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Anarchy and Education

Will Durant and children of the Modern School, 1912

Since the founding of anarchist ideas, the key writers and thinkers have always seen transformation of the educational system as integral to radical institutional and social change. In the 19th century, there were no other political or social movements that, from their inceptions, considered education as such an important part of the movement's success. Many significant figures in anarchy's development wrote extensively, concerning the system of education, attacking the standard method of learning (one grounded on memorization and repetition), as well as scrutinizing the strong ties the schools held with the church and the state. For both Francisco Ferrer and William Godwin, the school was "an instrument of domination in the hands of the ruling class" (Avrich 9). For them, and many other anarchist thinkers of their time, schools were merely institutions built to socialize the youth into becoming obedient and submissive members of society. They were not places that encouraged free thinking and that allowed the space for students to develop their own interests and passions.

In 1901, after being influenced by Paul Robin's school at Cempuis that operated around similar theories about education, Francisco Ferrer returned to Spain (after 16 years in exile), to discover a failing system of education. Nearly two thirds of the population were illiterate and those that were in school were being instructed by inadequate teachers, in an environment full of religious dogma (Avrich, 8). Ferrer's experience witnessing the schools in this state, combined with a recent inheritance of funds, prompted him to establish a school in Barcelona. Geared towards educating the working class members of society, the school was based on ideas of anti-authoritarian, anti-coercive self-learning. He believed in the rights of the child to develop an intellectual consciousness, free of influence from religion and government. This school, Escuela Moderna, or the Modern School, while short-lived had many important and long-lasting effects. His efforts (as well as influence from theory developed by writers like Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy, Frederick Froebel, and others) inspired the founding of the Modern School in New York City in 1911, which was later moved to Shelton, New Jersey in 1915. This school had a much longer life-span than the educational experiment in Barcelona and progressed to becoming a center of the community and a practice in community living. These schools, and the history of anarchist thought surrounding education in general, have had an enormous impact on the way we think about educational ideals now.


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