(Unfinished Draft)

James Herod
February, 2001


Paul Goodman once reported that he had found no takers for his educational proposals, which included such ideas as to "drastically cut back schooling," or that "most high schools should be eliminated." "In a general audience," he reported, "the response is incredulity." (1) Not much has changed in the past thirty-two years. We are so locked into schools and schooling that it is hard to even imagine anything else. Some persons have imagined something else of course; it’s just that it is even harder to picture how we will ever get there.

An image of so-called education that I personally like might be sketched as follows:

First of all there is no separation of learning from life. There is no separate sphere of activity called education. There are no schools as such, and no compulsory attendance. Children learn as they grow up, by actively participating in the life of the community. Facilities are available for learning -- workshops, tools, libraries, materials. Teachers are available, but mostly in apprenticeship relationships, as for example private piano teachers still are, even in our deformed society . That is, there is no separate category of persons called ‘teachers,’ because practically everyone can be a teacher of something at some point. A lot of people, even most people, might be engaged part of the time in so-called teaching. We learn from each other as need arises. But this is not seen as ‘lifelong education’ or as ‘learning throughout life’, but simply as living. You get interested in something, so you look into it. You find that you are good at a certain activity and so you try to improve yourself by reading, looking at videos, talking to others, practicing, listening to lectures, watching others, visiting sites, or taking lessons from someone who is even more skilled. Every skill requires training, knowledge, and practice. Even brain surgery is just a set of skills, a procedure, which must be learned from someone else (or invented, in the case of the first brain surgeon), and which requires practice, just as the concert pianist practices endlessly, as does Tiger Woods practice golf.

But ‘schooling’ doesn’t even enter the picture. There are no classes, classrooms, professional teachers, required readings, homework, course credits, tests, grades, spring breaks. And since there is no state, neither is there ‘certification’ or ‘licensing’. There are no ‘careers’. If you get tired of doing something you can easily change course and do something else. If you lose interest in one subject you can easily take up another. Most major activities in life, whether agriculture, industry, communications, or medicine, will have so-called research connected with them, but this will be integrated into the ongoing activity itself, and not separated out, as a special branch. It will be seen as just a normal part of the activity.

There will be clusters or centers of such activity of course. Persons who have common interests in something will naturally tend to coalesce and form associations and larger networks in order to enhance their interest. They may organize conferences, hold seminars, publish journals, give lectures. They may build facilities for these activities. I can even imagine courses of intensive study of particular subjects (but not ‘schools’ per se, as we know them, that is, prolonged full-time attendance at schools for years on end). In a free society I can imagine that there might be periods of intense organized study and training, like say an intense five-hour-a-day, year-long program to learn a language. I can also imagine that there might be organized learning for children for a certain period, but certainly not all children at the same time on the same subject, like all six-year-olds in one classroom with one teacher studying the same topics at the same time. And this full-time schooling would certainly not last twelve years, or even six, and it need not be full-time ever, at any point, nor need such periods of schooling happen consecutively.

Free associations of practitioners of any particular activity may also establish standards for such an activity, but since they do not ultimately control this activity (such control rests with the community as a whole), and since no one’s existence or survival (livelihood) depends upon conforming to those standards, the standards cannot be imposed through compulsion. A community (a directly democratic assembly) can of course impose standards, or levels of competence required to practice, but such standards cannot be determined by ‘professionals’ (since there are no such people), even though skilled people might make recommendations for an assembly to consider. That is, we escape control not only by the church, and the state, but also by guilded professionals; although obviously we have not escaped control per se, because there is no such thing as life, or any activity within it, without constraints. It is just a question of who establishes these constraints, whether we ourselves had any say in their making, the intelligence or stupidity with which they are applied, their rigidity or malleability, the balance between them and unfettered initiative, the difficulty or ease with which they might be changed, and the freedoms existing under certain circumstances to ignore them.

From this sketch it is obvious why I am not very interested in reforming schools: because I want to abolish them altogether. I believe that schools as we know them are seriously destructive and wasteful. They distort and skew life. They do not contribute to freedom. They restrict, confine, repress, constrain. They are punitive. They bore. They rank, file, sort, channel. They make you sick. They steal years of your life. They waste your energies. They pollute your mind. They derail, mislead, misinform. They weaken and deaden. They do not educate. They do not empower. They do not stimulate enlightenment. They are a drag on the expansion of knowledge and learning. So what is there to reform. Better to get something else entirely.

Please note that this blistering indictment is directed against "schools as we know them". The same complaints could not be made of course against Neill’s Summerville, Ferrer’s Modern Schools, the best of Dewey’s Progressive schools, or the New Left’s ‘free schools’. Nevertheless, as I will explain below, I have problems even with these schools and believe that the anarchist critique of ‘education’ must extend even to them.

It is equally obvious from this sketch, that such an arrangement, such a way of living, is completely impossible under present circumstances. This is where so many ‘education reformers’ go wrong. They think that they can improve ‘education’ within the existing social order. So rather than trying to change the social order, so that something decent could be had, they limit themselves to trying to change schools only.

A very first prerequisite for living as sketched above is the reestablishment of genuine, viable communities, with real power. If, for the past fifty years, instead of paving over millions of acres to build malls, "we" (it was not "we" who did this of course but the "developers") had built integrated communities in which people were within walking distance of most of the things they needed and which were designed to promote dense levels of social interaction, then we would be in a better position to get rid of schools. As it is, when you need a car to even buy groceries, get to work, go to the dentist, go swimming, or visit friends, it’s hard to imagine having a real community again, which we would need before we could get rid of schooling as we know it.

Who’s to stop us from building such communities now though? Well, capitalists of course. It is capitalism, a social order in which the profit-takers are calling the shots, over the course of its five hundred year history, which has destroyed communities in the first place. So the fight to abolish schools cannot be separated from the fight to defeat, overthrow, and abolish the capitalist ruling class itself. Such a victory over our rulers (oppressors) is a prerequisite for ever reestablishing genuine communities, which is a prerequisite for ever getting rid of the separation of learning from life.

Another aspect of the sketch above needs to be teased out. The sketch presupposes that wage-slavery no longer exists, that you don’t have to have a "job" in order to live, and that community control of all activities, through democratic assemblies, has been reestablished. It is only under such circumstances that there could be no "careers", and that a person could change activities easily, and be free to pursue new interests. If you are locked into a career, or a trade, or just a job, in order to survive, there can’t be much thought of easily changing course to follow new interests, or of doing something you like in the first place.

The sketch also presupposes that the drastic disjunction between where people live and where they work has been reduced or even eliminated for most people. Obviously, this cannot be done under a regime of private ownership of property, where activities are organized for profit, and where the location of such "work" is determined by the owners. It could only be done in a social arrangement where privately controlled so-called "economic" activities -- a false category arising only from the fact that profit-taking, the requisite activity of capitalists, defines everything from its own perspective -- no longer exist. Only then could life’s activities be reintegrated with residence, or mostly so.

I might point out in passing, that the prerequisites that I have just described, for getting rid of "education" as a separate, false, sphere of life, namely the destruction of the market in labor and commodities, and the reestablishment of self-governing communities (and the free association of such communities within regions, I might add), are considerably more complex than merely getting a "different attitude of people toward tools," or "the creation of a radically new relationship between human beings and their environment" -- the recommendations of Ivan Illich.(2) It involves rather the overthrow and replacement of an entire historical social order of considerable duration. Illich never really faces up to this task, to the deeply entrenched enemy we face, in the form of a ruling class which owes its existence and dominance to profit-taking. He continues to talk too much of the time in the language of mainstream sociology, about ‘social change’ and ‘industrial society’. Illich’s recommendations are way too abstract, and lack the specificity needed to be effective. That is, they are not based on a concrete awareness of the social order we do now live in. How can we have a different attitude towards tools when tools are owned by the employers? How can we have a different relationship with the environment when we have virtually no control over anything, and when those who do have control are hell bent on destroying the environment in order to make profit. First things first. Get the bloodsuckers off our backs, and then maybe we can have a different attitude toward tools and a new relationship with the environment. In reality of course, as a matter of strategy, these two things must go forward in tandem. That is, we cannot really defeat our rulers unless we replace them (and their imposed way of life), and to replace them we have to invent something better and put it into practice. But if you don’t even take capitalists into account, as Illich never seems to do, you are likely to get nowhere on either front.


There have been schools of one kind or another from ancient times.....ancient egyptians, hebrews, chinese, hindus, greeks, romans..... middle ages ... renaissance, protestant reformation, enlightenment ... rise of universities ... nineteenth century ... compulsory public education for all only from first world war. .... so, a very brief, birds-eye view of the history of schools


How is our current anguish over schools similar to or different from the struggles of past generations of radicals, and especially of anarchists? The longest struggle of radical or progressive educators, lasting several centuries, was to break the monopolistic control that churches held over all education, first that of the Roman Catholic Church, and then that of the Protestant Churches beginning with the Protestant Reformation. This battle has never been completely won (just consider the strong resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism during the past several decades in the United States, Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East, or the recent decision of the Kansas Board of Education, now fortunately reversed, to exclude the teaching of evolution from public schools). Considerable partial victories were in place though by the time of the French Revolution. The State was of course instrumental in breaking the monopoly of religious education, only to then become a problem itself, especially for anarchists; that is, government control of education tended to replace church control, and since governments, by and large, reflect the interests of their ruling classes, schooling continued to work mostly for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

Anarchist thought on education per se didn’t begin until 1783 with Godwin.(x) Anarchists in general were merely continuing the fight for enlightenment. They sought to apply enlightenment values to education: individual freedom, the fullest possible development of individual potential, freedom from religious control. They added freedom from state control to their platform. They were also concerned however, along with most progressive educators of the nineteenth century, to break the grip of an extremely bookish, rigid, scholastic type of schooling. They wanted to include physical education, and education in the arts and crafts. They wanted to include industry and agriculture. They wanted to end the monopoly of rote, intellectual learning, and develop instead, through education, all human faculties, and they wanted this education to be available to everyone.

Our current difficulties with schools are far removed from these concerns. Universal, compulsory, public, free, elementary and secondary education has been available in the core capitalist countries generally since the First World War. Since World War Two, a university education has become available to hundreds of millions of working class children. Physical education (and sports) long ago became an integral part of education. (If anything, anti-intellectualism is now the major problem, rather than bookish intellectualism.) There are vocational schools galore. Arts and crafts are accepted parts of the curriculum. Technical education is available on every conceivable aspect of industry, agriculture, medicine, architecture, engineering, transportation, or communications.

Nevertheless, we have our current list of schooling horrors:

* the routine drugging of millions of school children to curb their "hyperactivity", render them passive, and make them more "manageable" by teachers and administrators

* police guarding the doors and patrolling the halls of schools

* the onerous dress and behavior codes now becoming commonplace

* new school "constitutions" which eliminate virtually all civil rights for students

* the endless homework required, even of grade school children, until it expands the workload of children well beyond even a forty hour work week, destroying their evenings, weekends, and vacations

* the gradual extension of the school year, cutting into the summer vacation (there are even proposals on the table to make primary and secondary education continuous, year round), and the extension of the number of years devoted to schooling, until millions of young people remain in school well into their twenties, and even into their thirties (for many therefore, half-a-lifetime is spent in school)

* the drastic expansion of standardized testing (and the endless tests)

* the invasion of schools by the military, in the form of ROTC programs, and strenuous recruitment campaigns

* the recent, unprecedented intrusion of corporations into public schools

* the increasing cooptation of higher education by corporations, and even the buying of whole university research departments by corporations

* the increasingly blatant, ideological, ruling class content of educational materials, especially in social studies, but also even in technical education.

These many schooling horrors nevertheless do not get to the heart of the anarchist critique of schooling, at least as I understand it. Our problem is with the school itself, not merely with what happens in it. A school is a place you have to go to every morning, stay there the whole day, sit hour after hour, at first in just one classroom studying various subjects, but later in separate classrooms for each different subject. It is an activity apart from the rest of your life, just like a job will be in the future. Actually, the school is your life, in large measure, from the ages of 6 through 18 (or 22 or 28 or 35), just as a job is your life, in large measure, from the time you leave school until you are about ready to die. Even so-called modern schools, free schools, or liberated schools are still schools, still separate learning from life, still see education as something apart which has to be acquired, still rely often on certified teachers, still have classrooms and courses, even though they may have loosened things up a lot, and eliminated much of the rigidity and authoritarianism. But regular schools, even many progressive ones, still divide knowledge up into units (often false ones, especially in the so-called social sciences), attach credits to them, add these credits up, grade and rank students, instill acceptance of hierarchy, authority, and discipline, and in general perpetuate a regime of unfreedom.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to side track a little at this point and take some time to consider the political offensive of the Christian Right, underway for the past several decades in the United States, to end the separation of church and state, especially with regards to schools. As it happens, this campaign is proceeding concurrently with a ruling class offensive to destroy public education. The two campaigns stem from different motivations, and make strange bedfellows to my mind, but there it is.

The corporate ruling class wants to destroy everything public, not only schools, but also libraries, parks, museums, hospitals, electricity and water systems, national wildlife reserves, public services of all kinds (e.g., public transportation, public radio, the postal service, the public internet), all government programs that help average people, like unemployment insurance, social security, or welfare (including the destruction of labor unions of course), and all public regulation of corporations and their markets. What they want to keep is: the $300 billion a year armed forces to protect capitalist property and markets the world over and the governments that defend them; the $500 billion a year in government subsidies to corporations, paid for out of general tax revenues; the bailouts of corporations, now running into the hundreds of billions of dollars, from bad investments, corruption, and crises brought on by financial speculators; publicly funded research, the results of which can then be appropriated by corporations for their private profit; low or no taxes for themselves but high taxes for everyone else; the interstate highway system built at public expense but benefiting disproportionately in financial terms private businesses especially the trucking industry, the government backed gift of the public airwaves and the internet; the prisons, a rediscovered source of slave labor; government enforced property laws and patent ownership; and bloated police departments in every city and town to put down any serious resistance to any of this that might somehow emerge. This program, known the world over as neo-liberalism, has been aggressively and successfully pursued since the mid-seventies. It has been especially devastating in the poor countries of the South, but has had disastrous consequences in the North too.

Christian conservatives on the other hand want primarily to defeat "secular humanism". They don’t really object to the neo-liberal offensive, although it’s puzzling to me how any decent, moral person could not. But they accept it, even defend it. Their main focus however is on the so-called social issues. They are basically unaware of corporations, capitalism, and the economy, or if they are aware, simply buy into ‘free enterprise’ as the best system there is. Their concerns lie elsewhere. They don’t want to have to pay taxes to support secular schools, or to send their children to them. They don’t want the government doing anything that conflicts with their religious beliefs, like protecting the rights of homosexuals, keeping religion out of public schools (they claim that ‘secular humanism’ is a religion), advancing the rights of women in any way, permitting the teaching of evolution in public schools, defending abortion, and so forth. Their long term objective is the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. This will be a theocracy, not a democracy. It will be ruled by God the Father, through his Son, Jesus Christ and his Apostles. They believe in the Patriarchal Family, as the domestic corollary of rule by God the Father. They believe that the United States Constitution was inspired by God, and that the United States has been specially designated as the place for the Second Coming of Christ (which provides a rationale for their belief in a strong military, which is needed to protect the United States from its enemies, which are everywhere, until Christ returns). They believe that the establishment of Israel was the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy.

This is an extremely reactionary movement. Such thoughts as that the U.S. Constitution might be a document written by rich landowners, rich merchants, and their lawyers to protect their own property and power, or that the establishment of the nation of Israel might actually have represented the insertion of a colonial, client state into the Middle East by the imperialist governments of Britain and the United States, are simply meaningless (and of course unacceptable) within their frame of reference. The Conservative Christian Fundamentalist movement in the United States is essentially a rejection of the entire course of modern European and American history, and the growth of knowledge associated with it. It harks back to the Middle Ages, to before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Even the dazzling civilization of the ancient Greeks, which predated Christianity by nearly half-a-millennium, is nothing to them but a pagan world which was superseded by the intervention of God into history through his Son, Jesus Christ. The entire history of the Western World, from the establishment of the Christian Religion as the Official Church on down, is seen merely as an 'apostasy'. Real history will resume only with the Second Coming of Christ, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. Everything that happened between the First Coming and the Second Coming is just so much time wasted in darkness and wandering. The Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment are as nothing to them, as are the rise of science and the struggle for democracy. All of modern knowledge is suspect, and, if it conflicts with their literalist interpretation of the Bible, is rejected (although they seem perfectly comfortable with much of modern technology, like television, cars, and computers). The vast historical experiences of Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, Arabic Civilization, African Civilizations, Czarist Russia, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Incas, barely register a blip on their narrow intellectual scopes.

And this is the movement that is helping contemporary capitalists destroy public education. They want to abolish the federal Department of Education, to use general tax revenues to support religious schools through a voucher system, and to insert religious practices (e.g., prayer) and beliefs (e.g., creationism) into the existing public schools. But mostly they want to get the government out of education entirely.

Anarchists are also opposed to state control of education (dismayingly, in light of present company). So where does this leave us in this unhappy situation? What should we do about schools? It seems strange that we are now having to fight against schools, when it took us so long to get them in the first place. (The same thing happened though with voting and unions.) Assuming that what we really want requires a totally new society, and that this is not in the picture for the near future, then what should our attitude be toward schools as they currently exist? Should we abandon schools or not? Should we join with other progressives to try to defend and improve public schools, or should we just stand aside and let the ruling class and their Christian allies destroy them?


school attendance is compulsory. start with this fact

Go for home schooling? Deschooling?
pros and cons of home schooling

home schooling is still schooling, and is mandated. Home schooled children will at some point face high school equivalency tests (if they want some jobs) or college entrance exams if they enter higher education


(1) Paul Goodman, "The Present Moment in Education," p. 77. The 1969 essay was reprinted in

Paul Goodman, Drawing the Line: Political Essays, edited by Taylor Stoehr, Free Life Editions, 1977, 272 pages.

(2) The first phrase is from the Ivan Illich’s "Foreword," p. viii, to Deschooling Our Lives, edited by Matt Hern, New Society Publishers, 1996, 150 pages; the second is from "In Lieu of Education," p. 68, in Illich’s Toward a History of Needs, Pantheon, 1977, 143 pages.


Am I going to stick to the position outlined in Getting Free? Maybe I should start out with those six recommendations:

* Leave school as soon as possible

* Ignore grades

* Engage in intensive self-education

* Support the Home Schooling Movement

* Reject credentialism and certification

* Reject mainstream divisions of social knowledge

* Don’t go to college

Can we ever get control of schools again? (Did we ever have control?)

Find that radical history of schools I once saw

Think of all the tens of thousands of progressives who are pouring their lives into educational institutions. Mightn’t their labors be better used elsewhere?

How much did Dewey take from the anarchists?

What else can parents do except teach their children their own values? Teach someone else’s. Not teach any? Don’t they have the right to raise their own kids as they see fit? Can there be such a thing as a neutral upbringing. Will we give equal time to nazism as to democracy, to murder as to no murder?

Deal with Gustavo’s belief that "universal right of education" is part of colonialism. Also, his romanticizing of ‘indigenous’ people customs

Illich’s evolution

Gustavo’s reasons of why deschooling failed (I think he was just repeating Illich’s arguments

Goodman’s "We should drastically cut back on schooling" -- is using the ‘universal we’ -- wants persons to be able to cross over from one career to another easily -- wants ‘guaranteed living’

in other words, forgets that there is an enemy to be overcome before any of these things can be

Goodman’s "employers would themselves provide ancillary training" -- so he keeps waged-labor

Intense desire, in the past, on part of the working classes, to get education and learning.

blacks, ‘indigenous’, some peasants, some poor, want to get schooling, not avoid it, not reject it. They believe that schooling is a road to a better life --- wrong!

schools can’t overthrow the ruling class