Author’s Note: For the American audience, the following article uses the word ‘libertarian’ to describe someone, but this definition is different from the ‘right libertarians’ in the United States. It’s understood that the US has a different meaning of the term, which is broadly a right-wing phenomenon and culminates in the Libertarian Party. Much of the world recognises it as a philosophy related to political autonomy from the State and as a belief that’s rarely associated with the right-wing because it’s antithetical to their authoritarian tendencies.
For a long while now, I’ve been working on researching Paul Robin’s work at the orphanage in Cempuis in order to better understand some of the contributions to educational philosophy from anarchists because these are so rarely discussed. Obviously, I was never going to learn about those people and the background of their projects in a teacher training program in a university, but I’ve been frustrated and confused by the lack of information about educational philosophy in anarchist spaces.
There are a few books, but it’s surprising to me that there’s so much focus on everything except the foundation. After all, every anarchist I know says the same thing: Education is one of the most important aspects of our philosophy. How else can we transmit that information to future generations? How else do we bring people into the cause?
So I’ve been spending a lot of time with some of the projects I’ve found that were started in parts of Europe, the United States, and Canada. (However, if anyone has suggestions for projects outside those locations, I would be exceptionally pleased and very grateful.)
To introduce Paul Robin in the quickest way possible, he was an anarchist and libertarian educator who started an educational experiment in Cempuis at the Prévost Orphanage that ran from 1880 to 1894. He was one of many who noticed the increased interest by the state (particularly France) in ‘public education’ and was worried about the kind of education children received, the goals of the education, and the indoctrination they received from the institutions involved. Many of the ideas he implemented and developed in his school are ideas we’re familiar with: coeducation (mixed education), secular education, and integral education (the combination of physical, mental, and moral education).
To be fair, seeing where we are now, I think the anarchists who were concerned were right to be. The lack of access to inclusive sex education, the fear so many LGBTQ+ staff and students feel because of the lack of protections for them, the sheer existence of Betsy DeVos and her ability to funnel her neo-Calvinist theology into schools, the ability of the military to poach children in high schools, governments legislating the ability of teachers to discuss topics like anti-capitalism, the desire to use textbooks that euphemistically discuss the enslavement of Black people, the continuous teaching of pro-colonial sentiments and leaving out Indigenous peoples, the continued segregation of disabled students and students from different ethnic backgrounds into separate schools…
There are so many things happening in our schools that should give us all pause; it’s almost difficult to keep track of everything because every nation has its own issues in their own schools. (Though, if you’re interested in current issues in American schools, I’d go listen to Have You Heard.)
And yet, what strikes me the most as I do this research, is that the ideas we did take aren’t even fully complete. (Admittedly, this is probably because I’ve spent so much time with primary documents that have only discussed the following topics.)
Today, coeducation is pretty much the standard. Unless otherwise specified in the school’s name, schools are most often for children of all genders. This is no longer an idea considered “scientifically unfounded” in the ways that many politicians in the past used to openly discuss during parliamentary committee hearings. We pretty much expect that there are resources made available to include all children in a school.
But that’s not always what happens because we still guide children to places that we perceive as being “better” for them, even when it’s not what they want. Because of our own socialisation, we still teach and guide children through a gendered lens.
I know this from my own personal experience. Almost two decades ago, I wanted to take programming classes to complete my high school maths requirements. I knew I was good at it because I’d been teaching myself to do it; I’d spent a couple summers going to free community classes with my mom, learning how to build computers and create random programs. I enjoyed it. (Hell, I still enjoy it on occasion.)
But my guidance counsellor thought this was a horrible idea. She believed it would be “better” for me to take the traditional maths classes: calculus and trigonometry. I hated traditional maths classes, but I can now look back and attribute it to the fact that I had fallen behind in seventh grade. From that point on, my maths teachers refused to help me, claiming that I was “lazy” or had been “unwilling to try.” The reality? I just didn’t get it. They started introducing letters into maths equations, I was dyslexic, and I was confused. They wanted me to memorise maths equations, but they never wanted to explain them. Why were they useful? How did people use them? When?
When I asked my guidance counsellor why she thought it would be better, her answer wasn’t what I expected. She said I’d be “better off” because I’d “be the only girl.” (At the time, I didn’t recognise myself as non-binary.) Instead of encouraging girls to do programming (and I knew there were more than me who wanted to), she pushed us all away from it. I had to fight with her to get access to those classes, even though there was no reason for it; there were no prerequisites to meet in order to join.
This still happens. As a teacher, I’ve watched numerous students of all genders get pushed away from the things they love doing (and come to me for support because they knew I’d fight for their right to access it); I’ve supported ‘masculine’ children in fighting for access to arts and drama extracurriculars, and I’ve had to argue for ‘feminine’ children to gain access to science and tech spaces. I’ve had to argue for programs that allowed all children to play sports together, instead of segregating them by perceived gender.
But we weren’t always successful in our fights, and it was largely due to structural policies: There are still countries with schools that mandate the segregation of boys and girls in PE classes, for instance, claiming that “boys are stronger, and we don’t want the girls to feel incapable.” (I’m not kidding; I’ve heard that verbatim as a reason for why they’re still segregated. In 2020.)
This is still pretty common, unfortunately. In the US, Title IX (federal legislation that aims to protect against ‘sex discrimination’ in education) has been under fire from the administration of Betsy DeVos in the Department of Education, including her actions earlier this year to “strengthen” it while actual K-12 administrators worried that it decreases their ability to help students who are victims of sexual assault.
Which reminds me: Dress codes are super discriminatory and largely based on gender, and students everywhere have tried their hand at fighting to change them along with pointing out the other sexist policies and beliefs in their schools (among other locations): Montreal, Laredo, Knoxville, and France. (Not to mention, they’re also super racist.)
Clearly we have a lot of work to do here, and we’re going to continue having a lot of work surrounding gender because of the current fights we’re having about the inclusion of trans and non-binary staff and students. Somewhere between Amy Coney Barrett’s history of being a trustee at a private school with anti-LGBTQ+ policies while now having a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, the recent appointment of the anti-LGBTQ+ (and ableist) Sarah Perry to be the head of the Diversity and Inclusion Council, and the rise of TERFs in UK politics (along with the BBC recently sending out some of the most absurd “rules” for journalists along with dropping a number of charities supporting transgender people, including Mermaids).
In public schools, we widely recognise that all students receive secular education. As opposed to many religious schools, public schools are not supposed to incorporate religious education and are supposed to give that responsibility to the students’ families and communities.
However, that’s not really quite true. And for places that have become “strictly secular” (like France and Quebec), they often refuse to create spaces that allow children of religious minorities to feel comfortable. In both places, they’re using secularism to target Muslim people, and they’re more frequently using them to directly target and harass Muslim women. And to “prevent religious education,” France is also looking at banning (and placing heavy limits on) homeschooling next year, which was announced as part of Macron’s plan to “decrease Islamic separatism.”
This should give a lot of people pause. These “secular” societies are targeting individuals with religion, weaponising their brand of “secularism” to deny these people their right to exist as they are.
How is that secular? How is that the separation of organised religion and the state?
But then you have countries like the United States where it’s claimed that there’s “separation of church and state,” but we know that isn’t entirely true. While public schools do not have religious education, they are mostly structured around Christian-only holidays and do not consider the inclusion of students from other religious backgrounds (though some schools do change their holidays if they have a large enough population to do so); archaic attendance policies ensure that religious but non-Christian students must attend school during their religious holidays or be penalised (which also hurts disabled and chronically ill students), and teachers rarely consider those holidays when planning lessons, assignments, or due dates.
Then there’s the Supreme Court in the United States, which has determined that, yes, public funds should go to private schools while also essentially exempting religious private schools from sexual discrimination laws under “ministerial exemption” (as long as teachers are classified as ‘ministers’, regardless of subject). Charter schools aren’t necessarily covered by the same policies and restrictions as public schools, and they can often include religious education or materials regardless of whether or not the overall school community agrees with it.
In the schools I’ve worked at, I have never worked a school where non-Christian holidays were celebrated, even when teachers have suggested we should do it for our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh families (to name a few). Accessing food prepared properly is sometimes difficult, and students with dietary restrictions related to their religion often go neglected (forcing children to not eat meals at all) or receive poor quality alternatives (such as always getting served plain pasta because the sauce has pork in it or a ‘vegetarian’ option consisting only of cheese).
And there are countries where it’s still “compulsory for non-religious state schools to conduct a daily act of collective, broadly Christian, worship,” like the UK. New Zealand also currently allows religious education in state schools, which impacts a range of non-Christian families including atheists.
There is a happy medium to be had. It is possible to create secular education that is inclusive and respectful of all, but it appears that no government wants to find it.
For Paul Robin, he defined integral education as being that which consists of physical, mental, and moral instruction. When compared to educational theories today, he’d probably fall more in line with “holistic education.” This is something that all classes have the capability to, in some way, include in their lessons. We’ve actually been doing this for a long time, especially as we’ve turned to look at schools as a “primary childcare facility.”
The problems that we’ve been having in this regard is that the capitalist system hyper-focuses on what is “most useful.” For the past few decades, we’ve seen aggressive campaigns to move students toward STEM subjects because they are believed to be “more profitable” and “allow progress,” implying that humanities and arts are “useless” and “wasteful.” Most recently, this was seen in Australia as they decided to increase the fees for humanities subjects, which disproportionately impacts the poor, women, migrants, and Indigenous people.
Again, in my own experience, I was harassed repeatedly when I made the decision as a first generation university student to double major (and later earn dual degrees) in history and anthropology. No one in my family, including the history enthusiasts, could understand how my passion for social sciences would influence the decisions I’d make. Everyone asked me “What will you do with that?” or spent countless hours reminding me about how I was “so good at computers.” At every single turn, it was like people were telling me I was making a bad decision because it wouldn’t be profitable.
I’m not alone, and I’ve seen this among my own students when I worked with the upcoming grads. They almost always looked for the same few programs: business management, sciences, technology, and engineering. For some, I knew it was a genuine passion that they enjoyed more than anything; it was something that you saw them glowing over, and they were the kids who usually knew precisely what programs they wanted to join. But I knew many of my other students were making the decision because of family pressure, and it was pretty clear when you started asking them clarifying questions because they’d inevitably throw in a comment about how one of their family members wanted them to join a specific kind of program or ask if it was possible to find a school that would mix their passion with their required field.
This continues into the programs that schools offer and the partnerships they have. In one of my previous schools, they opened up a robotics lab and associated programs in partnership with a local company; this was despite the fact that the rest of the school was struggling to acquire resources that would enable us to properly teach our classes, including books for the library and basic school supplies. In another, the director constantly partnered with tech firms for “contests” that were far above our students’ abilities or resources; we didn’t have classes that could help them or enough teachers with those skills, and we certainly didn’t have any technology that the students could use to even participate.
But what about ‘moral’ education? Well, a number of teachers have lost their job for teaching anti-racist lessons or participating in anti-racist protests: Jeena Lee-Walker was targeted and fired for teaching about the Central Park 5, Lillian White was fired over simply wearing a mask saying “Black Lives Matter,” a teacher was doxxed and received threats for wearing an “I can’t breathe” shirt, a fourth-grade teacher received harassment from the community for teaching her students about Black Lives Matter, and students in Georgia who shared images of their school during its re-opening under COVID received suspensions. That’s without even listing teachers who’ve had their jobs threatened fired for protesting, been fired for being LGBTQ+ (even with the Supreme Court ‘win’ earlier this summer that was directly contradicted by the later exemption of religious organisations), or lost their job over their disability; it’s also ignoring the teachers that’ve been fired for doing sex work at some point in their life outside of the school.
So I have to wonder whose morals are being taught if we’re continually obscuring and denying the rights and existence of so many people?
Clearly, we have a long way to go to achieve these goals that were once part of many anarchist schools and educational experiments, but I doubt they will happen without first dismantling the capitalist system we all live under. We need to actively work towards unlearning the views that enable these systems to perpetuate, and we need to recognise when those systems are trying to divide us in order to maintain their power.
The goals of coeducation, secular education, and integral education are admirable. Building upon their original goals to include an even broader population of people would strengthen them even more, creating truly educational spaces where people learn to organise and collaborate. But we need to learn from the past in order to repair the mistakes we’ve created and to improve upon the areas that went entirely neglected.
And as a teacher, that is merely one kind of school that I would want to work towards.