What role education should play within our society has always been a favorite topic for political theorists, philosophers and public intellectuals. Should we be educating our children to be “good citizens” and embrace liberal democratic “values”? Perhaps they should be taught what it means to be a global citizen, someone who can see and think beyond the borders of their homeland? Maybe they just need to focus on STEM subjects so that they can compete in an increasingly complex economic reality? All of these positions have been argued in a variety of forums for decades if not centuries. What has been overlooked in this debate, however, is the perspective of the anarchist towards education.
Before examining “The False Principles of our Education”, I should first take a moment to clarify the term anarchist. The popular image of the anarchist is of one who smashes storefront windows, sets police cars on fire and, in general, revels in chaos and wanton destruction. This image comes to us courtesy of a corporate media quick to apply the moniker to individuals more interested in pointless acts of violence than any real political or social change. The present-day conceptualization, I believe, stems in no small part from events witnessed in some west coast and European cities that hosted certain trade conferences and banking meetings. In the 1990s, media outlets played and replayed footage of black-clad youths harassing police during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank conference in Seattle and, in the 2000s, routinely showed unruly protests in Davos, Switzerland during the World Economic Forum meetings. The label anarchist is commonly applied to anyone engaging in property damage or other mayhem during these meetings. More broadly, however, the name is too often used as a pejorative to describe anyone loudly protesting neoliberal economic policy and the monopolization of power and capital in the hands of multinational corporations and Western governments. Being classified as an anarchist automatically invalidates one’s legitimacy and reduces one’s voice to the level of a mindless fanatic. This classification dehumanizes dissenters and allows the state to wield whatever weapons and bring to bear whatever force it desires in its effort to quash opposition and reinforce law and order. The anarchist is the bringer of destruction and ruination, a social terrorist who would applaud the overthrow of all the institutions that represent the rule of law and liberal democracy.
This conceptualization, however, is inaccurate and dangerous as it equates dissent with sedition and likens opposition to rebellion. Aside from this highly problematic paradigm surrounding dissent and disagreement, the misrepresentation of anarchy is also disingenuous as well as hyperbolic. The general sentiment, at present, is that anarchy is the absolute opposite of democracy, the dissolution of institutions and any form of governance. In short, anarchy is widely viewed as the dangerous status beyond conventional libertarianism. To a point, this is accurate, but it also misses the critical element that allows true anarchy to distance itself from the mere absence of law and the complete tearing of the social cloth. Responsibility shifts, under anarchism, from the self-serving career politicians that infest current liberal democracies to the local councils and boards that have direct and immediate contact with the free citizens. These groups act, not as rulers, but as advisers and guides for the people as they communally determine actions and community policy. This “bottom up” approach to governance exemplifies the kind of conservative policies and ideologies espoused by many on the political right while also ensuring, for the political left, that discriminatory policies are not crafted simply because a certain group of powerful representatives controls the process. Councils are dynamic and can convene and dissolve as required, allowing for constant fine-tuning of communal actions without having to rely on static committees and layers of bureaucratic oversight and ‘debate’ that simply mask the unwillingness of many politicians to engage serious issues and address significant problems.
With that clarification behind us, let us return to the matter of education and what Max Stirner, one of the early anarchist thinkers, wrote in “The False Principles of our Education”. The first point Stirner highlights is the ever-present tension between knowledge and freedom, creation and education. “What is sought,” Stirner writes, “is submissiveness” and the creation of a space in which “freedom should not be allowed access, and opposition not tolerated” (17). What the present-day reader must acknowledge upon encountering this passage is that education in the early to mid 1800s was, in many respects, vastly different from the education systems available today. Some of what Stirner says here may seem a bit antiquated and inaccurate in an age where critical thinking and independent study has become a pedagogical norm. However, some of Stirner’s concerns still resonate today as various groups of both the political left and right vie for influence in classrooms and severely damage the quality and extent of discourse. An example of this influence in practice is the relatively recent advent of the “trigger warning” in many higher education classes. These disclaimers, while well-meaning, also are self-defeating as they seek to sanitize discussion on controversial or potentially troubling topics. This protects supposedly vulnerable students from engaging in conversations about difficult or troubling material, but also greatly diminishes the ability of students to develop solutions and form educated and diverse views upon issues. The academy, rather than challenging and debating existing thought, becomes another method of diluting and defeating our ability to “create the personal or free man” (17).
While these observations retain some of their strength and validity in the present, Stirner does expand this line of thought to a more disturbing degree. The desire to promote opposition and cultivate a strong abhorrence of authority, while admirable and a worthy project in adults, becomes a more complicated matter when applied to children. Stirner convincingly argues that children must be allowed to develop a sense of self and individuality in the face of parental authority, which, he argues, is unnecessary as “[a] complete man has no need to play the authoritarian” (19). Instead, he writes, the parent should respond to a child’s “petulance” and violent outburst in kind or, as he puts it, “oppose him [the child] with the inflexibility of my own liberty” (19). The present day reader undoubtedly finds this suggestion troubling: hitting our children as a response to their defiance is not only socially unacceptable in all but the most repressive quarters but also largely outlawed.
Still, there is an element of useful theory within his words. As many parents have experienced, responding to a child’s misbehavior by falling back on hollow arguments of because I said so, only go so far and can sometimes only escalate into tantrums. In this respect, Stirner makes a good point about not relying exclusively on appeals to authority in child-rearing. However, in the modern context, this call for the freeing of children’s will and approaching them as also worthy of independence and freedom, should focus, not upon exchanging blows, but engaging them as humans capable of some reasoning and emotional understanding. Instead of resorting to threats or appeals to parental authority, perhaps the Stirnerist approach opens the door to discussion between parents and children and embracing a level of equality rather than a rigid hierarchy. This same idea, being deployed in education, can reinforce the drive for a more independent mind and a more credulous society, two things desperately needed an era where misinformation spreads through the internet like wildfire and propaganda is disseminated at a blistering pace.
Source: Stirner, Max. “The False Principles of our Education”. No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism. Ed. Daniel Guérin. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005. pp. 17-20. Print.