Under the guise of COVID measures and pretending to protect “freedoms” by further restricting them and fueling bigotry, a lot of countries have started pushing a number of measures that allow them to further control multiple elements of their institutions. Greece and France are two of the most recent examples of governments restricting rights in ‘public’ schools and universities. For example, Greece is implementing the Kerameus bill that will restrict access to universities and develop space to create on-campus police forces (something that many in the US will recognise as being incredibly harmful to any form of education). Meanwhile, France’s minister of higher education is pushing for “an investigation into all the currents of research of these subjects in the universities” because of a combination of pretending to support “laïcité” (France’s version of “secularism,” which really isn’t secular).
And far too often there are people with significant platforms, including anarchists, who will do very little to support the varying student protests or speak out against the harm that other educators are enduring.
So to make it clear, I very much support the people who have been warning about and subsequently protesting the measures in compulsory schooling and universities that will further restrict the rights of all students and educators while diminishing access to genuine education. I also support the people protesting against the arrest of rapper Pablo Hasél, fearing the harm that it could do to the people’s right to speak freely and the ability to openly criticise their governments.
But I also really disagree with a specific idea that I keep encountering: That it is really easy for us to move in the direction of private ownership whenever we say that the state shouldn’t interfere in education.
I pick out this idea because, for me, it is the most recent iteration of something I’ve seen for a long time now, and it highlights some of the frustrations I’ve had frequently had with other people. (It’s also an iteration that allows for “anarcho-capitalism” to continue play-acting as an actual form of anarchism, when it’s really not. Anything that validates the economic hierarchies of capitalism without considering the impacts on all people is not really questioning their legitimacy; it’s supporting continued and further stratification of all people to the benefit of some individuals.)
Largely, I think this belief comes from two different areas. The first is that we’re often too accustomed to ‘binary’ thinking, which is something many of us have been indoctrinated to do from a very young age. The second is a misrepresentation of what ‘public’ means and how ‘public’ spaces are not inherently ‘open to all’ people.
First, there’s a false understanding that we only ever seem to have two options available at any given time for every single problem we encounter. It’s part of the belief that every decision we make has a binary choice, which is a lesson that we have all learned throughout our lives. We see this in the way our political structures function (especially if you’re from the United States); we see this in how we’ve been dealing with the idea of “reopening” schools and even the language surrounding the pandemic-school discussion (“closed” versus “open,” when schools have been open because teachers are still teaching but the buildings have been closed).
When we were growing up, many of us had this same structure of thinking imprinted on us through the very same school system: Do we ‘drop out’ or ‘graduate’? Should we ‘go to university’ or ‘go to work’? Did I ‘pass’ the class or ‘fail’ it? Are certain people ‘educated’ or ‘uneducated’? And the list of questions could very literally go on for what feels like forever.
This belief that there are only two options stifles potential creativity and obscures many perspectives, which means that we’re less able to understand the environment we’re in and how we could work to change it. If there are people who can only see public schools run by the government (and through government interference) and privately owned schools run by private individuals who are usually seeking to generate a profit for themselves, then it is clear that we need to work on expanding the possible options available to us.
One way to do this is to look at the way schools have developed throughout history. Schools are, for the most part, a relatively new invention. If we were to stop a manufacturing worker in the early 1900s and ask them if they completed high school, it is far more likely that they would say they hadn’t. In the 1920s, it wasn’t uncommon for children to leave school at age 14 and get a job in a nearby manufacturing plant or wherever they could find employment. There’s a reason that a lot of millennials have been able to say we’re part of the “first generation” of our respective families to graduate high school or go to university. Some of our parents are the “first generation” to complete schooling as made compulsory by the state. The level of schooling our grandparents were required to complete was nothing like what we had to do.
So it is worth considering this history when we’re talking about changing the way schools function and how education takes place. It’s worth recognising that the world hasn’t always been this way, even though it seems that way. So what opportunities existed before now?
If you take time to research labour history, you quickly find that education was made a key component of the structure of some unions. In Silk Stockings and Socialism by Sharon McConnell-Sidorick, she discusses many of the tactics that the primary hosiery union in Philadelphia took with regards to providing education for their members: they worked with labour colleges (such as Brookwood Labor College in New York), they opened libraries and reading rooms (especially during the Great Depression), they had educational directors who worked with the union newspaper to use them as educational tools for a variety of subjects and topics, and they even built educational centers for young people into their housing projects (like the Carl Mackley Houses).
Unions helped to provide funds for the Workers’ Education Bureau, which in turn helped unions develop classes for their members. Women in the hosiery union worked to develop their own classes that were focused on English, citizenship, parliamentary law, public speaking, and economics. Other people helped to create classes to provide information that was beneficial to people in their daily lives; a great example of this was a class titled Creative Reading of the Newspaper, which helped people understand how the media was manipulating them through techniques that used sensationalism, that aroused their passions, and gradually helped push people to accept class hierarchies.
The unions saw education as something that had many avenues; it wasn’t something you just learned in a building somewhere. It was important for people of all ages and backgrounds, and it was important that people had access to both learning and teaching. The development of cross-generational mentor-mentee relationships were a huge part of this, helping to break down the hierarchical structure of authority within the workplace. Overwhelmingly, unions saw how important education was to their movement.
Other people had been working on these sorts of projects before the 1920s, too. Paul Robin tried to develop an anarchist school in the Prévost Orphanage at Cempuis in France before he was released after a media-induced scandal and during a purge of anarchists in public positions. He had worked with a number of people in both France and Belgium to develop the ideas that we know today as integral education. Francisco Ferrer ran with those ideas and is the most well-known example of a person developing an anarchist school based on them, and his state execution spurred on many people to develop similar schools with similar ideas across the globe, especially in the Americas.
Many of these ideas can still be seen today, and people are trying to fight back as best they can. Homeschooling, democratic schooling, unschooling, and ecoversities are among a few examples of people trying to regain the control over learning that we should have. (Though, some often have negative views because they are often associated with a right-wing who uses them to negatively indoctrinate children and further hoard resources.)
And some of those places, due to the structure of schooling as defined by our governments, are considered to be ‘private’ schools, even though they’re usually not selective and many do not require tuition from families who want to attend (though many will request donations from families and will solicit donations from those willing to support the school’s goals).
The other area that I think causes us to be confused and believe that we only have two options is how we understand concepts like ‘public’ and ‘private’. In fact, a lot of the ‘public’ spaces that we’re accustomed to using are actually ‘private’ spaces that we’re free to use as long as we “follow the rules” or “meet specific guidelines” (whatever those rules and guidelines might be).
Perhaps part of the issue is that we believe ‘public’ means “for everyone,” which isn’t inherently true; it’s more akin to “everyone should be allowed to access it,” but even that’s not what happens. Just look at our schools, for example. Despite the development of legislation in many countries that says schools (among other places) need to be made accessible for students with physical disabilities, many often are still physically inaccessible because of their age or lack of oversight for those regulations. A couple of the schools I’ve worked in actively refused to add elevators to their architecture, which was supposedly illegal. This automatically barred students who couldn’t walk up stairs from entering them or getting to classes on different floors.
That was a ‘public’ space that should’ve been “accessible to everyone” that wasn’t “for everyone.”
Still using schools as examples, the curriculum as mandated by the state is not inherently accessible to all students. There are a variety of reasons for this: the language of the texts is too complicated, the student doesn’t have access to options that assist them with language fluency, the needs of disabled students requiring accommodations aren’t being met (both because the school system itself refuses to and teachers are often ill-equipped to do so), or the curriculum is bigoted in multiple ways and continues to inflict trauma on marginalised students.
And there are far more ways that the curriculum of this ‘public’ institution that is “for everyone” isn’t “accessible to everyone.”
So what can be done? Well, if the first thought someone has with regards to this problem is to suggest ‘private’ or ‘charter’ schools, then I’d say that they haven’t considered all of the variables to this issue. What are the underlying issues to each of those problems? Who can fix those issues? What do we need to fix those problems?
A lot of people will initially start with “the government” in response to the question of ‘who’, but the government doesn’t know how to fix those issues or what is needed. At every step of the problem, the people who supposedly “represent” the population usually don’t seem to have a clue as to what their communities actually look like. If anything, they constantly show how out of touch they are or how much they don’t care.
In schools, there have been a number of initiatives implemented at a variety of levels to address many of the issues we face. Most of the time, they come off as performative to people who are from the demographics they target. When the school I worked at told my colleagues to put stickers up on classroom doors or in the entries to our building claiming to support students from different marginalised demographics, it felt like a pretty empty gesture because I already had first-hand experience of being a queer and disabled teacher who had been completely ignored by the same school that was performing “inclusivity.” At best, I saw these empty gestures as being a complete joke.
My students — many of whom were queer (or questioning), disabled, and/or people of colour — came to me with the same exact frustrations. They even joked with me about how it’s so nice that we would tell people we’re inclusive while the school would simultaneously ignore and perpetuate the constant abuse we all had to endure. Many of my students would sit with me during breaks or come to my classroom during study halls explicitly because they felt my classroom was safe; when I no longer had a classroom at another school, many of my students wanted to sit with me during lunch in order to feel protected and like they belonged somewhere.
So it really needs to be pointed out again: If ‘public’ institutions are meant to be “for everyone,” why do so many kids not feel safe in them? Why do so many teachers feel unsafe in them, often going as far as to feel stifled by not being able to say certain things? Why are there so many families fighting against them?
And why are governments, as in the earlier mentioned examples of Greece and France, going to such lengths to restrict the freedoms of the people in them?
The simplest answer is that ‘public’ institutions aren’t actually meant to be accessible to everyone; they’re meant to give the appearance of being accessible to everyone, but we know that isn’t true. Our ‘public’ institutions are becoming more and more privatised, either run by the interests of private entities through grant funding or donations or parts of them are being gradually and quietly sold off to the highest bidders (or closest friends of government officials).
But the best answer to solving the problem falls within the community. The community knows what they need, and they are more likely to be better equipped to address these issues. Why should they have to wait for the government to acknowledge that there’s a problem when they can start to fix it themselves? In fact, a lot of community work has taken root in response to issues at schools.
One of the best examples I can find of this is what happened during the West Virginia teachers’ strikes in 2018. During this strike, a lot of teachers recognised that it was possible that kids could go hungry because they didn’t have access to the meals they received while at school. In response, a lot of teachers shifted their work from the school (where they were striking) to making sure that the community was safe during that time. Teachers volunteered in food pantries, helped deliver food to families, and put together care packages; they saw some of the problems that their students and their families (their community) would have if they went on strike and did nothing else to replace it.
But that act also made communities more supportive of the teachers and their unions. It created connections between people that may have taken longer to form. It helped build a space where people were learning about each other and their needs. And these lessons spread to other locations, some of whom took the message from West Virginia to also go on strike and also work in the community in the same ways.
And a lot of this learning was taking place in informal networks, across multiple spaces. People were learning skills about organising and supporting each other. They were learning about the struggles of different people and how they were connected.
Their world was expanding and creating different and new connections in ways that state-mandated classrooms (and classrooms in general) don’t and will not allow.
And this is how it should work. This is what we need to be doing, and it’s what a lot of people are doing through a variety of mutual aid networks that are building up everywhere in response to the complete negligence of our respective governments.
Because we take care of us.
Our governments, despite their best efforts to propagandise and indoctrinate us, do not protect us. They leave us to struggle and pick up the pieces while they enrich their billionaire friends and themselves, hoarding everything they can and leaving us with scraps and ashes.