Anarchism 101: Training or Education?
By Ray Cunningham
Universal education is a relatively recent innovation originating in the late 19th century. Its spread followed that of the industrial revolution quite closely — and for good reason. With the increase in the amount of mechanical, as opposed to manual, work it was found that workers required more skills. It wasn't enough to have a strong back any more — to operate machinery you need at least basic literacy.
If the economy was to grow it was no longer enough to have a very narrow layer of highly educated people, everybody had to have some basic training. You can see the same thing going on today. The workplace is becoming increasingly computerized, and employers are complaining that their workforce isn't familiar enough with computers.
"The end defines the means" is a popular anarchist slogan and we can see the truth of it in our education system today. We learn pieces of information off by heart, so we can pass exams, so we can get a job where we will be given whatever other information we need to do our job. Our schools are just glorified production lines — children go in one end, workers come out the other. There is little room for the idea that knowledge might be a good thing in itself, that there is more to education than making round pegs for round holes.
Every parent knows that young children are curious - sometimes maddeningly so. The classical view of education, and the one that informs anarchist ideas on education, is that this curiosity should be encouraged and that teaching is primarily a matter of facilitation. Instead of telling children why the sky is blue, point them at an encyclopedia. You learn things much better when you find them out for yourself than when you're told to memorize them, with no explanation given.
Some people applied this principle differently. For example, Francisco Ferrer, the Spanish anarchist and founder of the Modern School movement, thought that children should be taught some basic reasoning tools and the scientific method and would then figure things out for themselves.
A more radical idea was put forward by Ivan Ilich who suggested that there should be no compulsory education but people could go to a public utility centre and there they could learn skills and information that interested them. For example, if someone was interested in birds they would first need to learn how to read to get most of the information, then they would need to learn some biology to make sense of that information, and so on.
Finally, mention must be made of the work of Paulo Freire, who put his ideas of education into practice in adult literacy programs in Brazil. His group of educators would go into rural villages and take pictures and recordings of real life events. They would then be presented to the villagers who would discuss them and make up stories and problems around them, which would then form the basis for a literacy program. The idea was that the villagers would, by gaining this perspective on their everyday lives, form their own theories about their everyday lives and not just be 'educated' into the theories and attitudes of their teachers.
George Orwell wrote, "The proletariat will never be free until they are educated, and they will never be educated until they are free". Anarchists don't paint such a pessimistic picture. Every time we question the way society is run we gain a little more strength to stand up to those who gain from our oppression. Every time we win a struggle at work, or in our community, we understand more the power we really have. We can see more clearly the better future that could be ours. At the moment a free society may be just an idea, but it’s an idea that's growing ever more real.
This article originally appeared in the Irish anarchist paper Workers Solidarity