. Both are terrible options for different reasons but one may seem less problematic to you personally than the other. Some radicals believe that public schools are easier to hold accountable and to have influence over than private schools and so they advocate things like getting involved in the school board, participating in PTAs, volunteering at public schools, standing in solidarity with the teacher’s unions, voting for more public tax funding, and lobbying for better curriculum.

While it’s understandable to vote in favor of shifting our stolen tax dollars away from war and into better education, as long as we are forced to pay into this system, it’s difficult to argue in favor of raising taxes from an anarchist perspective, especially for the working class. That being said, what’s more important is what is being done with the funding the schools already receive. Often at the forefront of the battle against the mishandling of school funds are the teacher’s unions. Despite the claims of anti-union propaganda, many of the most recent teacher’s union campaigns were over the misspending of school funding. These are concerned teachers worried because such misspending means they lack the proper resources to adequately educate their students. In fact, many teachers end up paying for some of their class supplies out of their own pockets in order to teach their students properly. Supporting strong teacher’s unions means supporting fiscal responsibility and proper handling of educational funding.

Participating in the PTA, getting involved with the school board, and volunteering at your children’s schools does mean you have more of a chance of having your voice heard, but unless you obtain a position on the school board, rarely does the influence you have hold any significance in changing the overall system. School board positions have a much more powerful level of influence but holding such a position, while not being unuseful, poses the same risks of corruption as does holding any position of power, especially one privileged with state power. That being said, divorced from the current level of monopoly held by the public school system, being involved in the local school board would be little different than being involved with the decision making board of a private educational project. While it can be said that horizontal decision making between students, teachers, and parents is much more preferable, taking charge and having a voice in your child’s education within current hierarchical institutions is important as long as your child is a part of them.

Community lobbying groups such as the Alachua County Black History Task Force and Parents Against Common Core are able to focus and gain community and political support for important curriculum changes. PACC and similar groups fight to gain more localized control and decentralization in the public school system and the against rigid universalized standards of the Common Core program while the Black History Task Force and other organizations push to teach more than just the typical whitewashed statist propaganda. It is important to support the efforts of social justice groups in combatting state propaganda in public schools, regardless of whether we choose to send our own children there, because the educational system shapes the mindset of the future generations.

Fighting for better curricula, more localized control, and stronger unions is important but so are youth rights. Ending compulsory school attendance and allowing more student input into educational decision making can both go a long way towards empowering children to take charge of their own education. Everyone’s learning process looks different and that’s why rigid universal standards in education do not work. What we need is diversity. When people hear privatization, they automatically think of corporate-run schools overcharging for tuition and zapping up all of the funding from smaller schools, leaving the poor less educated and disadvantaged. While that may very well be a possible outcome under the rigged markets we currently operate under, privatization doesn’t mean that we have to hand over our children to be indoctrinated by capitalist propaganda.

Summerhill School in Suffolk is Britain’s most famous horizontally-organised house of education, established in 1921

Anarchists and radicals have long participated in the alternative schooling tradition. Anarchist free skools, Ferrer Schools, Sudbury schools, freedom schools, democratic schools, homeschooling, and unschooling have all sprung from the desire for a better education than the one currently offered by state capitalism. Homeschooling and unschooling collectives have been started by concerned parents wishing to start their own parent and student-led educational alternatives without having to fund the overhead costs of starting a brand new school. While these projects are few and far between, they offer some of the best possible alternatives to our current system of indoctrination. That is why we must fight to repeal laws which favor public schools at the expense of potential alternatives. Sure, this may also open the floodgate for some corporate interests to try and take advantage of a more decentralized educational system, but capitalism will always try to co-opt and profit off of any gains we make (just look at the “sharing” economy for a great example). But just because capitalism always finds a way to make money off of us, doesn’t mean that we should limit our opportunities to challenge the state-run educational system. The less monopolistic educational regulations exist, the more opportunities to continue the traditions of alternative anarchist educational projects without getting shut down by the state or their corporate partners-in-crime. But don’t be fooled by corporatist “school choice” schemes. Charter schools and similar corporatists exploits are merely a scam that operates on the same stolen money as the public school system with little to no accountability to the communities they plunder.

Since not everyone has access to adequate public school alternatives and most working class parents are too busy working to homeschool or unschool, we must still promote more democratic control over the public school system while also laying the groundwork actual school choice outside the public system. Combining these into a dual-pronged approach to educational reform means more decentralization, more direct control in our own education and the education of our children, and more individualized choices in learning methods and courses of study.

Higher Learning

Nowadays, college is seen as obvious for most people. In fact, the market is so flooded with college diplomas that they have been rendered essentially useless for all but a few career paths where formal study is absolutely recommended. While some are fighting for universal tax-funded college education for all, others are seeing the pointlessness of the system in regards to most career paths and are choosing more appropriate alternatives such as trade schools, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, or self-directed studies. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are also becoming a popular choice for personal education. Many accredited colleges offer free MOOCs on a variety of subjects and even offer certificates upon completion, usually only for a small fee.

Sites like Wikipedia and YouTube offer a plethora of materials to use for self-directed learning if you aren’t worried about a paper degree and are just focused on self-learning. Free universities, skillshares, and other localized efforts also provide tools to gain and share knowledge. Radical schools such as the Institute for Social Ecology or Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School provide benefits that can include sliding scale tuition, custom payment plans, scholarships, and even certain free educational materials for low-income students in an attempt to make things more accessible.

Some colleges offer certain free or discounted courses, lectures, and events that are available to non-students online or on campus. Some amazing professors will even let you sit in on their accredited courses for free as a non-student observer. Heroes like Aaron Swartz have attempted to make access to higher educational material open to all. Groups like Sci-Hub have since taken up that mantle and are paving the way for open source science and education.

Continuing the trend of decentralizing science, Counter Culture Labs located in the Omni Commons space in the Bay Area is a community science lab founded by radicals. Also in the Omni Commons space is a community hacker lab named Sudo Room where folks can gather to work and learn. In such spaces, curious minds are able to gather to experiment and learn on their own terms and at their own pace, doing everything from building robots to taking apart dumpstered electronics to see how they work. CRISPR kits and other biohacking kits allow people to learn and practice genetic modification in the comfort of their own living room and are only getting cheaper as time passes.

Together these methods help to place control of our higher education in our hands rather than in the hands of state and corporate institutions. As formal college continues to be pushed as a necessity despite the ever increasing worthlessness of most degrees, we, as anarchists, must lead the charge in reclaiming our educational pursuits for our own purposes rather than those of our current state capitalist system. We must push for alternative educational arrangements of various forms to meet the ever diverse needs of an ever diverse human population.

School of Life

The big thing to always remember is whether we’re in a classroom, the woods, or the streets, we are always learning new things. Formal classrooms are not the only way to learn and no two people have the same interests they wish to pursue knowledge in. Decentralization, voluntary association, and horizontal control are all things we should aim towards when we seek to reform our current flawed educational system. Together we can build a new educational system in the shell of the old.

This article first appeared on

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