When Students Are Teachers, Research Time, 10/09/2014

Colin Ward starts one of the essays in Anarchy in Action with an image of a child swinging on a rope in physical education class. He’s swinging in a room full of people, but not hesitating to avoid anyone. Instead, he’s precisely aiming his swings into the gaps between his fellows. Even in a room full of people, there’s plenty of space, and identifying this space is how we learn to use our worldly intelligence in our complex world.

If anarchist political philosophy is read in the most hostile manner possible, even his harshest detractors will have one good thing to say about it: the philosophy respects the power of people to organize their own lives. The only truly forceful arguments against these bottom-up and bottom-outward approaches to political organizing I’ve seen that, as far as I’m concerned, don’t reduce to empty dogma or are filled with irresponsibly unquestioned presumptions are those that say humans just don’t have the aptitude or the virtue to live this way.

Colin Ward, an anarchist who stayed in university, even after
the 1970s was over.
We will always need authority, says this argument, because we will always be tribal, intuitive, non-rational creatures who will never fully live according to our intellectual concepts of neighbourliness and brotherhood. The self-organizing society, this argument tells us, is a world of saints and angels. Sorry, but we’re people.

Our abilities to self-organize our societies in peace extends about as far as tribal boundaries, according to our intuitions about what our natural kin and neighbour groups are. Anarchist political philosophy is that moment is doubt in the face of the cynicism that we can never overcome these intuitions, and we will inevitably regard those outside what we feel to be our community kinship circles as inevitably alien.

But Ward’s work, like all thinkers and activists in this tradition of political philosophy, wonders how much of our insularity is rooted in our socialization, from an early age, to be insular, regarding the foreign as different in an alienating sense. This is why so much activist anarchism that I’ve discovered lately focussed so much on the education system. If we can train our children to expand the boundaries of what counts as a neighbour and a figurative sister, a world without coercive authority could be genuinely possible. The anarchist is simply someone who believes this is possible.

The most properly philosophical element of Ward’s critique of education focusses on authoritarianism in the structure of the institution. Teachers and unified curricula, he says, discipline the individual to defer to political authorities, and the pressure to conform to such a morality causes quite a few people to break away from education. 

Ward’s answer is to incorporate self-direction, self-definition, and the power of an individual learner to shape what she learns from an early age. That way, she thinks from her youth about what she wants from life and learns how to plan to achieve it. She does this in a community of other active learners, each swinging on their own ropes in a crowded arrangement that has a lot of space. 

I’ve read many critiques of these ideas about education (which also share roots in the education philosophy of John Dewey) on grounds that they can’t teach children what is difficult to learn, when overcoming these humps is essential to well-rounded basic knowledge. The problem is that, when students have the power to direct their own education, they will shy away from what is difficult or challenging to their moral codes.

Authoritative education may be required at lower levels, when it comes to learning skills like the multiplication tables. But I can’t believe that the only way education can be effective is if it comes through deference to authority figures for no other reason than their happening to occupy a particular office. Likewise, there can be no true education when students can direct their learning to such an extent that they never have any difficulty with anything. There has to be another way between total freedom that destroys itself in its own laziness, and a totally authoritative education system.

Once again, I’m just not sure what that is.

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