[Introduction to a co-authored draft article to be sent to Teaching Sociology, based on a special topics class taught on anarchism.]
How would a college classroom work if it was established on anarchist principles? What if the instructor asked the students to design their own syllabus, figure out what they wanted to learn for themselves, and run the class on their own? This is the very learning experiment that one of the co-authors conducted, for a class that was itself to study anarchism. Can practicing anarchy daily in a course actually help students to learn more about anarchism?
A fair amount of teaching scholarship has focused on student learning from service learning projects that make classroom subject matter “come alive”, but very little has been done on how students learn when the course structure is designed to help them learn about a particular subject. This paper presents preliminary findings and reflections on one attempt to do this at a large research-level university in the US Midwest. We conclude that most students tended to have a favorable appreciation of the class structure, while expressing concerns and frustrations with its challenges.
This course’s instructor was asked by students (who knew each other from an extra-university setting) to teach a class on anarchism. Since no such class existed at the university, the instructor agreed but asked the students to seek out an appropriate department in which to teach the class. The department chair of the Sociology department (the instructor’s home department) offered to host it as a special topics class.
Anarchism has been a relatively “hot” subject during the last decade, due to the anarchist movement’s growing prominence throughout the world and increased visibility in the mass media. Also, the instructor identifies as an anarchist and as a public sociologist, and sought to share the many ideas and practices of anarchism to students. To do this, the instructor wanted students to experience anarchism first hand in a challenging learning environment. There have undoubtedly been university-level classes that have included or even focused explicitly on anarchism, but few have likely attempted to practice anarchism in the classroom. Given this gaping chasm of knowledge and experience, this paper discusses the possibilities for alternative, anarchist learning techniques in college classrooms. We also specifically analyze the results of an experiential learning course on anarchism.
Anarchism and sociology share common origins in the modernism of the Enlightenment (Purkis 2004). Although the two share some roots, anarchism and sociology have had starkly different domains of influence and objectives. Where sociology sought to understand society, anarchism sought to transform society through the maximization of human freedom (both individual and collective). Like sociology, anarchism has been founded on both classical liberal and radical aspirations. Sociology has been driven by the scientific method and academic interests, while anarchism—in its classical and modern versions—has been led by certain key values, which guide movement participants.
The values of anarchism stand in opposition to the major institutions that existed during the mid-19th century (or were coming to predominate modern social life), including hierarchically-organized religious, the centralized nation-state, and industrial capitalism (see Dolgoff 1996, Goldman 1969, and Malatesta 1995). The traditional aspirations of anarchists during this time have been broadened, as contemporary anarchists seek alternatives to structures and manifestations of patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, bureaucratization, ecological destruction, and other relations that they argue inhibit human freedom (Ward 1996, Ehrlich 1996, and Milstein 2010). In the place of the domination, authority, and centralization, anarchists sought (and seek) to transform the social order as to create horizontal, decentralized, cooperative, and egalitarian relationships. These values are represented in a number of key ideas.
Anarchism is premised upon a strong form of anti-authoritarianism: no one should be able to tell others what to do or be able to coerce others (including: employers, government official, religious leaders, teachers and principals, military officers, and police). In place of authority figures, anarchists value self-management. People are capable of and should be determining for themselves what they do and when with their own work; people should be able to reserve the ultimate authority to decide something for themselves, not have to rely on experts or bosses. Since individual freedom requires others’ help, anarchists value egalitarian cooperation. People are born equals and should be able to help each other out for the common good (a.k.a. “mutual aid”). Such cooperation requires direct-democracy, where people can participate together in such a way that individual and collective needs and responsibilities get met. It is more efficient, empowering, practical to do something yourself (for yourself) than ask or wait for someone else to do it for you (especially if that other person ranks above you); thus anarchism prioritizes the worth of direct action, as opposed to indirect, representative action taken on behalf of others.
Most major institutions have found themselves in anarchism’s analytical cross-hairs, including education. Anarchists believe that formal institutions of education tend to be premised upon domination and do not serve the interests of students or learners, but of elites. For example, Paul Goodman (1960) argued that the American education system trains students for ends determined by the dominant social system, not the students’ own interests. Compulsory education has served the purposes of societal elites, generally, so argue anarchists William Godwin, Francisco Ferrer, and Ivan Illich. Thus, the intention and structural result of such education is to instill obedience to capitalists within the labor market and patriotism for nation-states (Spring 1998). While most focus has been on primary and secondary education, anarchists have also critiqued universities: Martin (1998) has described the ways in which higher education acts a complex system, of interlocking forms of domination, each resulting in constrained, stunted, and unfree participants.
Anarchist responses to the authoritarian character of education do not preclude their agreement and value on learning, socialization, and knowledge acquisition. Instead, education ought to be motivated and driven by different logics and values, while being conducted in far different, more liberatory ways. Deschooling has been one prominent position for anarchists: thus Illich (1970) argued for avoiding formal education altogether, perhaps instead pursuing homeschooling or learning in freer environments. Anarchists have experimented with many different types of environments. For example teach-ins and “skill share” sessions, allow people to directly interact with other interested learners and share ideas, without a hierarchical authority figure and a topic of practical concern. Others have developed larger projects called “free skools”, where learning takes place in a non-hierarchical environment away from official education sites, amongst learners who want to be there (not have to be there) and want knowledge (not a degree or a job). Classical-era anarchists actually developed sizable school systems of this character; in the US these were called Modern Schools. They provided secular education for working class children in a liberal and class-conscious environment (Avrich 2006).
While these experiments are interesting, anarchist participation in universities is of more critical importance here. During the late-1960s and 1970s, anarchists projected radical New Left ideas into the student movement, influencing building occupations and the foundation of alternative education programs, such as the anarchist Tolstoy College within the SUNY system. Specifically, anarcho-syndicalism argues that workers ought to try to gain control over their own labor and workplaces (Rocker 2004). These syndicalist ideas were adapted by a non-anarchist New Leftist named Carl Davidson (1990) in his essay “Student Syndicalism”. According to student syndicalism, learners should control university decision-making, abolish the grading system, and thoroughly incorporate the ideology of participatory democracy. Anarcho-syndicalist ideas suggest that student’s learning is their own: learning is their responsibility, their project, and done for their own reasons. Consequently, learning needs to be controlled, executed, and inspired by students themselves. Students, but other knowledge workers should control the education environments in which they study and work.
Anarchist activists have developed practical techniques for working collaboratively, too. The prioritization of direct democracy means anarchists value the need of large numbers of people to be empowered enough to collectively clarify ideas, stake-out positions, and work with each other. When many people are involved in direct democracy, anarchist prefer “popular assemblies” that are run by popular will, not by the manipulation of leaders. Preferably, people can find ways of coming to a consensus. In order to practice consensus decision-making, activists have created processes and techniques that help make the decision-making time and space as egalitarian, group-centered, empowering, and effective as possible. A key contribution here is the structural process of “consensus”, spatial tactics (like sitting in circles), small break-out groups, a reconciliation method for dealing with minority dissent, and the creation of formal roles including facilitators, time-keepers, and scribes (see Bulter & Rothstein 1991, Gelderloos 2006).
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