Paths through utopias: Learning freedom

IssueDecember 2007 - January 2008
Feature by Isa Fremeaux, John Jordan

Merida is built on ruins. One of the Roman Empire's most important cities, it sits in the dry south-west edge of Spain. For 29 years this city has hosted what must be one of the world's longest running anarchist schools Paideia. If Utopias are places which challenge us to close the gap between what is done and the impossible, then our visit to Paideia certainly did this. This world turned upside down, a school without bells or grades, where the children are in charge and where the curriculum is centred around the anarchist values of Solidarity, Justice, Equality, Freedom, Non-violence, Culture and Happiness, taught us more about how to live free than anything we had ever experienced.

Term has only just started when we arrive. Pepa, heavily built in her early 60s is one of the founders of the school. Despite her bright-red dyed hair she looks like the most normal school teacher. She explains to us that the first few weeks after summer are always different from the normal way the school runs. “Returning from holidays is always difficult,” she says. “The kids have been living with their family, who start to do everything for them. They fall again under the influence of consumerism, of competition everywhere... They lose their critical mind, their autonomy.” At the core of the school's philosophy is autonomy and self-management: every aspect of the school is run via assemblies in which all students participate, from the age of 18 months to 16 years. From the lunchtime menu to the timetable, solving personal conflicts to choosing academic subjects, everything is decided collectively without hierarchy and imposition from the staff. The students truly self-manage the school together: they cook, clean and make decisions on how it is run. In Paideia, one of the many things that all (ourselves included!) learn is that being free is fundamentally about taking responsibility and being able to collaborate fluidly in a community. “When they come back they keep asking what needs doing, how to cut carrots, etc. Their minds aren't free” Pepa explains, “It is easier to be told what to do than being free...You can pass on your responsibility to others.” As a result the school is under what is known as Mandado - to be ordered or demanded. To describe this as a kind of collective punishment would be wrong. In our three days at the school, we never heard anyone raising their voices. Mandado is more of a temporary learning culture that is imposed by the staff. Since the students are no longer able take initiatives, they are mandado-ed: forced to ask the teachers for everything. “Nobody likes that, and they soon learn to regain their autonomy” expands Lali, another teacher. In most schools if you don't do what you are told you are in the wrong. Here you are in the wrong if you expect to be told! The Mandado remains until the students decide to call for an assembly where they will reflect, analyse and discuss collectively whether they have returned to a state of freedom and responsibility. If they all vote for its end then it is lifted. “They need to re-find their anarchist values,” concludes Pepa. “It doesn't take long. If they want to be free they have to fight for it.”