Judith Suissa, 'Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective'

IssueApril 2011
Review by David Gribble

In the final sentence of her book Judith Suissa sums up what she has attempted to do. This was to establish that however doubtful the feasibility of anarchist society may be, exploring anarchism is “an educationally valuable and constructive project”. The exercise involved prolonged comparison of anarchist and liberal views. Both anarchists and liberals, she says, adhere to the view that humans have an inherent capacity for goodness. The difference is that anarchists believe that before you can have an anarchist society, you must train children to accept certain values.

She finds three commonly made objections to the idea of anarchist education. Firstly, the very concept of education implies authority and secondly, if there is no state authority there can be no system of universal education.

The third objection is a neat catch 22: if anarchist education is to be completely non-coercive it will have to avoid the transmission of any values, but if it is to transmit values it will have to be coercive. She mentions the possibility that social anarchist communities “would not need to change human nature but merely to draw out moral qualities and tendencies already present”, but this idea gets no further attention. To my mind the only words that need altering in that sentence are “draw out”. If they are replaced by “avoid suppressing”, the catch 22 has vanished.

Almost the whole book is about ideas rather than practice, but there is one chapter about anarchist or pseudo-anarchist schools. Included are the Escuela Moderna in Spain, which lasted only from 1901 to 1906; the Modern School founded in New York in 1911, which closed in 1955 and was the most long-lived of the Ferrer Schools; the Walden Center in Berkeley, California, which still exists as a happy school with an emphasis on the arts but no explicit anarchist principles; and Summerhill, in the UK, which is about to celebrate its 90th anniversary.

Unlike most other educationalists writing about Summerhill, Judith Suissa has actually visited it but did not feel it deserved to be described as anarchist. Her impression was only of “self-confident, happy children who may, one imagines, very well grow up to be happy but completely self-centred individuals”. Her misconception about the self-centredness of the pupils is based on the fact the school has little contact with its local community; the way the children care for each other seems to have escaped her.

Judith Suissa has hunted round all the principal anarchist authors to find references to education – Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, Godwin, Ward and many others – but she admits that “references to pedagogy and to concrete educational programmes are few and far between in anarchist literature”. In attempting to begin to fill this gap she has recorded what she has found but added little new. She does not seem to know of the many schools around the world that avoid labelling themselves as anarchist because of the negative associations of the term but are nevertheless run according to anarchist principles. She wonders what would happen if, rather than telling us what does happen when.

Nevertheless the book makes a useful contribution, in that it establishes an anarchist approach to education as a respectable academic theme.

Topics: Anarchism, Education