Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

The Libertarian Education Alternative:
A Discussion of Spring's Primer

by John Vidoli, Littleton, Colorado

All education is despotism. It is perhaps impossible for the young to be conducted without introducing in many cases the tyranny implicit in obedience. Go there; do that; read; write; rise; lie down; will perhaps for ever be the language addressed to youth by age.     (William Godwin)

In developing a modern response to "national education" Joel Spring uses earlier libertarian thinkers to probe five aspects of education—the role of schools, the autonomy of students, the development of consciousness, sexual freedom, and the status of childhood—and their significance for a libertarian movement of educational reform. It is easier to express opposition to public education as it has developed than it is to articulate a modern response to the notions of education-as-job-training and education-as-good-citizens-training. Spring engages in thinking on the purposes, methods, and content of education; his Primer of Libertarian Education(Montreal: Black Rose, 1975) is useful not only in developing a critique of current trends in education but also in articulating libertarian plans for educational change.

Spring begins with the origins of libertarian educational thought and sweeps away the confusion that characterizes much of left-liberal thinking on education. William Godwin, Spring notes, was the first libertarian to criticise schools for their statist prejudices. Godwin opposed national education, a state-controlled form of indoctrination intended to bolster the authority of states and inhibit or thwart the spread of radical ideas emanating from the French Revolution. With the experience of nearly a century of "national education," Francisco Ferrer could state that "They (statist and capitalists) know, better than anyone else that their power is based almost entirely on the school...." confirming Godwin's concerns about the development of state-controlled education. Today, it only requires a cursory reading of contemporary conservative thought on education reform to see that this is still considered a fundamental purpose of education.

A century after Francisco Ferrer began his Modern Schools to promote rational education, one free of the prejudices of "national education," education continues to serve as the primary vehicle for socialization. But now, its scope has swelled to include areas of life once considered private and free from the regulations of state and market. In response to these incursions into our freedom, libertarian thought has evolved to offer alternatives and resistance.

In contrast to advocates of "national education," with its emphasis on inculcating morality and respect for the law, early libertarians sought an education that fostered self-respect, autonomy and free will. Libertarians have believed these qualities to be crucial not only for the struggle to create a free society, but as valuable in and of themselves, thereby avoiding the instrumental reduction of people to the role of "good revolutionaries." In rejecting "national education" Godwin proposed that education should aid in the search for the truth and justice by use of reason. A half century later, Max Stirner advocated a far more daring proposal along the same lines, demanding the complete abolition of public schools. Stirner contended that, in the words of Spring, they "taught citizenship for the state." Stirner wanted people to reclaim "ownership of the self," which, as Spring notes, can be seen as a precursor to the contemporary idea of self-realization.

As movements for liberation have gained in strength and developed a history of their own, the concern about free will has broadened to included action as well as judgment. This theoretical evolution is best represented in the work of Paulo Freire. In Freire's philosophy of education consciousness, will and action exist in a dynamic relationship. Freire argued that consciousness was achieved by analyzing experiences from daily life, experiences of oppression and of liberation. Consciousness of one's existence enables people to intervene, to exercise their will in an active effort to alter their situation for the better.

Two other distinct but related extensions of the idea of autonomy were developed by William Reich and A.S. Neill. While it is impossible to give the scope of Reich's thought in this article, it can be stated that the implications of Reich's ideas for education emerge from his social psychology, particularly his thesis on character formation. Reich argued that the psychological form of one's character has as much, and possibly more, influence on one's behavior as do institutional forms of socialization or the rational exercise of will. The broad contours of one's character, Reich argued, were formed in early childhood. Child-rearing in the traditional family resulted in authoritarian character structures. Reich drew a connection between the traditional family and the nation-state, understanding the former as supporting the needs of the latter. One step in the direction of libertarian social change would be the family's abolition, enabling children to develop free from the constraints of external authority as represented by the father.

Any meaningful plan for educational change must affect the whole spectrum of educational power.

A.S. Neill, influenced by Reich, promoted the idea of socialized child-rearing in the context of a boarding school. In these schools, children would learn to regulate their own behavior without an imposed authority. The idea behind these schools was that to release the child from the family as a social institution would result in the internalization of external authority.

As the scope of libertarian education encompasses many aspects of life, it is useful and perhaps necessary to distinguish education from schooling. As Spring notes, few 19th century libertarians, with the exception of Stirner and Tolstoy, criticized schools per se. Schools were seen as neutral, the controversy centered on the methods and content of education. Stirner rejected schooling, though he presented no alternative. It is possible to extrapolate from Godwin's theory of education a non-school-based form of education, but it was Tolstoy who first articulated the differences of schooling from education. Tolstoy shifted the debate away from schooling versus education by speaking of education and culture. For Tolstoy, education "is the tendency of one man to make another just like himself," while culture is the totality of influences that form the person and in which the person forms himself or herself. The compulsory nature of education distinguishes it from culture. The nature of compulsion is that "teaching is forced upon the pupil, . . . instruction is exclusive, . . . [and] only those subjects are taught which the educator regards as necessary." A contemporary advocate of a "culture-based" form of learning is Ivan Illich who has advocated that schools be replaced by a network of "learning exchanges" where people go voluntarily to acquire skills or knowledge.

Spring culls many of his ideas for a libertarian pedagogy from the theories he reviews. Instead of crudely grafting earlier ideas for a libertarian education onto 1970s circumstances, Spring creatively applies the essential ideals of fostering freedom and self-realization. "Any consideration of their value and meaning must be made against the background of the present organization and purposes of education and an evaluation of the present possibilities of social change through the use of educational techniques." Spring rightly states that educational philosophy is not confined to schools, but directly pertains to the nature of society and social change. The truth of this statement is difficult to resist when one reviews the history of education, of how the methods, purposes, and site of education have been developed to serve the needs and interests of the state, capital, and the dominant morality. With this consideration, it is important to ask how Libertarian ideas and values would influence the purposes and methods of education.

In forming the answers to this question, Spring makes two points that are crucial to establishing a libertarian way of education. First, a radical educational movement must be part of a larger social movement, and second, "Any meaningful plan for educational change must affect the whole spectrum of educational power."

If a radical education movement is divorced from a larger social movement to create a free society, there is the danger that the methods developed by libertarian educators will be "quickly absorbed by the existing system: new techniques are used, but only to accomplish the old objectives of control and discipline."

Spring's argument for the union of radical pedagogy with a "libertarian perspective" mirrors an idea key to Tolstoy's distinction of education and culture. At the core of Tolstoy's idea of the educative influence of culture was the unity of all aspects of life. A similar image of education is expressed by Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd, in which he argues for a form of education integrated into one's daily life, where learning occurs by associating with those people who have already learned a particular skill or acquired some specific knowledge. Both Tolstoy and Goodman expand the idea of education, returning to the Hellenic notion of education as paideia. Education is not seen as distinct from life, but as an engaged preparation for the responsibilities and freedoms of citizenship.

Culture seen in this way links radical pedagogy and a libertarian politics, but also does much more. It introduces the conceptual possibilities for action directed towards remaking existing society so that it is a precursor of a free society. Politics thereby changes from oppositional, reactive or ameliorative, and becomes reconstructive.

Culture also becomes a source of strength and sustenance. Resistance to centralization in Russia, Western Europe, and the US are examples of the vigorous resistance and inspired vision of a free society that worker and anarchist movements gained from their agrarian/communal roots, enabling them for a time to withstand assaults on their freedom. These movements emerged when an agrarian/communal way of life was threatened by an industrial/centralized one, when habits and ways of thinking formed in agrarian/communal cultures were subjected to the regimentation of the state and market.

Spring's second point for establishing a libertarian education system is that the powers of the educational establishment must be challenged and supplanted. Libertarian ideas for educational reform must deal with the lived realities of schooling, the educational establishment and of contemporary society. For Spring this does not mean modest, incremental change, but breadth of action that would alter nearly every aspect of our lives. He begins with the need to repeal compulsory education laws, followed by the need to reconceive the status of children in this society, giving them independence from unnecessary adult authority. To achieve this, Spring proposes an "education voucher" to relieve children from unwanted time in public schools, and a guaranteed income that would free them from material want. From this one can gather that Spring ties educational reform to the changed status of children and women in this society which, in turn, would ripple throughout society.

Though Spring's specific plans seem dated (he wrote the Primer in the early 1970s), they do awaken the imagination to the possibilities for educational reform. Some of his proposals, especially for an end to the monopoly public schools have had on education, question basic assumptions about the form and method of education. For libertarians intent on creating a free society, the significance of Spring's proposals is that they serve as a model for thinking about educational reform as one element of a larger social movement.

Education must be conceived of as more than schooling or job training: as the continuing preparation for citizenship. And citizenship is seen as more than paying taxes, voting, and staying "on the good side of the law." The task for libertarians in the 1990s is to create a social movement that gives meaning to libertarian endeavors to reconceive the methods, content, location and purpose of education.

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