Libertarian education: marginal experiment or instrument of social change?

Is libertarian education really possible within a neoliberal society? Why have libertarian education experiences always been marginal? What role can libertarian education have in overcoming the present situation? To think about possible answers to these questions, we held our fourth Applied History Network event at MayDay Rooms in London on 19 April 2016.

The idea to organise this event came after a reflection on my personal experiences as a teacher in mainstream schools, and took shape when I noticed that the debates on libertarian education at the last London Anarchist Bookfair (October 2015) had one of the highest attendances. More and more students, parents, and teachers are currently considering alternatives to traditional schools and universities, as these institutions are under a neoliberal siege – from the increase in the university fees to the introduction of academies.

From left to right: Alex Brown, Jenny Aster, Judith Suissa, Ian Cunningham.

Unlike previous debates on this matter, our objective was not to organise a seminar on the history of libertarian education, nor training course for experts. Rather, we aimed at reflecting on the historical role of libertarian education, and its political transformative power. Thus, in order to tackle the topic from different perspectives, we invited four speakers: Judith Suissa, Ian Cunningham, Jenny Aster, and Alex Brown. Judith is reader in philosophy of education at the Institute of Education – UCL, Ian is chair of governors at the Self Managed Learning College (SMLC) of Brighton, Jenny is a former pupil at the White Lion Street Free School in Islington, and Alex is co-organiser of Antiuniversity Now.

Judith Suissa opened the event with a short introduction on the history of libertarian education, which is inevitably connected to nineteenth-century anarchism. From anarchism, it inherited key elements like aversion to hierarchies and the importance of self-management.  Other fundamental principles that characterise libertarian education are no compulsory attendance, no systems of rewards or punishments, no marks or grades. Then, Judith focused on the difference between present and past libertarian schools. While the pedagogy in the early experiments was an integral part in a prefigurative political project towards the construction of new social relations, the attention later shifted on important but less threatening aspects. Aspects that mainstream schools too adopted after the libertarian wave of the Sixties, such as abandoning corporal punishments and involving the pupil in the learning process. Although it is undoubtedly true that nowadays schools are less authoritarian, there is still – according to Judith – the need to challenge the dominant discourse on the ‘efficacy’ of schools. Rather than worrying about the grades of pupils, they should work towards establishing new social values.

The second speaker, Ian Cunnigham, started by talking about his own experiences within the world of education, since he was an active member of the student union in the Seventies. When he later founded the Self Managed College, he aimed at turning his interest in the rights of students into a daily practice. In addition, he worked towards incorporating elements of the anarchist tradition, such as mutual aid. Ian said he is proud to tell his students that it was a visit to the Brighton aquarium that inspired Kropotkin to develop the theory of mutual aid. There, the Russian anarchist observed a group of crabs working together to help a crab immobilised under an iron bar. Faithful to the principle of mutual aid, Ian’s college adopts practices such as the student-managed tutoring, which teaches students to prefer cooperation over competitiveness. Because, Ian maintains, education should not aim at ‘better results’ but at happiness and an alternative to neoliberal competitiveness.

Jenny Aster focused her talk on the Islington school she attended in the Seventies. There, just like today in Brighton’s SMLC, it was the students who decided if and what to study, and there were no distinctions of gender or role, but a great attention to cooperation and self-realisation. Jenny, currently coordinator of the City university’s student counselling service, affirmed that it was thanks to the White Lion school if she became a confident person, emotionally ready to face the challenges of life.

Finally, Alex Brown spoke of Antiuniversity Now, and how this is aiming to relaunch the experience of the 1968 Antiuniversity, which experimented with alternative forms of further education. A nine-month experience of diverse courses in a derelict building, from experimental music to sociology of world revolution, from anti-psychiatry to dragons and UFOs. Even though for a short period of time, the antiuniversity became a commune of students and teachers, in which roles were fluid and the border between lessons and parties unclear. According to Alex, today there is still a need of an antiuniversity that opposes student debt, commercialisation of higher education, and the following importance given to professional qualifications. Thus, last year, the organisers of the Hackney Museum and of the Open School East decided to relaunch that experience by creating Antiuniversity Now. Like almost 50 years ago, their objective is to become a platform for ideas that have no space in the formalism of the traditional university system. However, unlike the antiuniversity of 1968, all courses are free. In November, their first festival counted more than 60 events across Great Britain with over 1100 people.

To conclude, we opened the floor to questions and contributions, which triggered a lively debate. For instance, a person asked if individualism and collectivism were in opposition within libertarian education, and Judith answered that this is true only if one thinks that people can exist without the social. Another question raised the issue of the real challenge that such experiences pose to the status quo, as the state tolerates them. Ian replied that such experiments have the fundamental role of embodying the alternative, and of preparing people to the change. Finally, the last reflections focused on the necessity to extend libertarian education to adults and beyond schools, possibly following on and improving the Occupy model.

So, are we to resign ourselves to libertarian education as a set of isolated experiments for few, or shall we try to create/support an easily accessible network of (anti)schools and (anti)universities? A libertarian education that enable the achievement (and preservation!) of a libertarian society by working on a cultural level, connected with the traditional radical commitment within labour and social sectors. Otherwise, when neoliberalism finally collapses – in one or one hundred years, due to inner or outer pushes – humanity will reproduce the only system they know: the current one.