Education and child rearing

Even within mainstream circles, the issue of educating children is a contentious one. Given “that it is through the channel of the child that the development of the mature man must go,” in the words of Emma Goldman,this is understandable. The direction in which children develop affects the path they take as adults, and it is instinctive to want to ensure that our children “turn out right.”

But what is “right?” Goldman argued that children should be raised to be “a well-rounded individuality,” and not “a patient work slave, professional automaton, tax-paying citizen, or righteous moralist.” Few anarchists would disagree. But how do we acheive such a thing?

The vital question in the raising of children, citing Goldman again, is whether “the child [is] to be considered as an individuality, or as an object to be moulded according to the whims and fancies of those about it?” The latter, it seems, fits with convention, whilst even basic and liberal attempts at educational reform are slammed as “trendy.”

The TV show Super Nanny is a prime example of “traditional,” authoritarian child rearing. On its website, it offers “why children need discipline.” According to them, “many parents don’t set rules for their kids because they don’t want to be the villain but setting your child limits is vital for teaching him self-control.”

Interestingly, the debate here becomes a microcosm of mainstream political debate on any issue. Many families are “failing to set rules because you don’t want to be too tough on your kids,” but in the process “they’re too soft to enforce boundaries and follow up bad behavior with consequences.” The job of the parent, then, is to be to the child what the state is to the citizen.  Just as with law enforcement for citizens, parental discipline “helps your child feel secure and determines what kind of person he’ll grow up to be.” Super Nanny advocates a liberal rather than conservative approach of “see[ing] discipline as a way of teaching your child self-control instead of a way of controlling your child.” However the outcome, namely that the child is “moulded according to the whims and fancies of those about it,” remains the same.

Just as statists are with the concept of anarchy, the Super Nanny team is aghast of cildhood without rules. Rules, they argue, “impact on his academic success – think about how the discipline he learns from you is the basis for his behavior at school – demonstrate that there are consequences to his actions and keep him safe.”

Libertarian child-rearing

To the contrary, anarchists and libertarians would argue that “the free growth and development of the innate forces and tendencies of the child” is more vital. ” In this way alone can we hope for the free individual and eventually also for a free community, which shall make interference and coercion of human growth impossible.”

Wilhelm Reich, author of Children of the Future, argues that stifling the child’s natural vocal expressions (shouting, screaming, bellowing, crying, etc.) not only affects the child’s psychology but their physical motility;

“Small children go through a phase of development characterised by vigorous activity of the voice musculature. The joy the infant derives from loud noises (crying, shrieking, and forming a variety of sounds) is regarded by many parents as pathological aggressiveness. The children are accordingly admonished not to scream, to be ‘still,’ etc. The impulses of the voice apparatus are inhibited, its musculature becomes chronically contracted, and the child becomes quiet, ‘well-brought-up,’ and withdrawn. The effect of such mistreatment is soon manifested in eating disturbances, general apathy, pallor of the face, etc. Speech disturbances and retardation of speech development are presumably caused in this manner. In the adult we see the effects of such mistreatment in the form of spasms of the throat. The automatic constrictions of the glottis and the deep throat musculature, with subsequent inhibition of the aggressive impulses of the head and neck, seems to be particularly characteristic.”

The effects of such stifling commands are most damaging on that minority of children who are “hyper active,” and whose urge to move and shout is far harder to suppress. As such, Reich concludes “that small children must be allowed to ‘shout themselves out’ when the shouting is inspired by pleasure. This might be disagreeable to some parents, but questions of education must be decided exclusively in the interests of the child, not in those of the adults.”

As anarchists argue with regards to society, self-regulation is much more effective than enforcement from without. Moreover, in children it is a natural part of their development.

According to Reich, “psychoanalysts have failed to distinguish between primary natural and secondary perverse, cruel drives, and they are continuously killing nature in the new-born while they try to extinguish the ‘brutish little animal.’ They are completely ignorant of the fact that it is exactly this killing of the natural principle which creates the secondary perverse and cruel nature, human nature so called, and that these artificial cultural creations in turn make compulsive moralism and brutal laws necessary.” Thus the use of punishment, coercion, threats, moralistic lectures and admonitions, withdrawal of love, etc. to inhibit “bad” behaviours overrides instincts towards self-regulation. Reich asserts that this trend has left virtually all adults in our society with some degree of psychological problem. Rather, without authoritarian measures, socialisation and the restriction of harmful activities occurs naturally;

“This close interrelation between biopathic behaviour and authoritarian countermeasures seems to be automatic. Self-regulation appears to have no place in and no influence upon emotions which do not come from the living core directly but only as if through a thick hard wall. Moreover, one has the impression that secondary drives cannot stand self-regulatory conditions of existence. They force sharp discipline on the part of the educator or parent. It is as if a child with an essentially secondary-drive structure feels that it cannot function or exist without disciplinary guidance. This is paralleled by the interlacing of self-regulation in the healthy child with self-regulation in the environment. Here the child cannot function unless it has freedom of decision and movement. It cannot tolerate discipline any more than the armoured child can tolerate freedom.”

Further to which, “one cannot mix a bit of self-regulation with a bit of moral demand. Either we trust nature as basically decent and self-regulatory or we do not, and then there is only one way, that of training by compulsion. It is essential to grasp the fact that the two ways of upbringing do not go together.”

A century before Reich, Mikhail Bakunin anticipated him when he argued that children “do not constitute anyone’s property: they are neither the property of the parents nor even of society. They belong only to their own future freedom” and the “rights of the parents shall be confined to loving their children and exercising over them . . . authority [that] does not run counter to their morality, their mental development, or their future freedom.” From this, “it follows that society, the whole future of which depends upon adequate education and upbringing of children. . . , has not only the right but also the duty to watch over them.” Thus, child rearing is not just a parental but a communal process, and “real freedom – that is, the full awareness and the realisation thereof in every individual, pre-eminently based upon a feeling of one’s dignity and upon the genuine respect for someone else’s freedom and dignity, i.e. upon justice – such freedom can develop in children only through the rational development of their minds, character and will.”

Bakunin was also a fierce advocate of All-Round Education;

Someone will ask: If everyone is educated, who will want to work? Our answer is simple: Everyone shall work and everyone shall be educated. A frequent objection to this reply is that such a combination of industrial and intellectual labor can only hurt both, that workers will be poor scholars and scholars poor workers. Yes, in present-day society, where both manual and mental labor are distorted by the wholly artificial separation to which they have been condemned. But we are convinced that well-rounded living persos must develop muscular and mental activities equally and that these activities, far from harming each other, not only will not impede each other but will instead support, broaden, and reinforce each other; the scholar’s science will become more fertile, more useful, and broader in scope when the scholar ceases to be a stranger to manual labor and the educated worker will work more intelligently and thefore more productively than the unlearned worker.

What it is important to realise, for the purposes of this discussion, that such all-round education cannot take place within an authoritarian context. Bakunin was an anarchist and baulked at the “red bureaucracy” that the Soviet Union became. As such, the above should not be seen as a blueprint for the repressive and highly centralised state system of the USSR.

Rather, in order to discuss what form a libertarian education would take, it is best to look at practical examples.

Summerhill School

Perhaps the best example of a libertarian schooling system is Summerhill, “a co-educational boarding school in Suffolk” which promotes “progressive, democratic education.”

Its founder, A.S Neill, echoes Reich’s ideas when he says that “self-regulation implies a belief in the goodness of human nature; a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin.” In the book Summerhill, he describes how children who are given freedom from birth and not forced to conform to parental expectations spontaneously learn how to keep themselves clean and develop social qualities like courtesy, common sense, an interest in learning, and respect for the rights of others. His words will seem like madness to “traditional” educators;

Classroom walls and the National Curriculum narrow the teacher’s outlook, and prevent him from seeing the true essentials of education. His work deals with the part of the child that is above the neck; and perforce, the emotional, vital part of the child is foreign territory to him.

Indifferent scholars who, under discipline, scrape through college or university and become unimaginative teachers, mediocre doctors, and incompetent lawyers would possibly be good mechanics or excellent bricklayers or first rate policemen.

I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister.

In all countries, capitalist, socialist or communist, elaborate schools are built to educate the young. But all the wonderful labs and workshops do nothing to help Jane or Peter or Ivan surmount the emotional damage and the social evils bred by the pressure on him from his parents, his schoolteachers, and the pressure of the coercive quality of our civilisation.

The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.

We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. Since 1921 this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered; it rather has become a final faith.

Already, those who insist that “children need discipline” and that “setting your child limits is vital for teaching him self-control” will be shaking their heads in disbelief.

In The Silver Chair, C.S Lewis describes a school called “Experiment House” where “people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked,” a clear reference to Neill’s school. For Lewis, “what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others,” and what “at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term” weren’t, as they were “interesting psychological cases” and “if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head,” then “you became rather a favourite than otherwise.”

Lewis is an extreme case.  His hysterical reaction to “the curious methods of teaching at Experiment House” is born of what fellow fantasy writer Michael Moorcock called “orthodox Toryism” of a “deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban” manner. However, similar ideas are common amongst those unfamiliar with Summerhill and not open to the ideas it promotes. Indeed, Ofsted (The “Office for Standards in Education”) placed Summerhill on a secret ‘hit list’ of 61 independent schools marked as TBW (To Be Watched). And in 1999 then-Home Secretary David Blunkett issued a notice of complaint after taking issue with the school’s policy of non-compulsory lessons.

In March 2000, the case went to special educational tribunal, where the government’s case against Summerhill utterly collapsed and “the minister acknowledged that the evidence from ex-pupils, parents and independent experts “demonstrated that there did not now exist a factual situation which would entitle him to serve a notice of complaint.” The school’s pupils voted democratically to accept “assurances given on the minister’s behalf that he did not want Summerhill struck off the register of schools – which would have meant closure – or to compel attendance at lessons, or to prevent it putting into effect the philosophy of its founder, A S Neill.”

According to the subsequent the 2007 Ofsted inspection report;

Pupils learn appropriately and make satisfactory progress in their accredited courses because effective systems of assessment, tailored to the school’s philosophy, are in place and the curriculum is satisfactory and relevant to their needs. Good quality teaching supports good progress in lessons and pupils make satisfactory progress in learning outside lessons. Pupils’ personal development, including their spiritual, moral, social Inspection Report: Summerhill School, 6-7 November 2007 and cultural development, is outstanding and behaviour is good, mainly as a result of the good quality care, support and guidance they receive.

Along with the outcome of the tribunal, this is seen a a vindication of the schools libertarian philosophy and policies. It is important to note that it is a specifically communal and democratic form of libertarianism that the school promotes, not the rampant individualism and egoism of right-wing “libertarians.” A failure to grasp this concept leads to many straw man criticisms of the schooling methods.

One example is a 2006 article in the Times which declared that “contradictions of a liberal education have finally caught up with Summerhill” as “the school has been forced to adopt the smack of firm discipline.” However, it emerges that Zoë Neill Readhead, the school’s head, in fact condemns “parental interference and overindulgence” that emerge as a result of the selfish materialism promoted by our consumer-capitalist society. The “firm discipline” of the school turns out to be “community discipline rather than adult-to-child discipline,” as has always been the case, and the balance between “freedom as an individual” and the responsability of “living in a community.” This remains consistent with both the school’s philosophy and libertarian principles, and the article turns out to be a non-story. As Neill put it, “in the disciplined home, the children have no rights. In the spoiled home, they have all the rights. The proper home is one in which children and adults have equal rights.” Or, “to let a child have his own way, or do what he wants to at another’s expense, is bad for the child. It creates a spoiled child, and the spoiled child is a bad citizen.”

Just as the Times falsely equates freedom with licence, so too do people equate discipline with obedience. Rather, libertarian parenting and schooling shuns the “authority” of power over children, but not the authority of care for children. According to Neill, “such authority sometimes demands obedience but at other times gives obedience. Thus I can say to my daughter, ‘You can’t bring that mud and water into our parlour.’ That’s no more than her saying to me, ‘Get out of my room, Daddy. I don’t want you here now,’ a wish that I, of course, obey without a word.”

Teenagers and sex

Although it is too lengthy a subject in its own right to discuss fully, a few words are appropriate here on the issue of sexuality and adolescence. Today, we no longer enforce sexual repression on the scale that we did when sex before marriage was the greatest taboo. However, it does still exist, particularly with regards to teenagers. Liberals may grant more sex education in schools than conservatives would, but their attitude remains on based on negative perceptions of sex. Fear of disease replaces condemnation of depravity, and of course preventing STDs is of vital importance, but talk of pleasure still remains highly controversial.

Returning to Reich, in The Sexual Revolution, he makes a powerful argument in favour of allowing teenagers unrestricted sexuality;

All reports, whether by missionaries or scholars, with or without the proper indignation about the ‘moral depravity’ of ‘savages,’ state that the puberty rites of adolescents lead them immediately into a sexual life; that some of these primitive societies lay great emphasis on sexual pleasure; that the puberty rite is an important social event; that some primitive peoples not only do not hinder the sexual life of adolescents but encourage it is every way, as, for instance, by arranging for community houses in which the adolescents settle at the start of puberty in order to be able to enjoy sexual intercourse. Even in those primitive societies in which the institution of strict monogamous marriage exists, adolescents are given complete freedom to enjoy sexual intercourse from the beginning of puberty to marriage. None of these reports contains any indication of sexual misery or suicide by adolescents suffering from unrequited love (although the latter does of course occur). The contradiction between sexual maturity and the absence of genital sexual gratification is non-existent.

To the contrary, in industrial societies, teenage sexual repression is closely connected with crime. For example, “juvenile delinquency is the visible expression of the subterranean sexual crisis in the lives of children and adolescents. And it may be predicted that no society will ever succeed in solving this problem, the problem of juvenile psychopathology, unless that society can muster the courage and acquire the knowledge to regulate the sexual life of its children and adolescents in a sex-affirmative manner.”

These arguments are also vital because repressing sexuality is vital in making people submissive. All totalitarian societies through history have attitudes towards sex that breed “sexual impotence, helplessness, a need for attachments, a nostalgia for a leader, fear of authority, timidity, and mysticism.” As such, “people structured in this manner are incapable of democracy. All attempts to build up or maintain genuine democratically directed organisations come to grief when they encounter these character structures. They form the psychological soil of the masses in which dictatorial strivings and bureaucratic tendencies of democratically elected leaders can develop.” Sexual suppression, then, “produces the authority-fearing, life-fearing vassal, and thus constantly creates new possibilities whereby a handful of men in power can rule the masses.”

Libertarian education and social revolution

Raising children in a libertarian manner allows them to develop not just their own individuality, but also a sense of morality and justice not based on coercion. This is a central principle of anarchism, as morality based on fear of punishment, whether from the state or the heavens, is more accurately termed cowardice.

If such cowardly morality is all that we have, authoritarian measures restricting the development of self-regulation instincts, then without law society truly will descend into chaos. That is why, in working towards anarchy, libertarian child-rearing and education is vital to social struggle. Marth A. Acklesburg was part of the Mujeres Libres, or Free Women of Spain, during the anarchist revolution there. As she argued;

Respecting children and educating them well was vitally important to the process of revolutionary change. Ignorance made people particularly vulnerable to oppression and suffering. More importantly, education prepared people for social life. Authoritarian schools (or families), based upon fear, prepared people to be submissive to an authoritarian government [or within a capitalist workplace]. Different schools and families would be necessary to prepare people to live in a society without domination.

And that change is already taking shape in our society, even now. A.S Neill saw it when he wrote that “there is a slow trend to freedom, sexual and otherwise. In my boyhood, a woman went bathing wearing stockings and a long dress. Today, women show legs and bodies. Children are getting more freedom with every generation. Today, only a few lunatics put cayenne pepper on a baby’s thumb to stop sucking. Today, only a few countries beat their children in school.”

It is vital that we continue to push forward that trend, and continue to resist the repression of children by working to raise them in a libertarian environment.

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  1. […] to an unequal, right-wing, and authoritarian education system. This is particularly worrying when a vastly more libertarian approach to education and child rearing is […]

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