Organizing to Overthrow Top-Down and Hierarchical Schools in Favor of Libertarian Education
We Need a Revolution in Education
Everywhere, the "education problem" is discussed as a significant issue. Every political party has some stated position on it and every political commentator has some opinion about it. The direction always taken is "reform" and "change." It does not matter whether you consider the Liberals or the Conservatives; the first wants change for more public schooling, the second wants change for homeschooling or religious schooling. Popular criticisms generally don't fall outside of this scope.
Nobody is "satisfied" with education in any remote consideration; its fairly standard and moderate position has left those who want more and those who want less to demand reforms. But these reforms, as one should be able to tell on the surface, do not directly address the problems of education. It's a vote-catching game of orienting every institution towards the slogans of the new elect. The problem of education will not be fixed with these meaningless attempts to politicize the issue. We need a replacement to the exclusion, the subordination, and the plain authoritarianism dominant throughout schooling, both early learning and university education.
Community education in the early years of learning has been developed in many places, but in terms of university learning, it has not even made an attempt. Naturally, the task is intimidating. Someone who graduates from a university in Bangladesh may be able to transfer their evaluation to most countries that they might choose to live in. And, they similarly would expect to receive licensing resembling their previous rights to practice their trade or art. The prospect of making a rivaling organization, that would seek to eliminate and destroy the present university system, seems impossible.
Most who have written in popular media, then, have chosen the path of "fixing" the current system. But reform will not work -- the whole rotten structure of authoritarian culture needs to be ripped apart, no matter how much rebuilding is necessary for the wholly cooperative society. The success of those trying to "reform" education speaks for itself. They are as ignorant of the problems as they are to the solutions. We are not going to be any type of free and liberating education within the dominating system; for its freedom and liberty to mean anything, it has to exist wholly outside and in opposition to the established school authorities.
The problem is that students are in a relationship to their school the way that a serf was in a relationship to their vassal. It is an essentially slave-master relationship, sometimes artfully cloaked in benevolence toward the powerless, and sometimes not. The students cannot choose who to learn in pursuing their chosen path of making a living, nor is the style of learning fit for every person who walks into school. School work is tedious, with the intent of making the students feel subordinate. School classes are unnecessary to a student's desired occupation in life, because slaves that hate learning but can be forced into it are useful. And the school's universal form of teaching, lecture and selected readings, are the most arbitrary and useless things in the world.
Europe used to have a king for every ten or twenty acres and this period persisted for centuries. In some cases, it was more, and in others, even less. They wrangled with each other in petty wars, holding a state of universal checkmate. The people they led weren't benefited by the speeches of "our greatness," "our story," and "the revered texts of our fathers." And, deep down, as they finally met each other out on the battle field, slaying each other, they must've realized how much they were just serving the ego of a master who couldn't care the least about them. This system of a few kings for every county disappeared just about the time a new system began: a few professors for every county.
If there is going to be a real organization for the education of the people, it must be focused solely on the development, participation, and involvement of the student. The model that treats the young human being like a rat in a maze, providing stimulus toward 'good' or 'bad' behavior, will make what should be expected: someone who is trained, but not someone who can think. And the training is not so much learning this or that task -- the training is to create subservience, to give the spirit of submission and weakness, to those on the bottom. The professor who expects us to rattle off the names and dates of the kings of a nation, is like the village king who asked us to do the same for his ancestors. It is arbitrary power used to glorify the ego; and if you disagree, ask a few of the listeners their opinion on this after a lecture.
Education means the empowerment of the student in their intellectual, emotional, and social faculties. It means creating a person who wants to mold society toward their own interests, as much as they are confident to be different from society's norm. There is no way to create this type of student within the present, university atmosphere of authority, subordination, and aggressive arbitrariness. A real education will not develop within the university -- no reform movement will succeed in liberating the student. The spring that brings the blossoming of meaningful learning will begin when we have a replacement for the universities.
The Union Strike -- For Worker and Student
All activities of the free school are optional; there is no learning where there is coercion and the mind will only open when it wants to. In exchange for this fair extent of freedom, the student has this one obligation: they must pass a single examination in order to receive their degree, of whatever area or practice they have chosen, to whatever depth they wish. The test can be taken at any time, with time restrictions between being able to take it an additional time.
This means that the student is fully responsible and independent in how they shall be educated. More than this, it means that teachers and professors won't be able to continue in activities that don't educate their students -- their classroom lectures will draw no crowds, because it wouldn't help the student in being able to pass their examination. This is how the free school must be organized: every student is fully responsible to themselves, voluntarily participating in what they wish, and independent in choosing how or what they learn.
"So, great, you establish your own 'libertarian-minded' schools. But how do you get employers to recognize the degree you give to your students?" Of course, this is the largest and most immediate difficulty with establishing any type of high level education outside the sanctity of university walls. The practical question of how we would influence such employers isn't brought up too well. But, its answer shouldn't be too hard to find: the best ways for workers and members of the community to influence the organization of industry has been through workers' unions.
Why should it be so difficult to imagine the use of workers organizing to demand the right to freedom of education? After all, the workers through their unions have demanded increased pay, better work conditions, shorter hours, and everything else the common individual could need to feel dignified. Why should we not also demand that our employers recognize the degrees and certifications passed by independent schools? Why should we not assault the monopoly on learning at the same time we assault the monopoly of business?
The strategy is similar to the one that unions have used in previous disputes with employers. The demand for equal recognition of those from the Libertarian school as those from the Authoritarian school ought to be demanded. It is the workers who must suffer the machine built by the engineers, it is the assembly line laborers who must suffer the pace set by the scientists. Why then, should they have no right in determining the qualifications of such a person, when it clearly may be a very important decision in how their day-to-day lives go? The reasoning is very clear and direct. The Libertarian education will give an admiration of liberty and a hatred of power; students who graduate because they want to learn are better than students who graduate because they want a job.
This idea of combining union organizing and independence in education is not entirely new. In the past, in many countries and regions throughout the globe, there has been an intermixing of those demanding free education and those demanding worker rights. However, in none of these situations have any of the union members attempted to create a rival of the authoritarian educators that could overthrow the university system. The ends and means, in each case, varied according to the expectations or conditions of the workers. In some cases, they have high aspirations, and in some cases, very low.
The Historical Relationship of the Labor Movement and the Free Education Movement
One trend that most directly relates to this concept of relating education and labor is known as Uplift Unionism, a phrase that has gone out of use just like the movement. To quote the economist Chester A. Morgan, in his summary of Robert F. Hoxie's view of Uplift Unionism...
This type of worker organizing is largely an attempt to fulfill the social and community needs of the people in terms of education. Naturally, the fund for the education was split with the recreation fund. This is not a criticism, as the night school sought to be a complement to high school, or in some cases, its substitute. There was no serious attempt to use these union schools as replacements for universities or the system of employment based on university diplomas. Despite this, it was fairly forward-thinking for organized labor in the United States during the 1920's and 1930's.
During this time, too, there were efforts to establish colleges that were devoted solely to the workers' movement. The People's College at Fort Scott, Kansas, was established in 1914, under the slogan, "For Social Service, Not For Profit." One of its teachers wrote their own textbook, "Plain English: For the Education of the Workers by the Workers," with themes of Feminism and Socialism. [*2] Much of the training, though, was of a college level, aimed at a general uplift of the working class -- as opposed to focusing on intensive studies that would be of use to a very few. Eugene V. Debs wrote favorably of the school in 1915...
In Spain, even earlier, much more radical ideas of workers self-education were started to develop, largely beginning with the thinker Francisco Ferrer. The theoretical basis of the classes, the education, and the learning was that government, capitalism, and religion have been the greatest hindrances to the progress of humanity. This view was present throughout the literacy classes as much as it was in the science classes. Many other ideas considered revolutionary at the time was co-education of social classes and genders, no reward or punishment, and a libertarian atmosphere throughout the school. To quote the founder of the Modern School, in a book translated to English in 1913...
In 1909, Ferrer was executed by firing squad, after a rigged trial found him guilty of leading an uprising to overthrow the Catholic Church, Capitalism, and the Spanish government. That was a better story than to describe the situation like it actually occurred: the greatest miseries of the people, from unemployment to military conscription, are caused by the church, and when strained by this suffering, they will burn down every church and convent within sight. Such a view is too radical; the government had to convince everyone that the masses were provoked into rebellion by some obscure thinker who had been teaching literacy classes for the past few decades.
Though Ferrer died, his ideas blossomed. His schools had always been desperate for funding, and many of his wealthy supporters were actually Liberals who simply believed in public education. Numerous legal difficulties kept him from always maintaining the schools. But the Anarchist movement had been growing with Ferrer. By the 1920's and the 1930's, Anarchist schools became a dominant trend of the unions in the city of Barcelona, borrowing the philosophy and methods of Francisco Ferrer. To quote Chris Ealham concerning the "ateneus," or social centers created by communities and unions in Spain...
You don't have to go back seventy or eighty years just to find an intersection of revolutionary cooperation between teachers and the working class in general. In 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico, teachers went on strike not just over wages and work conditions, but over the environment in which the students were taught. It was not just their concern that the teaching materials were inadequate, but also that the children of their lecture audience were as undernourished in body as in mind. A strike turned into an entire uprising after the police attacked peaceful protesters of educators. As described by "Silvia"...
Interpreting the Cooperation of Independent Educationalists and Revolutionary Socialists
Each of these revolutionary movements brought intense meaning and purpose to their activity. Yet, none of the anti-establishment education was about fostering the abilities of exceptionally talented individuals. Of course, this was completely justifiable. They each were dealing with very important issues to be worrying about how to overthrow the international system of universities.
Uplift unionism gave cultural and literacy education to largely immigrant unions, the People's College provided intermediate and general education, Francisco Ferrer was fighting the widespread illiteracy of his country, and the Anarchist Ateneus served as places to organize unions and for education of those with no formal schooling. And, finally, the Oaxaca teachers' union was fighting a violently, repressive regime of the state. There was neither the time nor the tactical value of completely invading such systems, except as a sign of unrest.
Despite this, there is a value in combining efforts of revolutionizing higher education with revolutionary, workers movements. The chemists who are churned out by colleges write formulas to maximize the damage done by bombs and the to increase the radius of the blast. Physicists similarly make missiles more aerodynamic and nuclear submarines more waterdynamic. Architects design the bridges for transporting arms, the engineers build the arms and the bridges, and then the professors of history, sociology, and politics defend it all as legitimate and necessary.
If the revolutionary workers movement cannot make itself appeal to these people, it will lose them to the exploiting forces of society. Of course, it must use appeals. It will not win any valid, intellectual admiration by coercion, exclusion, or otherwise ignoring the interests of educated labor. The union must look toward the individual with talent for some abstract science the same as they look toward any worker: this is someone who is neglected and ignored, inefficiently applied and underappreciated, unless they learn to bow and obey at command.
Of course, this is dealing with criticism from truly revolutionary workers' movements. Organizations like the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), for example, have a long history marked by racism, exploitation, business unionism, domination by political parties, and every other foul corruption imaginable. Their skilled workers have earned more than scientists and physicians, because their contracts allow the union to control the source of labor. Essentially, this reduces to excluding as many people as possible from the union, refusing to offer any help to the poor and unemployed, and trying to maintain what has graciously been called "the aristocracy of labor." It is quite true that this union, in acts of cannibalism, have laid off their own laborers, just to increase the demand, and therefore the wages, of the remaining workers. [*7] Such "unionists," if they deserve this term, are far worse exploiters than any middle class laborers.
Today, the AFL-CIO maintains essentially two routes of education for their union members -- and, again, these programs are exclusive to members of the union, and not one member of the working class shall be admitted otherwise. First, there are a flurry of scholarship programs, to help workers work their way through the present system of authoritarian, university education. And second, they maintain their own National Labor College (NLC), established in 1969. They offer some certificate programs for stewards and union managers, [*8] degrees in the history of labor and labor theory, and, much more curiously, they even have degrees in business management and construction management. [*9]
For the most part, these are all self-sustaining activities of the already exclusive AFL-CIO, with a strange overlap into Capitalist theory. It was more than fifty years after the People's College, which had significantly less contributions than the AFL-CIO had. With such a constricted style of education, a narrow view of vision, the atmosphere of authority, and the taint of business thinking, finally, the AFL-CIO succeeded in making the union school "safe for capitalism."
The Use of Education For All Workers
Is there a way out between these two systems? Must we be confined to a form of organized labor that supports authoritarian education in higher learning? Only to be left with the alternative of one that creates libertarian thought in elementary education and literacy? There has to be more to it than simply that. The animosity of the unions towards middle class laborers can clearly be understood: the higher-earning, in-demand worker made no gains from union activity, and in fact, could suffer from it economically. This is particularly the case in establishments with only a handful of middle class workers among an ocean of blue-collar laborers -- such as a factory. [*10]
"We demand complete control of industry by the workers; we demand all the wealth they produce for their own enjoyment, and we demand the earth for all the people," Eugene V. Debs said in a speech in 1912. [*11] Yet, for Debs, the question never came up about organizing the middle class -- the teachers and professors, the engineers and mathematicians, the scientists and the sociologists. In another speech, this one seven years earlier in 1905, he had said, "The pure and simple trade union, in seeking to preserve its autonomy, is forced into conflict with other trade unions by the unceasing operation of the laws of industrial evolution. How many of the skilled trades that were in operation half a century ago are still practiced?" [*12]
There was one basic economic rule operating, according to Debs, largely influenced by Marxism. It was that all activity is being reduced in complexity to the point where skill is less and less required. The problems of neurological anatomy, computer science, and integration calculus are left to the machine. Somehow, the advancement of technological ability will lead us toward a world where all goods and services are provided by the same, essential skill. One century later, Debs' prophecy has failed, though it held true for a majority of industries for part of his time. Far from declining, middle class workers have become a constantly growing feature of the Capitalist system -- although, this is at a slug's pace, and just mildly noticeable when measuring decade by decade. [*13]
The difficulties with assuming that everything would be replaced by machinery cannot simply be washed away, and this shows very strongly in Debs' material. He only insinuated toward the general tendency of reducing complexity of work and the introduction of machinery to replace human skill -- he couldn't go so far as to say how a surgeon's job might be done by a machine, or the same for a writer, an artist, a psychologist, or machine designer. Besides, what if everything was replaced by machinery, people were reduced to absolute helplessness in their lack of skill, and suddenly, one day, everything stopped working?
Also, too, the widening degree of human needs, from healthcare to education, indicates that people build new industries, before they have perfected the efficiency of older industries. In some ways, this had to occur. Agriculture couldn't reach its height of productivity without chemistry to make fertilizers, engineers to build harvest machinery, agronomists to recommend crop schedules, and ecologists to survey land for farming. The idea, though, of some distant date when everything is provided by the single push of a button, is an extreme generalization. This assumes, at the very least, that there will be a point where human needs will have been fully satisfied -- where there is no point in creating new books, art, and music. Given humanity's nature, once all needs of humanity are reduced to the single push of a button, he may tear the whole system down as an interference with happiness.
Whatever may happen, 'at that distant point in time,' we have to consider the present and our immediate future. The prediction of Debs, on reducing all difficult labor to machinery, may yet come true in 10,000 years, give or take. It's too far to really say, and too philosophical to discuss in such a short space. Today, the Capitalist prefers skilled labor to increase the productivity of the industry they already possess in relative terms, instead of choosing unskilled labor to increase the output in absolute terms.
The Reorganization of Anti-Capitalist Workers
The birth of the middle-class came at the same time that the major unions throughout the globe, in the US and Europe, capitulated with Capitalism -- Anarchists and Communists were expelled, union leaders cooperated with business, and the unions in general began to exclude the lower classes more and more. The choice of the university, in fact, is often to avoid the sterile, intellectual environment of the mainstream, conformist unions, such as the AFL-CIO.
With the development of a middle class, there are a few middle class unions. These hardly ever call themselves "unions," but may call themselves something more obscure: "fraternal order," "professional association," and the like. Something as radical as "workers organized against their Capitalist," no matter how true it may be, would never be mentioned. Some of these organizations affiliate with the AFL-CIO, but not all. Either way, each and every one of them behave solely as economic entities, completely disinterested in education, except in terms of top-down, authoritarian, exclusiveness -- much in the way the AFL-CIO made first-time union-dues cost thousands of dollars in 1960s, to keep their wages up by artificially depleting the labor market. [*14]
Either organized labor will understand and become part of the movement for independent education, or it will continue to whither and die. Either unionism will become revolutionary, directly appealing to the true aspirations of the people, or it will become conservative. Either the workers will demand that everyone of equal talent have the opportunity to advance, or the bosses will take in the neglected and misunderstood geniuses, to use them against the workers. Either the revolutionary movement will understand the increasing role of intellectual thought in economic productivity, or it will be dishonest.
The plan presented here is essentially for the combination of the forces of independent education and revolutionary workers' organizations. There will be no free learning until it is outside of the hands of the authoritarian university system -- and this will not occur until the workers, in general, demand that their own methods of recognition should replace those of the aristocratic diploma system.
In general, such a revolutionary movement will need to be organized along all sides where exploitation occurs, from the exclusion of immigrants, to the cruelty of the prisons, to the brutality of war. Within such a universal, revolutionary organization, those fighting for free education and for workers rights are far closer together than the others. But, just as our intention is the abolishment of the university system, to accomplish this, we may have to abolish the exclusive, conservative unions.
*1. "Labor Economics," by Chester A. Morgan, Third Edition, published by Dorsey Press and Business Publications, Inc, Austin, Texas, USA, 1970, Chapter 11 -- Theory of Labor movements, page 322.
*8. "Academic Programs: Certificate Programs," offered by the National Labor College (NLC), NLC.edu ~ NLC.edu.
*11. "Capitalism and Socialism," Labor & Freedom, St. Louis 1916, pp.167-75, Campaign Speech, Lyceum Theatre, Fergus Falls, Minn., August 27, 1912.
*14. "Labor Economics," by Chester A. Morgan, Third Edition, published by Dorsey Press and Business Publications, Inc, Austin, Texas, USA, 1970, pages 390-391, chapter 13: "Union Structure and Government," Section: "Sources of Union Revenue," Part: "Initiation Fees."